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March 20th, 2020

Barbara C. Morton: How VA Improved Performance by Investing in Customer Experience

Since VA began reporting customer experience metrics, overall trust has increased 17% (55% in Q2 of FY 2016 to 72% in Q1 of FY 2020). Veterans noting improvements in their preferred VA facilities increased 10% between 2018 and 2019. This follows a trend of recognition for the efforts of many at VA, including Barbara C. Morton, Deputy Chief at the Veteran Experience Office (VEO). Morton was recognized in 2019 with a Presidential Gears in Government award for her work improving customer experience (CX) at VA. She has attributed the accolade to her team and the VA hospitals that collaborate with VEO.

Hear Morton share insights from her experience and achievements on our webinar “Taking a Holistic Approach to Government Customer Experience.” Listen now.

Ahead of the webinar, Morton spoke with Neustar about customer experience in government, adopting best practices from the private sector, principles that other Federal agencies might consider, and more.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The VA refers to its constituents as ‘customers,’ not ‘citizens.’ Is that a distinction that other agencies should contemplate in their own efforts to improve the experience of the people they serve?

Definitely. In government it could be tempting to think about whom we serve as a captive audience. For example, you can't file your taxes anywhere but with the IRS. Veterans and their families, caregivers, and survivors can't get VA benefits anywhere else. That could put the focus on the transaction.

The word ‘customer’ orients us towards customer experience and a service mindset. Our customers deserve to have dynamite experiences with their Federal government.

Customer experience is VA's top priority. How does that inform VA's approach towards data security and data privacy?

Veterans expect VA to know who they are, and to protect their personal information. We’ve given a lot of thought to the line between being a steward of our customers’ personal information and utilizing it in a way that is helpful.

For example, we've totally redesigned and relaunched VA.gov based on Veteran preferences and their most common uses of the site. Customer satisfaction with VA.gov has increased substantially since its relaunch. That’s proof positive that when you design with and for your customer, you will always produce better results for them. And it’s possible to do so without sacrificing any personal information or privacy issues.

You’re a lawyer by trade. What attracted you to the Veterans Experience Office?

I started in VA at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals as a line attorney. I became an expert in Veterans law and got a center seat to some of the frustrations Veterans had with the VA’s appeals process, which can be a little tricky.

One day, when I was executive assistant to the Chairman at the Board, I received a phone call from a World War II Veteran. I don’t normally receive direct calls from Veterans, but somehow he came across my number. I'm grateful that he did. He was confused and anxious about the appeals process. Over a few weeks we reconstructed key elements of his file. Every week I would update him on our progress.

At the end of this period I delivered the great news that we had rebuilt his file and it was back on track. He gave me the greatest compliment I've ever received. He said, “thank you Barbara for helping me. I trust you because I knew you will take care of me.” It made me feel great.

That's the type of experience I want to replicate with every interaction VA has with Veterans and their families, caregivers, and survivors. Building that trust is really the focal point. Having the opportunity to do that in this office, using these capabilities, has been a tremendous gift and a privilege.

When you came to the VEO there was an opportunity to adopt best practices from the private sector or develop the equivalent in-house. How did you balance the two sources?

Industry has made great progress with CX, but its practices can’t be a “copied and pasted” directly into government because the environments are quite different. The key is having career public servants who know every corner of government adapt and translate the practices for the culture and unique requirements of government. You can't have a sound CX practice in government without making those adaptations.

We worked with the Veterans Health Administration very closely for the last three and a half years to build VA’s patient experience program. They were early adopters in the vision of customer experience as a core pillar of healthcare service delivery. When we were doing our human-centered design research and journey mapping, we went out to industry leaders in healthcare: UCLA Medical Center, the Beryl Institute, Mayo Clinic, and others.

One of the best practices that emerged was the concept of "leadership rounding:" leadership walking the floors, talking to patients, talking to employees. It’s very, very simple, but the challenge was to make it consistent and pertinent to VA’s culture. The team used VA's core values and characteristics to develop the WECARE rounding program, which has been quite successful.

What lessons have you learned and can apply from your work in the VA healthcare space to the VA benefits space?

There are a lot of opportunities to bring in some of the tools that we've built; for example, our signature customer experience Own the Moment training, or the rounding practices. We are working currently on some women Veterans journey mapping, which will be the first of its kind in the benefits space. It’s really exciting. When customers are thinking about engaging with VA, they start with benefits. It’s VA’s front door, and ensuring that the front door is a dynamite experience is sure to impact how our customers trust and feel about the department.

How would your priorities change?

It's always a balancing act. There are certain drivers that every business in VA has to account for: how many Veterans are you serving? How many claims are you processing? How many appointments are you scheduling? Those will remain. But we have to make room for customer experience. We can have the greatest operational metrics on the planet, but if Veterans have bad experiences, then we’re missing an opportunity.

My diamond standard is for our customers to feel like the department has their back, and that it will do what it can to address their needs, questions, and concerns.

VA has defined "emotional resonance" as a pillar of customer experience, alongside ease and effectiveness. If emotional resonance derives from the customer feeling that VA understands him or her, then would you agree that it’s important for VA to be clear on the customer’s identity?

Absolutely. Customer experience relies on knowing our customers. We do that through human-centered design research, when we're speaking with them. That's a critical component. But we can also know our customers through our backend data systems. It’s a key enabler.

When our call center agents receive phone calls from customers, then they’ll see the same customer profile. That customer won't have to repeat their name, their phone number, their address, and so on. That's a huge portfolio of work that my team is working on. It’s not as visibly splashy as some other components of customer experience projects that my team sponsors, but it is a critical enabler so that employees and agents can be empowered with a 360-degree view of the customer.

It would be helpful if call center agents knew what customers were doing on online accounts. How has VA worked to integrate interactions made on different channels?

The department has tens of thousands of employees, hundreds of phone numbers, and many contact centers and web properties. Having the channels’ backend data systems integrated is key. My office is front and center in helping coordinate a single-channel experience across the telephone, digital, and in-person channels.

On the digital side, a customer can go to one profile on va.gov and make updates that will propagate across our systems. They no longer have to make the changes in multiple places. That’s the kind of experience we wanted to adopt from the private sector.

What principles from your experience at VA might be applicable at other Federal agencies?

You need to have a clear view of the core CX capabilities that your organization needs, and what each facet of the organization can offer. Several core capabilities come to mind.

The first is data, which subdivides into understanding your customer through research (aka human-centered design), and real-time customer experience feedback.

The second core capability is about application. Without action, great data is just "shelfware." We deployed several customer experience tools to empower employees to give better experiences: WECARE rounding, which I’ve described; the Own the Moment training, our signature customer experience training deployed across 90,000 employees; the VA welcome kit, an artifact that we built based on Veteran feedback; and more. These tools help employees understand how to deliver better experiences. They all came from the data.

The third core capability is about enabling technology: what Veterans see, such as VA.gov; and also what employees see, the backend data systems integration. In any government CX organization, it’s important to know how technology enables a better experience.

The fourth capability is engagement. We have a very robust community engagement arm. When we're on the ground, we want to use it as a listening channel and as a strategic channel for distribution of information.

These capabilities have led us to hardwire customer experience into our decision making, alongside operational metrics. That ensures the effort isn’t just driven by a personality or an administration. It’s baked in as a core discipline, now and in the future.

Hear Barbara C. Morton speak about her experience and achievements on our webinar “Taking a Holistic Approach to Government Customer Experience.”

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