What Links Customer Experience and Innovation? The Right Question.

Chris Dorobek’s March 18, 2015 program, “The Lowdown on Digital Services,” didn’t focus on innovation, but his guests’ ideas were all about it.

Martha Doris, Rick Parrish, and Hannah Moss described Federal Government efforts to improve customer experience. Their comments about value as the point of a good customer experience are what innovation is supposed to be about. And their focus on the customer is central to both customer experience and innovation.

Chris’ guests defined customer experience broadly as how customers perceive their interaction with Government. They put the focus on the customer, not the agency. They distinguished between customer service as a cost center and customer experience as a business discipline that is a “force multiplier” for organizations. They defined customer broadly (every government program has many customers), and argued there is little difference between the digital and non-digital customer experience.

Value came up in numerous ways: Good customer experience supports the mission; is cheaper than bad customer experience; creates advocates instead of critics; and leads to more process and product improvements.

Value is at the heart of innovation. Innovation means doing something different to add value for the customer. Innovation can be incremental or disruptive, or some degree in between. But as with beauty and customer experience, innovation is in the eye of the beholder. The customer determines whether something different done for them adds value or not, by how much.

The obvious link between customer experience and innovation is that efforts to understand customer experience yield information about how to improve it, and information about how to improve it lead to innovation. Perhaps. There’s a catch-22 here worth pointing out.

Customers typically seek improvements that are incremental. This happens because they apply what they have in one part of their life to another part. Government frequently hears, “If I can order something online and receive it the next day….,” or, “If I can pay bills and change insurance coverage through apps….” Customers compare commercial experience to government experience and naturally desire things faster, cheaper, better. Desires translate into increments of improvement, and incremental is good enough.

Great! If we meet desired increments of improvement, customer experience improves. And increments of improvement can be innovative. Not every innovation is game-changing, nor need be. So what’s the problem?

The catch-22 is in focusing on increments and missing bigger opportunities, bigger innovations. Ask a customer what they want, and you’ll get a different answer than if you ask what they value. I’ve blogged about the difference between what customers desire and what they value. There’s useful information in both, and I wrote about using both. But if we ask about desires and respond to them, we can miss bigger opportunities to deliver what customers value.

How does one avoid the trap?

Current Federal customer experience efforts are important and should be emulated. They put the focus in the right place and lead to changes that benefit citizens and government. They are also opportunities to pool information about customer desires and ask about values. They can lead to new questions and different conversations about what customers value, and what the government can do to deliver that value. This can be as big and basic as rethinking government’s business model.

Chris Dorobek talked about this when he commented that human centered design makes people think outside the way they usually think about something. Rick Parrish encouraged government to ask one question before it took an action regarding a program – any action – “How will what I’m about to do affect the customer?” GovLoop’s October 22, 2014 State and Local Innovators Virtual Summit featured Warren Berger, author of “A More Beautiful Question” who demonstrated the importance of asking the right questions. The physician Thomas McCrae is famously quoted as saying, “More is missed by not looking than by not knowing.”

What links customer experience and innovation? The right question. Asking the right questions and digging into the answers can produce customer experience and innovation in government as impressive as the best commercial companies ever have, or could.

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