Monday, October 25, 2010

That "Ah-Ha!" Moment

I had been HUD’s web manager for 8 years before I actually watched someone use our website during usability testing. We had won awards for our customer-friendly content, and I was just so sure that we had most of it right. Then I watched 3 people struggle to find the answers to, what we thought were, simple tasks. And – bingo – I had that “ah-ha!” moment. It wasn’t just that I spotted some problems to fix. I became a better customer service provider when I realized that I never, ever should assume I know my audience completely – that they always have things to teach me about what they want and need and how they think and behave, and I must always listen to them, respect them, and follow what they teach me.

We did some guerilla usability testing of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service website, during the training I did there two weeks ago. It wasn’t pretty – we had 30+ people in the room watching the volunteers try to perform the tasks, and I made a couple of flubs in the instructions. We didn’t tape it, so we had to rely on people’s memories and notes when we discussed it. But it worked. Big time.

We did the testing on the second day of the training session, after they’d heard me yammer on about plain writing and top tasks and usability principles. I think – up to that time – I had won over many of them…but not all. And then we had 3 people come into the room and try to perform 5 basic tasks on the DFAS website. Honestly, I could feel the class members' thought waves practically screaming at the test volunteers to, “just click on it…just click there…that’s it…what are you waiting for?” as they watched people struggle with the words and choices they were offered. After the volunteers left, the room came alive with insights and ideas. It wasn’t just that they identified specific problems to fix. It was that “ah-ha!” moment when they realized that they have more to learn about – and from – their customers. That’s when they became a real customer service web team.

We used to think we had to hire a usability professional to do usability testing, that we had to find volunteers with specific demographics, and that we had to get access to a usability lab, to do it right. Don’t get me wrong – if you’ve got the money and access to those tools, do it. But Steve Krug, in his new book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy, debunks the myth that you have to be scientific to learn what works - and what doesn’t - from your customers. As few as three volunteers – and they can be almost anyone, in almost any setting - will do the trick. Anyone – yes YOU – can do it. In fact, here’s a simple script you can use.

Definitely do all the reading you can about plain language and top tasks and usability principles. Talk about it with colleagues. Go to training and conferences. Practice what you learn. But if you really want to get smart about customer service, watch 3 people use your website. Go for that “ah-ha!” moment. I promise you – it will put everything into perspective, and you’ll be a better customer service provider.

Related Posts
Customer Service Mantra: Listen, Respect, Follow
Customers Know Best – It’s Their Results That Count

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Train Your Web Team...Regularly

I just returned from a great two-day training session with the Defense Finance and Accounting Service web team, in Indianapolis. Kudos to Debra Harris for organizing it. She’s a real emerging leader in the web community. I was doing the training, but that isn’t what made these two days great (well, gosh, maybe I had something to do with it...;-)). What made these two days so exciting is that – for the first time - most of the people who have been, and will be, working on the DFAS website came together. They merged from several different geographic locations and spent time learning together, working together, and building that sense of “team” that is so essential to delivering quality customer service through the web. It’s the first time since I retired from HUD that I’ve worked with a single agency, and it reminded how absolutely critical it is to train your agency web team.

Every agency relies on a broad group of employees (50, 100, 200, or more) to develop and maintain the content of the agency website(s).  That group changes regularly as employees come and go.  Some work on the site full-time. Most work on the site part-time, in addition to other duties. Many of these folks are thrown into web duties - they didn’t ask for it, and they likely have no prior knowledge or training in plain language and usability and top tasks and metrics and other critical areas. Many of them don’t even get credit for their web duties in their annual performance ratings - and they should!

Most agency web teams are spread throughout the agency, in different offices and – often - in different locations; and all too often, they feel like they’re operating in a vacuum. They need to feel part of a whole. They need to understand what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to relate to one another and where they’re headed. They won’t get that through osmosis. You’ve got to get them together and train them. Not just once, but often.  It’s that old adage: you get what you pay for.  Or, in this case, your customers get what you pay for.

Yes – you can communicate by email and conference calls. But there is no substitute for face time…time to get to know one another, learn together, build trust, hash out problems, laugh, argue, and get (re)energized to carry out critical customer service duties, as a single unit. That’s what I saw happening at DFAS. That’s what needs to happen at all agencies. It’s important. No…it’s essential.

I know from personal experience that there’s real value in getting someone from outside the agency to do at least part of the training. Outsiders are perceived as being neutral, which can be useful when you need to change behaviors. And then there’s that strange phenomenon where people believe an outsider over an insider. Go figure. But it’s true.

Agency web team training can be relatively inexpensive: the cost of a trainer and travel for participants to a central location that can be chosen for its low travel costs (it doesn’t have to be done in expensive Washington DC!). You can use a training room in an agency field office or in a GSA-managed federal building somewhere.

Here’s a thought. Wouldn’t it be great if Web Manager University were to offer an option for agency-specific training programs?  WMU has faculty who are well-versed in the best practices and goals promoted by the Federal Web Managers Council and the GSA Center for Customer Service Excellence. Send a trainer/trainers to the agency. Work with the agency to develop a program that meets its needs and that will build that team spirit. It’s a logical extension of the great training services WMU already provides, and it could address a need that currently is unmet in many agencies. Further, it would be a great way to reach out to that next tier of web communicators and invite them to get involved in the broader web customer service community.

