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Looking Within: GSA Leaders Focus on Efficiency, Emphasize the Customer Experience

The General Services Administration's Phaedra Chrousos talks of re-envisioning the agency from a user's perspective.

by / June 15, 2015

Phaedra Chrousos isn’t fond of the term “customer service.” She prefers “customer experience” to describe her area of expertise. As the first chief customer officer for the General Services Administration (GSA), Chrousos innovates with a customer-centric mindset. The concept injects the customer perspective into everything from mission statements to marketing to product development.

The title of CCO is a rising position in the private sector, and Chrousos believes it might be on an upward trend in government as well. A serial entrepreneur, she brought a history of successful startups to the GSA when she assumed her current position in June 2014. In 2009 she co-founded the health checkup booking platform HealthLeap — later acquired by — and in 2011, she co-founded the online travel site Daily Secret, which now serves readers in 21 countries.

At the GSA, Chrousos’ mission is to uncover customer insights to re-envision how the federal agency operates its procurement, IT and public building services. Her long-term aspirations are to provide a customer playbook with operational strategies, processes and techniques for other agencies.

Chrousos spoke with Public CIO about what’s on her agenda at the GSA.


Q: Why did the GSA hire a chief customer officer?

I have to give credit to [then-GSA Administrator] Dan Tangherlini, he came up with the idea. He came into GSA after a scandal [related to excessive spending that began in 2012] and he helped turn the agency around, helped make it more efficient and then wanted to focus on swinging the pendulum in the direction of customer service as one of our core missions. And he and I both discussed, before I came on board, the idea of testing the hypothesis that an empowered and dedicated customer service team that sat right underneath the administrator could have the kind of impact that it had in the private sector. As a growing trend in the private sector, his thinking was if it can turn private-sector companies around and make them more customer-centric, the same structure and resources should be able to do the same thing in the public sector. That’s basically what we were setting out to prove. We’re a small, dedicated team that sits right under the administrator. We are structured very similarly to the way private-sector teams are structured.


Q: What are your typical duties? 

We have found that some of our best ideas are the rinse-and-repeat ones, the ones that can be scaled across the agency. We spend a lot of time trying to understand the voice of the customer. That means gathering the right information: interviews, data and conducting focus groups — this means getting a better idea of our customer with the end result being to empower GSA employees to make data-driven decisions around the customer. When we came in, one of the first things we noticed was that we were working off a lot of anecdotal data and disparate data sets. The customer team really brings that all together to create a clear picture for the GSA business team of who the customers are and what they need, and that helps shape everyday business decisions. A lot of it is understanding the customer and conveying that message to the GSA employees, and the other thing is to act on it. So the second half of the day is probably spent helping GSA employees wrap their heads around what the data means and what we can do to change our behavior and act on this information.


Q: How would you define your core customers at the GSA? 

We have several different customer groups within our huge functional areas. We have Public Buildings Service, and our customers there are building managers and other agencies, but also tenants. We also have the Federal Acquisition Service, which deals with contractors and program managers who request contractors. And then we have the office of 18F, which is the equivalent of our technology services and there we deal with CIOs and digital service teams. So we’ve got lots of discrete customer groups, which makes it kind of interesting and definitely challenging.


Q: How can you unify so many disparate customer service initiatives spread throughout such a large organization? 

We’re talking to each customer group at a time. The most important thing is that each customer has a great, cohesive experience. I don’t think it necessarily needs to be the same experience for each customer group. So we’re using tools like customer journey mapping to visualize a typical series of interactions between one customer group, and these visual representations of the journey really help us understand what they’re going through and help us smooth out that journey. 


Q: What major initiatives are you developing now? 

My first four or five months was putting together the voice of the customer and making sure we’re collecting data on a regular basis and putting it into the hands of decision-makers. This meant creating personas and journey maps but also collecting reoccurring data so the data didn’t get stale. Essentially it was putting the processes in place. 

