Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Web Management 101

Forgive me for reminiscing a bit…  It’s hard to believe that it was 17 years ago this month that I became HUD’s first web manager.  I was handed a brand new communication tool (one that was totally under the radar of most executives) and pretty much told to figure it out.  So I did.  With the help of a bunch of visionaries at HUD and at other agencies, who - like me - were eager to be pioneers in serving online.  We quickly figured out that this “web” thing would revolutionize the way government interacts with its customers; so we focused on citizens, used common sense, and took risks to do the right thing for the people we serve.  What a ride!

Early on, I was asked, “how do you manage a government website?’  So I started a list of “DOs.” I’ve tweaked this list many times, over the years, incorporating changing priorities, new technologies, and an increasingly sophisticated audience.  But the basic principles have stayed pretty much the same.  Here’s my, “web management 101.” 

1.        Listen to your customers.  There’s a reason this is number one – it’s the most important thing you do.  Make time for it.  Identify your customers and listen to what they have to say so you understand their wants and needs.  Get out of your office and talk to customers in person.  Read webmanager email.  Watch and learn from usability testing.  Go to public meetings and presentations - listen to what people are asking.  Analyze your stats.  Read letters to the editor in newspapers and blogs and Facebook pages and Twitter postings.  Listen for trends.  Listen for ideas.  Listen for frustration.  Never lose touch with your customers, no matter how far you rise in your organization.

2.       Talk like your customers talk.  When you write or edit content or create videos or publish Tweets or Facebook updates, use words, phrases, and descriptions that your customers use and understand.  Speak their language – don’t make them learn yours.  Make it easy for them.   

3.       Focus on your customers’ top tasks.  Highlight and pay attention to the things THEY WANT TO DO AND KNOW.  Respect them.  Help them do what they want to do, when they want to do it.  Eliminate all that other junk they don’t care about.  It gets in their way.

4.       Connect the dots.  Work with other agencies (federal, state, and local) to consolidate and link your customers’ top tasks.  Find out what other agencies have to offer on the topic.  Merge, consolidate, eliminate duplication, link, create logical sequences, and anticipate next steps and questions.  Do the work.  Don’t force your customers to figure it out.  Serve.

5.       Make it easy for your customers to find what they want.  Oh, so many wonderful ways to do this now.  Use them.  Wisely.  Search engine optimization.  Social media - Twitter is a terrific resource to let your customers know where to find what they want (and Twitter forces you to be concise!).  Make your services mobile.  But circle back to number 3 – focus on top tasks.  Just because you CAN make a mobile app doesn’t mean you should.  Make sure it’s something your customers want/need.

6.       Measure and improve.  Use data to find out what’s working and what isn’t.  Fix what isn’t.  Usability testing is the best way to do this, but also look at statistics (How many start the task? How many complete the task? Why do they fall out?) and customer satisfaction surveys and other measurement methods.  Spend more time analyzing data and improving your site than you do collecting data.  Improvement is the goal here – not data.

7.       Organize around "customer service."  Make sure you have everyone in the customer service food chain involved in producing your website.  That means:  key agency officials (including customer service officers and plain language officers), key program managers, key communicators (including web managers, new media managers, and public affairs officials), key technology experts,  key contractors and/or contract managers, and key field officials (because those folks in the field offices are out there on the front lines of customer service).  Involve people in charge of all service delivery channels.  Define roles, responsibilities, relationships, and rules; and make sure you review how it’s all working, regularly.

8.       Follow all the rules.  No excuses.  GSA has a superb website called “” that has it all, for federal government websites.  State and local governments have their own rules.  Those rules are there for a reason.  They protect your customers and make sure they get great service.  Know the rules.  Follow them. 

9.       Have a plan.  Things change so fast in the world of customer service that it can make your head spin.  Don’t let yourself get into a reactive mode.  Have a plan.  Know where you want to go.  Fix problems.  Adapt.  And let everyone know (inside and out) where you’re going and what you’ve accomplished.  Celebrate successes.  Update your plan frequently, so you can embrace change and not get caught by it.

