Features March/April 2020

Customer Experience and Content: The Field of Dreams

By Dr. Liz Herman | STC Associate Fellow

If you’re familiar with the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, an adaptation of W.P. Kinsella’s book Shoeless Joe, you may recall that a farmer builds a baseball field in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa and a group of famous heavenly ball players appear and play baseball. The farmer is called to build the field by a voice that says, “If you build it, they will come.” He builds it despite the resistance of family and friends and the baseball greats of yore do walk out of the surrounding cornfield to play ball. It is a schmaltzy, but meaningful early example of customer experience (CX). The customer (voice in the cornfield) asks for something and the agent (farmer) complies. All the players (additional customers) have to do is show up. If only CX were that simple.

CX in US Federal Agencies

As a result of President’s Management Agenda (PMA) and OMB Circular A-11, federal agencies have come to play ball as it relates to CX. Specifically, the Customer Experience Cross Agency Priority Goal from the PMA and Section 280 of OMB Circular A-11, Managing Customer Experience and Improving Service Delivery, are driving change. Federal agencies that are considered high-impact service providers (HISPs) are targeted to lead the CX charge. HISPs are federal agencies whose services have a high impact on the public they serve. Think of agencies like the Department of Treasury administering taxpayer services or the Department of Education administering student grants and loans. These public-facing agencies are now tasked with improving CX.

Additional federal agencies that qualify as HISPs, like the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, understand the broad tenants of CX. There is genuine interest in improving how their respective veterans, farmers, and beneficiaries access accurate, timely, and consistent content from their agencies. That interest is borne out in updated sets of core values and mission and vision statements, in the creation and appointments of government CX teams and leaders, and in government contracts containing CX, plain language, and content and knowledge management provisions. There is action. Work is being done. There is no way, however, to rubber stamp CX as a quick fix. It requires, at a minimum, a difficult-to-achieve balance of technology modernization, agency adoption, customer engagement, change management, and content and knowledge management. And content still seems to be getting short shrift.

Content: A Minimized Component of CX

According to the Center for Plain Language’s 2019 Federal Report Card, only the Social Security Administration received an A grade for writing quality. Most agencies received low Bs, Cs, and Ds, although those grades have been trending slowly upward. Continued reliance on jargon, and an inability to easily locate information because of poor design, exacerbates access issues. Particularly concerning in the report card is the loss of personnel in critical plain language positions due to turnover. Positions that are then slow to backfill. The VA—which established a Veterans Experience Office (VEO), has been recognized for working to improve its customer service, and was long criticized as subpar with several significant news events—changed federal regulations (USC 38 C.F.R Part 0) to include CX principles and the VA’s focus of ease, effectiveness, and emotion for all veteran interactions. It is demonstrating commitment to CX, yet in its detailed February 2020 CX VEO presentation that illuminated its data, tools, technology, and engagement core capabilities, content was minimally mentioned and only in the context of how contact center agents greeted callers of its White House VA Hotline. Content and knowledge management processes, plans, and benefits must show up clearly in these types of material.

While agencies push forward implementing CX solutions, staying the course and including content as a critical element remains a dream. There is acknowledgement that content is important to CX. There is excitement when new portals containing content debut, like Farmers.gov at USDA. There is an overall feeling in CX that “If you build it, they will come.” The thing about CX and content is if you build it, it must be maintained. It appears that the maintenance aspect is overlooked in the excitement of getting into and then playing the CX game.

The Field of Dreams still exists in Iowa today. It is still maintained, and 2020 is a big year for the Field of Dreams, as a major league baseball game will be played there later this summer. Like the Field of Dreams, for any content initiative to survive and thrive after the initial excitement around implementation, it requires maintenance. Until agencies truly understand this, and what maintenance entails, CX initiatives will struggle to achieve success. Customers must be able to trust agency content, regardless of how it’s accessed. Content must be consistent across the omnichannel environment, enabling customers to receive the same information from a phone call, a chat, an email, or a text. Content is the fulcrum of CX. Customer satisfaction with an agency is carefully balanced on getting the right answer at the right time. If an agency does not invest in maintaining its content, it breaks customers’ trust. Once broken, it is incredibly difficult to regain.

A Brighter Future for Content

There are, however, promising developments. The United States General Services Administration (GSA) established the Centers of Excellence (CoE) to assist federal agencies with modernizing systems to obtain efficiencies and promote greater customer satisfaction. Focus on content and knowledge management can be found in the contact center functional area, which is one of six functional areas established by the CoE. USDA was the first agency to partner with the GSA CoE, and as a result of that partnership, a new Ask USDA portal was launched that streamlines points of service for farmers, ranchers, and producers, and curates content from disparate knowledge bases into one content management system containing current, accurate knowledge articles. In its request for proposal for this work, content and knowledge management was explicitly called out by the GSA CoE as a major workstream. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is expected to be the next agency to partner with the GSA CoE and its request for proposal also includes the content and knowledge management workstream. If funded and awarded, HUD customers can expect streamlined points of service, as well, in addition to accurate, timely, and consistent content across the agency.

As is sometimes the case in government procurement, after contracting with a private company to complete the initial implementation of the work, the private company transitions the work back to the government for ongoing operations. Educating agencies on content maintenance is key in these transitions. The amount of work it takes to keep content current is still misunderstood. There remains an overreliance on government subject matter experts (SMEs), who are already wearing multiple hats and stretched thin, to also take on the role of content contributors. There continues to be (dare it be said in an IT modernization environment) too much focus on the technology. Yes, the portal can present an answer as you begin to type your question, but is it the right answer? Would it match the answer if you called the customer help line? Is it accurate, current, timely?

Compounding these issues is overall change fatigue. New initiatives continue to roll out, year after year, by new administration after new administration. What will the CX initiative look like in five years? It can be difficult to gain support and commitment for these initiatives inside the agencies. A well-planned and purposeful change management strategy can help, but it still requires an understanding of the importance of content and knowledge management in the overall strategy. It may sound like a cliché, but if the leadership support and direction is not there, these types of efforts are very difficult to maintain for the long term.

We Can Help

While federal agencies are dreaming about CX success, content-management savvy technical communicators can ground federal agencies in reality by:

  • Explaining content’s critical role in CX
  • Offering governance plans that map out a realistic and achievable process to ensure timely, ongoing updates to content
  • Helping them to understand the cost of maintenance, specifically around labor hours and the number and types of people necessary, so that funding is secured for ongoing work

Content is an indispensable part of the CX equation and agencies must treat it as equally important to the other components of CX. Otherwise, we’re never going to hit that CX home run.

Dr. Liz Herman (liz@lizherman.com) is an STC Associate Fellow and a presenter at STC’s upcoming Virtual Summit. She has previously served as a Director on STC’s Board of Directors and writes the occasional book review for STC’s Journal Technical Communication. She grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, not far from Iowa’s Field of Dreams and now calls Alexandria, Virginia home