You may have heard that there was an announcement recently about a Yelp-type rating for vendors, a way to get recurring information about one customer group. Recurring information like that has actually yielded a lot of great opportunities for projects at GSA. It’s kind of like peeling back an onion; you’re always finding really interesting things to work on. The kind of projects that come to the surface are call center consolidations, a 311-type application for tenants [renting workspace through the GSA] and a refresh of, reframing our account management. As we peel back the onion of data and information, there are some really cool things that we can do across the organization to make the customer service experience better.


Q: How are you using tech such as apps, data, social media and Web platforms to enable your efforts? 

We’re definitely using some customer-facing applications and tools. For example, we run roughly 9,000 government buildings and about 6,500 of them have government tenants. Our 311-style mobile app for tenants allows them to take a photo of things that need repairs and send them straight into our call center and management centers on the back end. The most important advances that we’ve made at GSA are the technologies that you don’t see: putting in an enterprisewide customer relationship management tool and building modules off of that that help people collect and analyze customer data, and then get them that customer information is the most important IT leap we’ve made.


Q: What is the funding source for customer service projects at the GSA? 

It’s called the working capital fund, which since we’re a shared service, passes the [funding] hat around all of the groups in GSA. It comes from GSA’s overhead. However, interestingly enough we’ve actually saved GSA quite a bit of money without even meaning to. Obviously our objective is to create better customer service, which will hopefully drive value for our customers, then drive repeat customers and things like that. But we’ve also realized that a lot of things we did to make a more cohesive customer experience, for instance that required consolidation, actually saved us money. So, for example, we consolidated our survey tools and we consolidated our CRM tools, or our call centers. Even though we did them for customer experience purposes, they actually saved GSA money in the process.


Q: Have customer service efforts led to improvements in GSA procurement procedures? 

Yes, absolutely. Two of the customer groups we’re working on touch the Federal Acquisition Service. We work with the customer experience on the contractor and program manager side, those that actually handle procurements from the inside of government. We also have just started to work with the business side to look at the customer experience that businesses go through when getting onto a government contracting schedule. These are experiences that haven’t changed very much over the years, so there is a huge opportunity to streamline and modernize them with technology.


Q: How will you measure success a year or two from now?

When we first created the office, we thought if this is going to be sustainable, we have to really show the impact. So we started off by benchmarking everything up front — we gathered as much data as possible and sent out as many surveys as possible to benchmark where we are today with our customer groups and their level of satisfaction. We’ll continue to collect data around that and hopefully we can see upward trends.


Q: How do you hope to institutionalize the practice in government?

We set out to prove a hypothesis that this dedicated and empowered team at the top could make this difference. It’s been seven or eight months now and I think we’ve seen already some great changes. It’s in our data but also in the way people think about their day-to-day decisions and how much they start to include the customer in decision-making. I think we’re pretty close to proving this hypothesis, and once we get a little further down the road, we’d like to take what we’ve learned and scale it across government. There is no reason why agencies need to reinvent the wheel. We’re putting together what we did in the first 90 days. We’re templating our interview questions that we ask in surveys and copying the position description for the chief customer officer so if any other agency wants to go down the same path — which is not very costly and could potentially save money through consolidation efforts — they’ll have a manual they can use.


Q: Do agencies have any misconceptions about launching a customer service initiative like this?

There are a few missed turns an agency could make. So far we’ve had seven agencies reach out and ask to learn from us, and we realized that a lot of times agencies take two first steps that I wouldn’t suggest. The first one is to create a very long-winded strategy. Articulating strategy is important but sometimes just taking action and proving you can make change on a small scale is equally important, and sometimes more so when it comes to changing the mindsets of people. So I would say just pick a small project, pick one customer group, pick one customer experience and try to improve that and measure that and then use that as a case study to beat the drum around your agency’s efforts. By taking really measured moves, you can change the customer service experience. 

I also think the term “customer service” throws people off and they immediately think of long training sessions and things like that. We’re trying to use the term “customer experience” because then it’s more than just about the service you receive. Customer experience can permeate down to the actual product you’re touching and people you’re working with. It can even permeate as far down as product development. There’s a huge similarity to agile development by then taking that approach to the customer office.

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Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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