Service Design for Government
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customer experience has a cascading impact like a water droplet in a pond

Part II – How our simple meeting hack succeeded in refreshing executive leaders’ focus on customers

When we left this story a few weeks ago, our protagonist, the senior IT manager, and her team were reviewing a portfolio of IT projects.  Their objective was to recommend, in light of mandatory budget cuts, which projects should be funded and which should be deferred.  She had recognized that the conversation about these projects was overly focused on the impact to the IT organization and the impact to the customer was not being considered. The solution we helped her form was quite simple: hack the existing portfolio dashboard to explicitly identify the customer and describe the mission impact to that customer.

In the time between status meetings, the IT manager spoke to or visited all of the impacted customers. During these meetings, she listened to the mission and business requirements and did not focus on any specific piece of broken equipment.  As anticipated, the results surprised her – some customers’ issues truly impacted their ability to carry out their objective.  Others were similarly impacted, but had identified redundant capability or alternatives that provided a temporary solution. Based on the customer outreach effort, this collective insight could now be factored into the IT portfolio decision.

A week later, the IT manager held her weekly status meeting with the executive leaders of the IT organization, this time using the improved dashboard prototype and sharing the customer insights.  First, the IT manager described the recommended changes to the dashboard and her logic for restructuring it. Before she even dove into the projects themselves, the switch to customer focus had turned to “on” for the most senior executive in the room. By seeing the impact described in the language of his customers, he was immediately reminded of why these decisions mattered.

“the executive officers from each of our customers are going to come over here and hug you for this”

Keep in mind, this team generally considers themselves to be customer-oriented. However, like many of us when we are faced with a challenge, their natural inclination was to create fixes rather than step back and re-frame the challenge around their customers’ needs. This had been the phantom-like problem plaguing the IT manager and her team in their initial round of meetings.

Implied in the executive’s response is that the dashboard itself is now something he would proudly share with his customers. This immediate reaction towards transparency was not something we had anticipated in this experiment, but it is a great outcome. It promotes an honest relationship with their customers and enables the IT manager’s team to further clarify and validate these impact statements with the customers. Furthermore, sharing the dashboard sends a strong message to the customer that their mission support team understands their challenges, understands their equities, and has to make some tough decisions for the good of the service.

The resolution to this situation has been generally positive; in light of some tough mission decisions, the IT manager and her team was able to position the issues transparently and make recommendations that have a measurable impact to the mission outcomes that her customers care about.  It is important to remember that the original context of these conversations were about making difficult recommendations to the CIO about which projects to fund and which to defer.

Putting the decisions in customer terms can make the actual decision-making much harder, but weighing the mission impact to the customer as a key driver of the decision enables leaders to enter into the decision with their eyes open to the consequence of their decisions.

In the end, our simple change in this situation has sparked a change in the right direction allowing this service-oriented team to integrate customer impact and customer insight into decision-making. It also set the initial groundwork for more open and transparent conversations in the future.

customer experience has a cascading impact like a water droplet in a pond

This Simple Meeting Hack Helps a Problem-Solving Team Refocus on Their Customers

The big impact of a small change

At Technical Assent, we constantly emphasize the model of a service-oriented organization. One of the big reasons we focus on being “service oriented” is because these organizations are better attuned to the needs of their customers and aware of the value they deliver each day. With all of the pressures of running a program day-to-day, we tend to get lost trying to put out the daily fires and often lose sight of our work in the context of what’s in the best interest of our customers. This paradox is amplified when an urgent technical problem emerges and the responsible support team must quickly shift gears to address it. Fortunately, we have a simple hack that can really help the leadership team redirect meeting conversations and get the support team rightly focused on the customer.

Yesterday was a perfect example of this. I had the opportunity to talk to a senior IT manager who is part of a leadership team working through some tough issues in their project portfolio. As a result of funding cuts over the last few years, they have regularly reduced the level of service they provide as available funds have been redistributed to higher priority projects. Facing another round of cuts, her team is evaluating a portfolio of projects and making recommendations to several internal service providers and, ultimately, the chief information officer (CIO), about what should be funded and what will have to be deferred. To facilitate the conversation, the IT manager’s team developed a basic dashboard that outlines each project individually and provides leadership with a status and an impact. Very simply, the dashboard looks something like this.

We have all seen something like this projected on a conference room screen, right?  It looks innocuous enough – a simple project description, followed by a red, yellow, green status indicator, and finally, the What’s In It for Me (WIIFM) impact statement.

When the IT manager presented this at the weekly status meeting, she found that the dashboard was driving the wrong conversation among the leadership team. Based on the information provided, the leaders in the room dove right into the merits of different trade-offs in schedule and discussion about which upgrades provided the fastest technology. The IT manager left the meeting frustrated because the focus seemed to be misplaced. Everything was weighed against the impact to the IT organization instead of against the impact on the IT organization’s real customers, who are the crewmembers operating ships performing public safety missions along the Pacific coast. As she explained…

“For example, the impact of the XYZ server not being implemented is not just an increased implementation timeline. It actually has an operational impact to a number of ships who are operating in our area of responsibility right now. Without these upgrades they are not able to check the weather, receive intelligence briefs, or communicate with other partners.”

