As a part of the government, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has a unique set of customers: taxpayers and other government agencies. GSA helps manage and support the basic functioning of federal agencies by supplying products and communications for U.S. government offices, providing transportation and office space to federal employees, and developing government-wide cost-minimizing policies. Working within the confines of strict government regulation and holding itself to the highest security standards leads to creative ways to best serve taxpayers while being efficient.

We sat down with Anahita Reilly, one of the first ever Chief Customer Officers in a government organization, to learn how she and the GSA approached a range of topics including how technology improves their customer experience, regulations influence innovation, and how to make sure the taxpayer always comes first. The lessons shared reach far past the walls of the government to benefit private sector customer experience leaders too.

On entering Customer Experience and joining General Services Administration:

With taxpayers as our customers, we should be as efficient, effective as possible.

Prior to this role, my background at the time was more in finance, human resource management, and process improvement. I always had the end vision of improving it for the customer, but at the time I hadn’t even heard of customer experience as a thing. I just knew that there are people on the receiving end of what we do. With taxpayers as our customers, we should be as efficient and effective as possible.  So when I learned about this role at GSA, it was pitched to me as, we were testing the hypotheses of, “Can a team of individuals focused on the customer, that report to the top of the agency, make a difference for the customer?” And we would do so by making decisions based on information about our customers, using the skills that I had acquired through a variety of experiences and applying it to something that just made sense.

On the mission of GSA:

if we don’t provide a great experience for our internal employees, there’s no way we can expect them to provide a great experience for their external customers.

In my team, we like to talk about four different big customer types. The first and foremost that we work within the agency are our customer agencies. Mostly federal, but some state and local too, that are, for example, US AID, US Department of Agriculture, NASA, Department of Defense. All those big agencies you think of and some very small ones you probably never heard of. That’s the first customer base. The second one then becomes the suppliers, the people who are selling to the government. We think of them as customers too, because we process their applications and we grant them contracts. The third group that we think about is the public. Because GSA is primarily B2B, we’re rarely visible in their space but we do operate something called USA.gov, which is almost like a digital front door for a lot of agencies so we interact directly with the public in that domain. The fourth customer base that we think about is our internal customers. The employee experience is very important to us; if we don’t provide a great experience for our internal employees, there’s no way we can expect them to provide a great experience for their external customers.

On how empowering employees benefits customers:

We need to hear directly from our employees what they perceive to be important to their customers.  Being able to listen to them in part empowers them directly, knowing their voice is heard. My team is small, but we work down at the front lines too, hand-in-hand with those employees, to really know how a policy, per se, may impact the day-to-day experiences they provide to the customer. We’ll do ethnographic research and follow along with the employees, which makes them more empowered. They now reach out to us directly and say, “I saw this happening with one of my customers,” or, “One of my suppliers. And I think you might be the people that can help me change this or figure out what to do about it.”

On how regulations affect CX innovation:

These policies exist for a reason, let’s work within them and come up with a solution.

These regulations exist for a reason. The one that people in government CX and user research tend to be frustrated by is the Paperwork Reduction Act, which complicates how you can conduct research. Essentially it says if you want to reach out to ten or more members of the public, you have to go through a multi-step process to gain approval to conduct this research.

And so that sounds bureaucratic. But when you strip that away and go back to, “Why does this policy exist?” it’s because, at some point, everyone was conducting surveys and sending paper-based surveys out to customers to check boxes, and then they weren’t using the data, leading to waste. So we go and we think about that and we say, “These policies exist for a reason, let’s work within them and come up with a solution.” I think we’re much more effective and we’re able to get more buy-in from all of our stakeholders to change the culture while also changing the process.

On making your impact known:

Don’t present an organizational chart, present a solution.

At the end of the day, I say, “Does it matter? Does the customer actually care? Does their behavior change based on whether or not they think it’s their agency or they think GSA is there?” We have this conversation a lot when we do our annual tenant satisfaction survey. We don’t think it’s the customer’s responsibility to know, when they’re responding to the survey.

When you’re in a space, what do you care about? That your desk works, your chair works, the toilets work, the elevators work, the things that are local to your surrounding and you being able to do your job. You don’t care about whose name, necessarily, is on the lease.