However you do it, train your agency web team. Regularly. They need it. They deserve it. Your customers deserve it. 

Related Post
Take Time to Nurture Your Web Team

Friday, October 08, 2010

What's Next?

A couple of weeks ago, after I’d cut loose with some ideas for the government web community (and witnessed the weary and wary looks on my web colleagues’ faces), my good friend Bev Godwin bailed me out by saying, “as long as I’ve known Candi, she’s always asked ‘what’s next?’ We need to keep asking ‘what’s next?’”

Bev is right – we always need to be thinking about where we want to go next…what we need to do, or be, to keep improving customer service. Why? Because when you know where you want to go, you’ll be on the lookout for that path that could get you there. And when that vision is shared, you'll have a whole community looking for those paths. You’ll be ready for that unexpected elevator conversation with a key official or that last-minute lunch with the “connected” friend that starts the ball rolling. When you think ahead and keep asking, “what’s next?” you're being strategic.  You are creating the opportunity to shape your future, instead of having it shaped for you.

So – here are some thoughts on “what’s next” for the government customer service community. Yeah, I know. I’ve pushed some of these before. But maybe now is their time.

Customer Service Objectives
  • Focus like a laser on those 6 Customer Service Objectives from the Federal Web Managers Council 2008 White Paper. Use them as the context for all your work. Cite them as the introduction for all your efforts.  They articulate your community's vision. They describe the results you want all government websites to achieve. So talk, talk, talk about them. Sound a drumbeat. Do Web Manager Forum calls on each of them. Talk about best practices, and figure out what you could be doing better, across government. Make them the centerpiece of the next Web Managers Conference. Maybe organize that Customer Service Summit I’ve been talking about for months.
  • Gather some evidence. Establish performance standards and get baseline data to measure those 6 objectives. Come up with metrics that will give you (and the public) a good idea about where you stand. Ask all agencies to use those metrics, aggregate the data across agencies, and publish the results. Define some performance goals (for example, reduce the time it takes to complete top tasks by 10% in the next 6 months), ask agencies to make incremental changes, and measure again. Keep at it. Show the public what you’re doing – across government – to provide the best possible customer service through the web.
Plain language:  The Plain Writing Act has cleared the House and Senate, and – woot! – is on the President’s desk. We’re getting close. So why wait? Here’s an opportunity to create a strategy for making sure government websites – especially the most-used pages on government websites – are written in plain language. The key: focus on results.
  • Start by developing a simple list of plain language rules for websites. You don’t have to invent them – and have plenty. Involve the Web Manager University faculty - many of us teach these principles regularly. Besides me, there’s Gerry McGovern, Ginny Redish, Leslie O’Flahaven, and others. And of course, there’s our good friend, former colleague, and Plain Language Warrior Annetta Cheek. She’s sure to have something to offer. There's nothing new to discover - you just need to synthesize.  Don’t get too esoteric – start with major points. Publish the list on as a best practice, distribute it to the Forum, and issue it as a recommendation of the FWMC.
  • Sound a charge! I know everyone is worried about training people in plain language. But the truth is that we’ve been training web communicators to “write for the web” for years. Tons of people have been trained. The problem is getting people to use what they’ve learned – to rewrite that bad content and insist that new content be plain. So challenge the web community to “Get a Head Start on Plain Writing.” Urge agency web teams to review and re-write their top task content in the next 6 months. Make it part of the whole effort to improve customer service. Give it some hype: “Don’t wait to be told to write well…do it because it’s the right thing to do for great customer service!”
  • Now here’s the most important part: measure and promote the results. Set up a review panel. It doesn’t have to be “official” – create a panel of peers, sponsored by the FWMC, to do top task reviews.  Keep it friendly.  Encourage agencies to submit their re-written content to the panels, and do simple plain language reviews. Give them feedback. Ask them to make changes accordingly. Post “before” and “after” examples on Give awards for “most improved” at your conference next spring and/or collaborate with the Clearmark Plain Language Award folks. Celebrate the successes – it will inspire replication. It’s the review process that’s been lacking in the past. This is something you can start right now.
Governance:  So here’s my last one (for today). What do you want to be when you grow up, Web Customer Service Community? Up to now, you’ve been a grassroots operation. We found each other, linked up through the Forum, and created our own Council. So what’s next? Is it time to turn into a hierarchy? Both FWMC co-chairs are at GSA now, and GSA has picked up the reins on many support functions (best practices, new media, apps, etc.). Would it help you move forward if there were a more formal management function at GSA? Do you need a Chief Customer Service Officer at OMB? Do you need to be codified, like the CIO Council? Or would establishing a hierarchy at GSA and OMB detract from the grassroots community of practice that has worked well up to this point? Figure it out. Discuss and get some general agreement. That way, when one of you happens to be in a meeting where this comes up, you’ll be ready to say, “here’s what we need and here’s how that will improve customer service across government.”

Yes – it makes your head hurt to think through these issues. But improving customer service is a never-ending, iterative process. Keep envisioning new possibilities. Keep setting new goals. Keep looking for those opportunities to cause change.  It all starts with this simple question:  “what’s next?”

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Keep it Plain!