Could you hack the meeting?

Faced with this scenario, how does one IT manager use her influence to change the tone of the conversation and focus on the service impact to the end customer?

I see this kind of dilemma often with our clients at Technical Assent, so I suggested a simple experiment. The first step was to hack the existing dashboard to be more explicit about who the customer is and how they are impacted by each project. Our minimally viable product (MVP) of the new dashboard looks something like this.

The changes to the spreadsheet are simple; our hypothesis is that by presenting new information to the executive leaders – Customer and Impact to the Customer – the tone of the conversation will change. At first, when presenting information in a new way, we expect there to be some disagreement among the executive leaders about who the real customer is and the source of the mission impact data. Then, we predict that as the executive leaders begin wrestling with the real issues at hand, they will start asking for data that further validates the customer impact. This will force the IT manager and her team to dig deeper – to communicate directly with their customers, to validate the mission impact to the organization, and to recommend alternatives.

We predict that after the first conversation with executive leaders, the shift in focus will take root and will drive the next status meeting. The IT manager’s team will then be focused on describing the outcome that their customers need, and not on a specific technology solution. The more service-oriented team will continue to integrate the customer impact into each of the executive leadership conversations, facilitate decisions about providing a certain level of capability based on the impact to customers, and defend their positions using customer narratives and stories.

But the proof is in the pudding, right?  We will test our hypothesis over the next few meetings with executive leaders, track the discussion, note what questions are asked, and observe how responses are framed in order to see if our simple change is indeed causing a trend in the right direction.

Of course, this is just one way for teams to change the tone of meetings to have a focus on becoming more customer-driven. What are some other recommended starting points that you have seen and have worked well in your organization?

team-based approach to building a service culture

3 Ways to Grow a Service-Oriented Team

People working in government and nonprofits often refer to a personal calling to serve the public good. Their sense of purpose can be a source of energy for their peers and their customers cannot help but feel their enthusiasm for the mission. But even the most passionate public servant has an occasional bad day – it is human nature and most people are willing to give us a pass when we stressed or distracted.

Unfortunately, the service itself doesn’t get the same courtesy. Customers expect service quality to be maintained and the experience to be consistent despite the occasional system outage, process glitch, or failure of personality. Services have to systematically overcome these variables to consistently provide a relevant customer experience. As a service provider, here are three ways to develop a service-oriented mindset:

  1. Find the Services, Find the Customers. The first step of a services mindset begins with the customers; identify what problem you solve for them and how they interact with your team to solve that problem. Both the solution and the interactions are part of your service portfolio. Some of these services are easily recognizable – like a haircut or table service at a restaurant – but some can be tricky. Business support functions like the Finance Department, Human Relations, and the CIO’s office can also be viewed through a services lens. Unlike consumer services, internal customers don’t typically pay with money but they do pay with their time. Scheduling a meeting to discuss next year’s budget, providing a brown bag session to present the impact of new hiring policy, or waiting for a call back from a technical expert are all examples of services that contribute to an internal customer experience.
  2. Optimize Services Around Customer Needs. Once the services have been named, engage customers to better understand what is important to them – do they care more about accuracy or speed in the weekly report, are the templates provided helpful in crafting new job descriptions, what was the impact of the last system outage on their productivity. This initial feedback can go a long way, but look for opportunities to formally measure the performance of your services against these attributes. In a consumer service, service quality is captured in a contract document called Service Level Agreement; while it may not make sense in your organization to take it this far, it is worthwhile to communicate to your customers that your performance objectives are focused on the things they care about.
  3. Build Service into the Culture. Shifting culture is never easy, but there are several things that leaders can do to change the tone of the conversation with their employees. First, involve them in the process we have outlined above, encouraging them to think about the services they personally provide and those they contribute to on the team. Expose them to new ideas and techniques for how to approach a customer conversation with empathy or how to constructively accept feedback. Teach them how to measure their service portfolio against customer performance attributes. Model the behavior yourself; emphasizing that the customer is always in the forefront of your mind. When pitching a new project, include the expected customer impact in your scope statement. When being briefed on an issue, first ask about the impact to the customer and how the customer is being taken care of in the interim before digging into the details of the problem. Each of these small actions can have a big impact when repeated consistently.

These relatively simple exercises will take some time up front but can have an immediate impact. We are currently mentoring a Support Department Head of a medium-sized organization responsible for IT services, acquisition and contracting, and human relations. While a little nervous about exposing some of her team’s shortcomings at first, she has found her customers are receptive to offering feedback and employees are energized about the opportunity to think more explicitly about serving customer needs.