It’s like that outside-in thinking versus inside-out thinking. I recently had an experience at a restaurant where it was 100°F outside and the patio was the only place that there was space for lunch, and we walk in and the server says, “I’m going to sit you right here.” In the sun, with no shade. And we see there are literally three tables around that table open with shade provided. So, we say, “Can we sit in front of the shaded seats?” She looks at me, she says, “No, actually. I have to sit people based on the server’s rotational schedule. And the next server that I need to sit, that’s their table, so that’s where you have to sit.” She just exposed her entire backend operations to me, which I don’t care about.

That’s how I look at GSA, too, and I’ll share that story a lot internally to get people in that mindset that people empathize with all the work that we’re doing, but at the end of the day, they’re paying us for a service and we need to deliver that service. Who cares who’s on it? Don’t present an organizational chart, present a solution.

On CX victories:

Every executive in the organization now knows our priority is to provide a great customer experience.

We offer very lightweight opportunities to test a solution through pilots that get the employees involved, thereby empowering them to do something to change. So that they’re at the table while we’re trying to transform this experience, and then they can see through the feedback how it’s had that experience, all the while making the feedback transparent. So we put the feedback through all of our big survey efforts, we post the data on our internal platform for reporting, so people can see the results that are coming in. We don’t sugarcoat stuff, but we talk about it. Over the years, our customers have said, “We want it to be easier to buy from you” and that’s what they’re doing. Every executive in the organization now knows our priority is to provide a great customer experience.

On using technology to maintain a high standard of service:

People and process and taxpayers are the underpinning of everything we do. Technology makes it happen.

It’s been hugely instrumental. A gentleman in the audience at a conference recently said, “Technology is the underpinnings of everything we do.” And I said, “No, it’s not. People and process and taxpayers are the underpinning of everything we do. Technology makes it happen. ” It is so important, but it is what makes it happen in that way that it is efficient for our customers. So we’ve been able to look at information intake channels where we’re collecting information inconsistently or manually, and we’ve been able to automate it. We’ve been able to standardize the intake, and we’re able to show everything coming in a matrix of responses where it can easily be evaluated for streamlining the process to review. Plus, we know that it’s being housed on a safe location with the security we need.

Lessons from GSA that translate to the private sector:

You need qualitative feedback to make people pay attention and quantitative to support it.

When hiring a consultant, bring in someone who knows the environment or the operating constraints, the processes, the people. You will go much farther, much more quickly in changing the culture and bringing buy-in in a way that operationally makes sense. The key point is having someone that can come in and know your organization, but also be trusted. We’re federal employees, so my customer agencies already trust me. I’m not trying to sell them anything. I’m also not embedded in any of these business lines that I’m representing. So my customers trust me even more, and they’re willing to tell me the ugly. They’re willing to tell me the great things because they know that I’m not going to then turn around and evaluate a contract decision with them based on that. By having the ear of the administrator and being at the top of the organization, I’m able to provide that customer feedback all the way up to the top.

Also, note the benefit of quantitative over qualitative data, and applying that in a way that you are giving equal respect to both. You need qualitative feedback to make people pay attention and quantitative to support it.

On the factor of age in the workforce:

Let me learn from history and then move forward from it.

Our agency is slightly older, on average, than a lot of the other agencies. Coming from Treasury versus coming to GSA, I was amazed to find the number of people in this agency that have been here almost their entire career because you can have vastly different careers here. You can have a whole career in real estate, and not just real estate. You can do leasing, you can do disposals. You can do operations. Then you can go switch gears completely and go into buying and then policy.

We have a number of people who have been here for thirty, forty years so going through the customer experience angle, and trying to approach what we’ve been doing as one enterprise, I have so many times been met with the “Well, we tried that five, ten, twenty years ago. It’ll never work.” Then I dig a little deeper. “Okay, tell me more. What failed? Why didn’t it work?” I’m not trying to make anyone look bad; I’m trying to learn from them and take their idea forward.  They have this idea and you probably still think it’s worthwhile, and you’ve seen it fail. Let me learn from history and then move forward from it.

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This is part of our blog series, “Customer Experience Visionaries.” In each post, we feature highlights from a conversation with a Customer Experience thought leader on creating a world-class customer experience, empowering employees to take action, elevating the voice of the customer and so much more. Check out some of our other conversations, such as with American Express’ VP of Customer Listening and UnitedHealthcare’s CMO & CXO.