Service Design for Government
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Hardwiring VA with Customer Experience Mindsets and Skilled Practitioners

Creating a Culture of Design Thinking

A focus on exceptional Customer Experience and improved service delivery is how the Federal Government ensures an effective, equitable, and accountable Government, and it’s how VA lives its core values and mission. To reach its CX (Customer Experience) goals, VA’s Veterans Experience Office is building the VA Customer Experience Institute (CXi) with the goal of hardwiring a CX-mindset to improve service delivery culture. This includes instilling organization-wide standard CX practices and collaborating with colleagues and the Veteran community to create better products, services, and experiences for all its customers. 

Technical Assent and the VA CXi team have partnered to design, develop, and implement expanded learning opportunities across VA in the form of an industry-standard educational platform for VA employees to gain awareness, understanding, and new skills in CX and HCD. CXI teaches best-in-class methods and tools with a VA-centric focus. It uses case studies and examples that are unique to VA to ensure the material resonates strongly with VA’s mission.

Through a set of formalized curricular programs taught by trained facilitators, VA employees will understand why, when, and how to apply CX principles and Human-Centered Design (HCD) methodologies to their work. This enables VA employees to confidently practice and lead CX efforts while connecting with each other to grow a community to share ideas, best practices, and challenges. 

Based on the VA CXi HCD Certification Roadmap, the CXi program aims to create an experience defined by the following dimensions. The pilot is the first opportunity to evaluate the program’s performance based on these six elements.

CXi aims to expand and initiate the practice of Customer Experience across VA, up-skill VA employees, set organizational and standard practices, and hardwire a CX-oriented mindset into the products, services, and experiences that we create with VA’s customers. This work provides an opportunity to standardize HCD practices across VA and connect VA employees across the organization. Building a new culture and mindset helps change and create a new approach to problem solving. 

A Customer Experience Mindset

Within CXi, VA employees will work directly with Veterans to understand their unmet needs and create relevant solutions that center around them. The program encourages employees to approach their work with the customer at the center by applying the following mindsets:

  1. Take your customer’s perspective
  2. Solve the right problem
  3. Embrace Uncertainty
  4. Get feedback early and often
  5. Empathize with your customer

Pilots and Progress

Starting this fall, CXi will  offer the Certificate Program, which is a set of structured courses teaching the fundamentals of HCD and CX through virtual interactive lectures and activities. There were 21 Certificate graduates from the pilot program. Looking toward the future, the team will add on a Fellowship Program that consists of a group of CXi Certificate-holding VA employees who work together and apply HCD and CX knowledge to a real-world project. 

“I’m already using this material in my own workplace and passing it on to other people.” – VA employee

“I liked the experiential way you demonstrated the tools. I feel like I will retain the information because of how it was taught.” – VA employee

CXi aims to be the first of its kind in the federal government, creating a like-minded community of people within VA and investing in employees so they are able to offer the best services for Veterans and their fellow co-workers.

How do you reach across silos within your organization? What mindsets and standard practices have made it easy to provide your customers with the best experience?

Using HCD to Reimagine Veteran Healthcare

Breaking the Status Quo

In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the “Reimagining Veteran Healthcare” project set out to not only study what has changed about health care for Veterans during the pandemic, but also investigate what might change to better anticipate Veterans’ needs of the future. This inflection point was an opportunity for VA to drastically rethink how to meet evolving patient expectations and a changing population of Veterans.

This vision for the 20-year future of VA emerged from research with Veterans, Caregivers, front-line staff, healthcare experts, and VA leadership. Starting with the core users of VA services yielded a web of opportunities spanning from discovery and design to technical development, prototyping, piloting and implementation —utilizing the full range of Human-Centered Design (HCD) methodologies, tools, and approaches. 

While VA has several ongoing and near-future transformational programming in the works, there is a large gap when considering truly transformational future opportunities. This is where Reimagining Veteran Healthcare stepped in. Our team had a goal of developing breakthrough, nonlinear innovations of service delivery models to create or capture markets, services, products, and customer segments that have yet to exist.