10.   Help each other.  If you don’t remember anything else, remember this:  the public judges all of us by their experience with any of us.  Believe me – it’s true.  You’re only as good as everyone else is.  So stifle those competitive urges.  Use that energy to collaborate to make government the best.  Work across your agency to make sure all service delivery channels operate seamlessly.  Join the government Web Managers Forum.  Share successes and lessons learned.  Go to conferences (the big annual conference is coming up – have YOU registered?).  Share, learn, adopt.  Be a mentor to a new web manager or a promising wannabe.  GovLoop is sponsoring a wonderful mentoring program – volunteer.  Get to know your colleagues, and help them be successful.   We serve best when we serve together. 

Managing a government website isn’t rocket science.  Put customers first, use common sense, and show a little gumption to do right things; and you’re halfway there.  Take these 10 actions – over and over, better and better – and you’ll serve the public well. 

Monday, March 05, 2012

What's In A Name? Clarity

Gerry McGovern’s recent blog post about “content strategy” got me thinking about the importance of words and – specifically - names.  If you don’t know Gerry (and you should), he is an internationally known web content specialist.  And one of his major products is helping his customers understand that the words they use have everything to do with great customer service.  It’s the same thing my plain language colleagues espouse.  Word choice is critical to comprehension…understanding…clarity.  The names we use to describe our work, our initiatives, even our websites, can make the difference in communication, support, and credibility.

So, here are three examples where better names could make a big difference in our bosses’ and our customers’ understanding about what we do.

1.  “Content strategy.”  Being strategic is absolutely the right thing to do, as you work to improve your communications.  But I think Gerry is right on this one – the term “content strategy” doesn’t resonate with executives.  It doesn’t make that executive think immediately, “Oh, that’s something I care about – these people can help me do what I want to do.”

Getting content right is essential because that’s how we communicate with, and serve, our customers.  So if we want to give that effort a name, why not call it what it is:  our “customer service strategy?”  Or, at least, “communications strategy?”   Those names tell our bosses – and the public – what we're doing in terms they understand.  It tells them we’re doing something they care about.    

When you have that 5-second window of opportunity - on the elevator or walking in the front door or standing in the cafeteria line with that agency executive – try it out.  Watch executives’ eyes when you say, “we’d like to talk about our customer service strategy.”  They’ll understand exactly where you’re going - and they’ll want to work with you to get there. 

2.       .gov domain.  Here’s a different spin on the importance of a name.  One of the .Gov Reform goals is to get federal agency websites on the .gov (or .mil or domain.  Why?  Well, for one thing, those domains have instant credibility.  User testing has shown over and over that citizens/customers recognize the .gov and the .mil domains to be official, authoritative government websites.   Those domain names bring clarity.

The .gov domain name works for state or local government websites, too.  Though .gov was reserved for the federal government initially, that changed in 2003.  So state and local governments:   visit the GSA website to find out how to get your .gov domain.

This should be a no-brainer.  Your domain name can bring clarity.   And trust.

3.       “Digital government.”   I’ve been reluctant to bring this one up because so many of my colleagues use this term.  I mean no disrespect to you.  But, gosh, “digital government” bothers me.  For the record, I never liked the term “e-government” either.  I don’t think we should organize or think about government by delivery channel.  And I don’t think it conveys the message we want it to.  Mention “digital government” to executives, and I’m betting many of them think “technology” - not “customer service” or “customer experience” or “communications.”     

Why isolate the internet (websites and social media) and cell phones from the other ways we deliver customer service?  When there’s growing acceptance of the need to  deliver service across channels, seamlessly, why discuss or target or organize around only some of those service channels?   

Name it “Customer Service” or "Customer Experience."  Those are terms that bring clarity about what’s important to us and what we’re trying to achieve.  It says we’re putting customers first and keeping them at the center of our attention.  It helps us remember to deliver services all the ways our customers want, need, and use them. 

OK – some of you are shaking your heads. “Oh, Candi – you’re making much ado out of nothing.  These are internal terms – we know what we mean.”  Maybe so.  Maybe not.   I still hear complaints all the time about bosses who don’t “get it” about what web teams are trying to do.  Maybe it’s because they don’t understand the words we use to describe it.

But here’s the other thing…and it’s equally important.  We want to be open government.  We want to be transparent.  We want to engage citizens and involve them in their government.  That means we have to talk to them – and among ourselves, because they are listening – in words that mean something to them.  

Pardon me, Mr. Shakespeare, but there IS something in a name.  Comprehension.  Communication.  Understanding.  Clarity.

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