Customer Experience Leadership in Government, With Stephanie Thum [CB16]

Episode Overview

In this episode, we explored yet another unexpected place where customer experience is taking hold: the government.  Stephanie Thum, Vice President of Customer Experience for the Export/Import Bank of the United States, explains how the mandate for service in government has led to wide spread action across many government agencies to address and rethink how they serve.  

Stephanie in particular has another interesting path for how she got into customer experience work – parlaying her background in journalism to use it to create compelling stories and actions for change.

In our time together, she outlines her process. She created a foundational document to frame the work for her agency, then aligned and united customer insights and connected it to key operational data to build and publish her strategic plan and actions.

Stephanie also shares how she engaged with a very different type of C-Suite: the management level of the government. 

About Stephanie

Stephanie Thum Jeanne Bliss PodcastStephanie Thum is one of the Federal government’s first agency-level heads of customer experience. In her current role, she is responsible for leading work that supports EXIM’s strategic goal to improve the ease of doing business for customers.  She advises the agency’s Chairman and senior staff on strategies, governance practices, performance measurements, and customer data monitoring protocols that help the agency understand and respond to customers.

As part of her work over the last four years, Stephanie developed a comprehensive voice of the customer/intermediary program.  Additionally, she led in the development of a systematic framework for setting quantifiable service standards across product lines, measuring performance to standards, monitoring, and reporting results to senior leadership, employees, and the public. These practices, metrics, and related customer-originated service scores were recognized in 2016 as “one of the most advanced customer service efforts in the federal government” by NextGov.

She is a former Executive Committee member of BusinessUSA and advisor to a 15-agency community of practice convened to pursue President Obama’s cross-agency priority management goal on customer service. She has been a member of CXPA since 2012 and spoke at the 2016 CXPA Insight Exchange on the evolution of customer experience in government.

Right Brain – Left Brain Functionality

I’ve been doing this work since 1983. In 1983, they didn’t even call it “customer experience.” (I honestly don’t remember the term we were using back then.) But I’ve always thought of the work as left brain-right brain functionality, and being able to see the organization holistically. Where should we go? How should we value customers? How could that make us money? Stephanie sees the work the same way — and she notes that her background as a journalist was huge for her success in various organizations. “The story of the customer has to intersect in a way with business development,” she says. When she started with the federal government, the role was new. “I had a blank canvas, and I relied on my journalism skills,” she says. “I researched this job like I would research a story.” That meant digging through foundational documents (including Congressional definition of the role), meeting with the senior team, and looking for voice of the customer/data mechanisms that existed already.

“I didn’t find anything,” she says with a laugh, “but that was a great opportunity to build something here.”

Unity Tactics

The first important unity tactic is listening. “Ask good questions in a respectful way,” says Stephanie. “We have men here who have been on the senior leadership team for 40 years, so it’s crucial to respect their wisdom.”

You also need to “be ready to do.” You don’t want to just lay problems at the feet of senior executives. Come with solution ideas. Close the loop with them — whether that’s in an official meeting or in an elevator discussion. “There are absolutely silos here, just like anywhere,” she notes, “but they can be united with some core skills.”

They set up a systematic framework for service time standards; this was a big silo-bashing unity project for a government organization. It required cooperation from IT, front-line staff, and customers. The Chief Operating Officer had to be looped in for a monitoring schedule — essentially prescribing a cadence around service time standards. “We found that people from throughout the organization would get together around a single table and put their heads together on why service times were taking too long,” she says, “and this taught us a lot about the status of transactions but also how our workflow works best.”

In FY 2009, 57% of cases were done in 30 days or less. This past year? 92% of cases were done in 30 days or less. It’s huge growth for a federal agency and it came from pursuing one-company leadership.

“What I Know Now That I Wish I Knew Then”

I ask this question of all my guests. I like to call it my “pay it forward” question, and I hope young employees in CX learn from it.

“I’d answer this question differently now than I even would have a few years ago,” Stephanie said.

  • Understanding the expectation gap: In a federal government role, there’s a gap between the expectations a government agency has for itself — and the expectations its customers have for it. (You can say the same about many for-profit and non-profit companies too.) “External stakeholders, like Congress, can drive our work,” says Stephanie, “but we have to strike a delicate balance every day between that and the needs of our customers.”
  • Ask for array of resources: Money for surveys and voice of the customer work is a big example here. “We have been able to get some resources, and establish a cadence for round table work,” she says. “I wish I had some of those resources in Year 1, but that’s what I was hired to do.”
  • Read the books: “Read voraciously and learn from your peers,” Stephanie says. “Come to CXPA meetings and Insight Exchange.” I was honored that Stephanie even mentioned my books when discussing what to read. She also mentioned Jeb Dasteel’s new book; Jeb was the guest in my last podcast episode.

We’ll be back Thursday with a new post and next Tuesday with a new podcast episode. As always, thanks for listening and reading!

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