Putting Veterans at the Center

To keep Veterans at the center of our work, the team conducted ethnographic research with 100+ stakeholder interviews (virtually and in-person) with Veterans, clinical providers, familial caregivers, subject matter experts, and other key VA staff members. These helped the team ​​uncover pain points, bright spots, and/or validate our assumptions about the current state of Veteran healthcare, understand the post-pandemic priorities and behaviors of different populations of Veterans, and inform several transformational opportunity areas. 

“[I define health as] having the ability to accomplish all the things that I want to do in my life […] without any hindrance from medical or monetary or any of those things that naturally get in the way. The quality of things I am consuming in life. It’s the total of all those things.”

“If I could just visit one entity, one website, have everything available to me on ONE Dashboard or profile. If it was tailored to me and what I went through it would be so much more helpful.”

“It’s symptoms first, then based from symptoms, give prescriptions that alleviate those symptoms. The immediate question is always ‘What can I give you?’ Well, I don’t want a medication. I want to solve why it’s hurting in the first place.”

Developing Customer-Driven Solutions

Based on the insights that emerged from conversations with 250+ stakeholders –including Veterans, caregivers, and front-line staff, consensus was found around three critical priorities for VA’s future:

  1. Redefine Veterans’ initial encounter with VA – VA has a critical opportunity to elevate health as a priority with Veterans during and following transition. Connecting proactively with personalized tools can create a seamless transition for Veterans to join the VA following active duty.
  2. Deepen ongoing customer service efforts and engagement – Veterans feel the fragmented nature of the VA. By creating a backend system that puts Veteran health records, feedback, and preferences in one place, VHA can provide a more seamless front-end experience while empowering employees to own each individual interaction and overall health journey.
  3. Extend the envelope of care – More than ever, Veterans expect care when, where, and how they want it. COVID-19 highlighted an opportunity for VA to extend care beyond its walls and broaden its definition of health and healthcare delivery.

Across these three central opportunities, 11 solution concepts were developed that allow VA to create transformational change for Veterans. These solution concepts are rooted in the Veteran experience, taking an outside-in look at what’s needed for VA healthcare delivery. Currently, the team is partnering with VAMCs to pilot and iterate on the solutions concept and help Veterans access VA care when and where they want it in the future.

How do you keep your customer at the center of your work? What opportunities are there to think outside the box to anticipate future customer needs?

Tips for Hosting Virtual Meetings

As a virtual-first company that focuses on service design for Federal Government clients, Technical Assent has lots of experience running effective remote workshops and meetings.  Being effective when some or all of your participants are not in the same physical space helps your company and your clients get around travel restrictions, geographically dispersed stakeholders…or public health crises.

Here is what we have learned about effective remote workshops and meetings…hoping everyone stays healthy and safe!

Meeting Structure

Spend more time planning.  For every hour you spend planning an in-person meeting, plan to spend at least 1.5 hours planning a virtual session.  You’ll need the extra time to think through timing, content flow, and test technology platforms you plan to use for various exercises. We develop a structured meeting plan to script the agenda, supporting technologies, and facilitator roles.

Test first.  Some exercises work well in a virtual setting, while others do not.  You will likely be combining multiple technologies during meeting. Presenting a slide deck on a video-conference platform requires familiarity with both technologies. A rehearsal will allow the facilitation team to anticipate and avoid tech pitfalls. 

Consider timing.  In our experience, many exercises take longer to complete virtually than they do in person, because remote meeting plans often require greater structure (e.g., taking turns).  Also, it’s important to leave some time for tech-familiarization.  The amount of extra time will vary based on the type of exercise you do – that’s why its important to test your exercises and have an experienced facilitator helping you plan!

Consider flow.  In workshop settings, participants often complete a series of exercises that build upon each other to achieve the workshop objectives. Think through how ideas generated in one session might translate from one “canvas” to another.  You’ll need a plan for copying ideas and information to new workshop technologies.

Level the playing field.  If one person is virtual – everyone should be “virtual” to avoid alienating one or a few people participating virtually while a large group works in an office together.  Those who may be co-located should all participate via personal laptops, phones, etc. so that everyone has the same experience while meeting (this will aid the facilitator as well!)

Facilitation

Facilitation is even more important in virtual space than in physical design workshops.  There are a number of complicating factors:

  • It’s easier for participants to “hide” or try to multitask in a remote setting – the facilitator must be prepared to be more involved and pull ideas out of the group.
  • Lack of familiarity with technology and technical issues can get in the way of productivity – the facilitator must be able to quickly coach or provide a workaround. We often set up a “help desk” POC where people can get help during the meeting so they don’t interrupt the flow of the meeting itself.
  • Without body language and other cues lost through the computer, it can be more difficult to “read” the group – the facilitator must be adept at helping foster a collaborative but respectful environment despite physical remoteness.
  • It’s challenging to accommodate sidebars in a virtual setting, but sidebars can be useful – the facilitator must have strategies to support small group conversations when appropriate (without derailing the meeting)

Using tech effectively often means building in more structure (taking turns, laying out templates, instituting speaker rules).  There is a fine line between this and turning “off” creativity… an experienced facilitator will help balance these needs!

Choosing tools

There are tons of effective technologies out there for virtual collaborations.  Many tools do some things well but not others – so pick your tools based on your objectives with the help of a facilitator who knows those “ins” and “outs”.  An experienced facilitator will also be able to help you choose technologies that work well together to maximize flow of ideas and interoperability.

Here are some tools we like – and what they are best for.


Video & Voice

Zoom is a great video and voice collaboration tool with a low price point. It allows for participation via phone or computer (with video). It includes an easy-to-use screensharing capability, recording capability, group and individual chats, as well as a whiteboard drawing feature that can be useful as well. Technical Assent finds it works well for most federal government participants. 

Google Hangouts are a great no-cost tool for small groups, and allows for video participation, screen sharing, and chat!


Content Collaboration

Google Drive provides live, multi-use platforms to design and create ideas at no cost. If you go this route, try to engage an experienced virtual facilitator to help you understand how best to take advantage of these tools’ strengths and weaknesses.

Slack provides constant communication and threads for individual members. The tool be used as a repository of ideas to aid in the design workshops as it allows for upload & download of files, threaded conversations, and automatically stores channel history.

Mural is a design canvas meant to gather and organize ideas. Using this tool, your team can easily diagram or cluster ideas into themes and actions. 

MindMeister is a mind mapping tool that allows for a canvas to be created that facilitates design and ideas.

Monday.com is a project management and task tracking tool with many features and integrations that can help your team stay on track and in-sync while working virtually.

Box allows for collaboration on documents in real time and stores a backlog of file iterations. Box is most beneficial in working with word documents and drafting ideas.

There is so much to be said on each of these topics – contact Technical Assent for more advice or to help facilitate your virtual working sessions!

Veterans Day: All Give Some

Sara poses with our kids after their Cub Scout pack’s tour of Coast Guard Cutter Stratton.

On November 11 each year, Americans honor veterans for their willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good. Being a veteran myself, I know that there are many facets to how military service impacts an individual. Some of these facets are so nuanced that they might seem insignificant. To people who have never had an immediate family member or close friend in the military, these impacts could be invisible.

Nuanced and seemingly insignificant as they are, these impacts are anything but. They add up over years of service and they can change the entire course of the service member’s life.

The way to learn about these not-so-visible impacts of military service is by listening to veterans’ stories. In this vein, I’m offering my story. It is also my wife’s story and, together, it is the story of a dual-military couple balancing their commitment to the Coast Guard with their commitment to each other in the months before and after our nation was turned upside down on September 11, 2001.


Newly Minted Officers

Sara and I graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in the spring of 2000. We had been dating since our third-class (sophomore) year, and under the Academy’s “buddy program,” we were able to be stationed in the same location. I was assigned to Coast Guard Cutter Alert,and Sara was assigned to Coast Guard Cutter Steadfast, both based in Astoria, Oregon.

The first eighteen months as a junior officer are busy. You are learning new jobs, attending vocational schools, and working toward watch qualifications in order to become a productive member of the crew. I was working toward qualifications for engineer of the watch and deck watch officer. I also had a number of collaterals such as damage control assistant, morale officer, and fueling officer. Sara was a dedicated deck watch officer and served as a boarding team member, law enforcement officer, and morale officer.

A white Coast Guard cutter on the Columbia River

Cutter Alert on the Columbia River

Patrols are the lifeblood of a cutter and where it performs the Coast Guard’s mission. With our ships being the only 210-foot cutters in Astoria, Alertand Steadfast worked in port and starboard rotations. This meant one ship would be in port while the other was running fishery patrols and drug interdiction operations in the waters between British Columbia and Central America. Each patrol lasted six to eight weeks.

By May of 2001, we had settled into our shipboard routines and started to plan for our next assignments. Summer began with Sara being on patrol. I’m a foodie and I had promised her that when she got back, we would drive my Jeep to a remote section of the beach for an elaborate picnic. It was also the perfect cover-up for a marriage proposal.

The picnic didn’t go quite as planned. I was so focused on not screwing up the proposal that I forgot entirely about the food. Also, Oregon beaches are not known for being timid. Not long after we arrived, the temperature dropped and then the wind picked up and started blasting us with sand.

Sara wanted to leave but I insisted we stay longer and take a walk. Being the good sport that she is, Sara played along and I finally got to propose. She said yes and then we scurried back to the cover of the Jeep. Given the ships’ busy schedules, we planned to elope sometime in the fall of 2001 and then have more traditional wedding the following spring.

September 11, 2001

My ship departed to patrol off the coast of Mexico a few weeks later. On the morning of September 11, we had a brief refueling stop in Mexico. I was on duty on the ship as engineering officer of the watch when we received a priority Z message, which requires immediate action. The message provided few details of the attacks and ordered us to get underway immediately.

As the ship’s crew struggled to make sense of what was happening and why, we set armed guards on the gangway and I rushed to light off the ship’s engines. Being at sea in a foreign country, our access to news was limited and inaccurate. None of our crew would have an accurate picture of what had happened at the Pentagon, World Trade Center, and Shanksville until our return to Astoria nine days later.

In the meantime, I had no way of communicating with Sara other than a few abbreviated emails sent and received through Alert’s spotty internet connection. While we focused on our immediate work, everything else was uncertain. In the span of hours, we had gone from serving in the military during a time of peace to serving in the military during a time of conflict. We didn’t know how long the 9/11 surge efforts would last and how that would impact our ships’ schedules.

While the ships’ operations surged, the bureaucratic assignment process churned on, inching us closer to a deadline to submit “dream sheets” to detail our requests for our next assignments. As the deadline loomed closer, the assignment officers made it clear that without a marriage certificate, a request from Sara and me to be co-located would not be considered.

We thought we’d have plenty of time to elope once I returned to Astoria, but then my ship’s patrol was extended to support maritime security efforts and Sara’s deployment was moved sooner. We soon realized that we would only have forty-eight hours in port together once my ship arrived. To further complicate the logistics, my dad and his wife were flying in to Oregon for a previously scheduled visit. To have only them at our elopement wouldn’t be fair to Sara’s family, so we decided to keep our marriage a secret. The problem was, this left us a grand total of two hours to get married.

September 20, 2001

While I was underway in the Pacific, Sara coordinated the details from Astoria. My ship arrived mid-morning on September 20. I disembarked the moment the brow was in place at the Coast Guard pier and Sara picked me up. We raced home where I changed into a pair of khaki pants and a shirt that she had ironed for me. She put on a blue-flowered sundress and grabbed an old fleece sweatshirt on her way out the door in case the weather changed.

A husband lifts his wife up in celebration after getting married.

The single photo we have of our elopement in Astoria, Oregon.

We hurried to the Astoria pier to meet the officiant and our two witnesses. And there, on that overcast day near the mouth of the Columbia River, we exchanged our vows. The ceremony lasted all of ten minutes. We celebrated with a brief lunch at Cannery Cafe on the pier with our witnesses, snapped a quick picture, removed the rings we had exchanged just thirty minutes before, and then got in the car to make the hundred-mile drive to the Portland Airport to pick up my dad.

Those hundred miles were hardly enough time for the events of the previous two weeks to sink in, but it was all we had before turning to the business of helping America regroup and prepare for a new era in defense. A day and a half later, Sara was underway to the busy ports of San Francisco and Seattle to ensure commerce continued flowing by providing security escort services for merchant ships.

While many newlywed couples struggle in their first year of marriage, ours was actually quite blissful . . . we saw each other only three times, and one of those times was through a set of “big eye” binoculars as our ships passed each other in the waters of Northern California.

In our Christmas cards that year, Sara and I revealed to our family and friends that we had gotten married. We reaffirmed our vows in a traditional ceremony one year and one day later in Sara’s hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.

A uniformed Coast Guard woman poses for a photo with her son in his elementary school classroom

Sara with our son at his elementary school.

The DiLunas Today

After seven years in the Coast Guard, I resigned my commission to pursue my entrepreneurial passions and eventually start Technical Assent. Sara continues to serve and just celebrated her eighteenth year in the Coast Guard. We have two great little kids, ages seven and nine, and our life as an active duty military family is typical of any family with two working parents–extremely chaotic!

As September approaches each year, I find myself reflecting on the tragedies 9/11. In recent years, I’ve also struggled to find a way to talk with my kids about what happened. At this young age, there are only so many details I can give, but even when they are old enough to know everything, I wonder if they’ll ever be able to truly comprehend the magnitude of the attacks.

What I talk about instead is how afterward there was an undeniable force that united all Americans. Heroes emerged from the stories of horrific tragedy, and this wasn’t just individuals, but groups of strangers who shared a unity of purpose to rescue, recover, and restore our way of life.

Our family’s history is intrinsically tied to the tragedies of 9/11 and that effort to recover and restore. Though Sara and I were simply service members fulfilling our duty to protect and defend the United States, the story of our marriage in the wake of the attacks illustrates one of the less-visible facets of what it means to serve.

For us, as with any veteran or active duty service member, by agreeing to serve, we give up control of certain aspects of our lives. Even above the biggest milestones in life, the mission comes first. The people we love often come second. That is our sacrifice and it is a sacrifice that our family members make, too.

Video: Design Thinking Explained

Sometimes helping kids with homework takes a little out-of-the-box thinking! Design thinking, that is.

In this video, I help my son, Vinny, build a boat for his kindergarten water day by applying the principles of design thinking. It was a fun project for both of us and a great way to illustrate the basics of design thinking.

More articles from Technical Assent about design thinking:

In Government Service Design, Thinking Like Your Customer Is Not Enough

Avoiding the Sugar Crash of IT Modernization

Making Virtual Design-Thinking Efforts Effective in Government

Epic Presentation-Fail Yields Real-World Prototyping Lessons for Government

city of pittsburg hosted the 2015 National Veteran Small Business Engagement

Get Better Results Through Customer Experience

Presenter: Chris Bobbitt, Technical Assent

Focusing on Customer Experience and Customer Outcomes is critical to delivering the best results. Federal agencies such as Veterans Affairs, GSA, and DHS are realizing the inherent value of becoming customer-driven and how this approach can drive better mission performance. This session will cover why Customer Experience and Customer Outcomes are so important, how to understand them, why Service Management trumps Program Management, and why digital engagement only scratches the surface. The session will demonstrate how to apply this knowledge to design more impactful government programs, provide more effective support to these programs, and develop business more successfully.

Sign up here to participate.  #NVSBE

small business mentoring session

First Week of November is National Veterans Small Business Week

Next week, the Small Business Administration will be holding its annual National Veterans Small Business Week observance.  From an SBA blog post:”National Veterans Small Business Week honors those veteran entrepreneurs who continue to serve our country by creating jobs and fueling economic growth…Administration will be hosting events all across the country that celebrate and support current and future veteran business owners.”As a Veteran-Owned Small Business ourselves, Technical Assent is happy to pass along this link to the SBA’s long list of special events next week that take place across the country.  Be sure to also check out the SBA’s Business Week page  which contains a wealth of links to resources for veteran businesses.

From the SBA:”Small businesses are critical to our nation’s economy. There are more than 28 million small businesses in the United States, accounting for 99.7 percent of all U.S. employer firms and over half of the country’s private-sector workforce. With the drive and leadership skills necessary to start and grow a business, it is not surprising that veterans are an integral part of America’s small business landscape. Nearly one out of every 10 U.S. small businesses are owned and operated by veterans, generating more than $1.1 trillion in receipts each year and employing nearly 6 million workers in the process.  As more than 1 million active service men and women transition back into civilian life in the coming months and years, veteran business owners will continue to serve our nation by playing a critical role in creating and sustaining economic opportunities for the entire nation.”

customer experience in government

For the People…Government as a Service Business (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second of a 2-part article.  You may want to start with Part 1 located here

Government is a Service Business

Service is a means of delivering value to customers by facilitating the outcomes customers want to achieve without the ownership of specific cost and risks. When we purchase something “as a service,” we want to directly experience the outcome or benefit without having to worry about the know-how, systems, and processes it takes to deliver it.

To say that government is a services provider is to say that government delivers value to the governed (that is you and me) by facilitating outcomes the governed want to achieve without the ownership of specific costs and risks of undertaking to achieve these outcomes individually or even in small groups. Take National Defense as an example of a government-provided service. Most people will agree that a nation has a much better chance of withstanding a foreign aggressor if it maintains an army than if the people were to rely on the tenacity of individuals or the valiant efforts of small militias. Other examples include the construction of roads and canals, the conduct of diplomacy and foreign affairs, and general enforcement of the laws of the land.

The 5 Government Services

In fact, everything government does can be categorized as one of five types of services.

  • National Services are government services to the nation as a whole, without intent to benefit one group, region, or industry more than another, including regulation that affects more than one industry. National services are the purest sense of government services and we associate them with the missions of the Department of Defense, the Congress, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Citizen Services are provided directly to members of the public or individuals. Examples include Veterans Benefits, Social Security, Federal Student Aid, Pensions, and the DMV.
  • Industry Services are provided for the benefit of specific industries either as a whole or to firms directly, including industry-specific regulation. Examples include the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and much of the Department of Agriculture.
  • Regional Services are provided to or for the benefit of discrete geographic areas. This includes parts or all of multiple States. Examples are the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Appalachian Regional Commission.
  • Intra-governmental Services are provided to other parts of the government. The work of the General Services Administration is the quintessential example of this type of service. Internal or Shared service providers with departments and agencies such as human resources, acquisition or procurement, information technology, and finance are also forms of intra-governmental services.

Call to Action

Service is about delivering value to customers by facilitating outcomes. Customers are the recipient of the value delivered by the service — usually, but not necessarily, the ones who pay for a service. A family goes out to dinner, they are the restaurant’s customers; you buy a new pair of shoes at the mall, you are the shoe store’s customer; a homeless woman receives shelter and meals from a donor-funded organization, the woman — as opposed to the donors — is the organization’s customer.

While these examples are seemingly straightforward, this concept can get lost in the day-to-day operations of a service organization. Customers are a discrete subset of their stakeholders, but at times these other stakeholders have more direct influence, control, or presence which can sometimes distract us from the needs of the consumers. For this reason, it is critical to build a customer-driven mindset into the culture of the organization and integrate it systemically into the core operations of the service. In addition to being good for customers, it also renews the sense of purpose that likely called employees to public service in the first place. Service business philosophy permeates all aspects of program management.

In our practice, we identified nearly a dozen key aspects of a government services where a customer-focused shift can significantly improve overall program performance. This means that solutions to improve your organization’s customer experience will also have a direct impact on your mission’s bottom line — lower costs, more efficient processes, higher employee productivity. Look closely and you will find there is a role for your customers in nearly every aspect of your business.

Not understanding that the mission is always to do something for someone also has consequences. Opportunities to grow on what government does well or eliminate waste are not detected early enough. Not understanding that every mission has a customer means that public service will only sometimes include customer service and public satisfaction as legitimate metrics. Not thinking of itself as a service business means that improvements in government performance will be isolated and driven by a random cadre of passionate leaders constantly challenged by the long-term average of “good enough for government work.”

It Is Time to Change the Tone of Government Services

Government is fundamentally a service business, at least for nations in which government is founded on the consent of the governed. All who touch government would be decidedly better off if they conceived of government as a service business and operated as such. This extensive ecosystem includes government executives and employees, legislators, judges, suppliers, service providers, consultants, lobbyists, and every citizen.

Once we acknowledge that government is fundamentally the provision of services we will be better able to assess government value and performance. The debates over what missions the government should and shouldn’t undertake will continue as long as the Republic stands, but each time a new service is provisioned or a program funded, it should start out with a clear understanding of who the customers’ are they are expected to serve, what risks are the customers’ trying to avoid, and what outcomes those customers are expecting.