How Can We Improve Customer Experience for GovCon in 2020?
I wanted my first blog article of 2020 to build on my last LinkedIn post of 2019 so I'm posing the subject question to the GovCon community - mostly aimed at those internal to government, although our Industry partners also have equities. This year marks my 25th anniversary associated with Federal contracting, where I've served in a variety of capacities as both a practitioner and a customer, so I think that I can say, emphatically, that Customer Experience (CX) definitely matters in Government Contracting (GovCon). Before going any further though, I want to draw a key distinction between customer service and CX because I think many in the Federal space, especially in GovCon, only focus on the former. For those that may not know much about the CX concept, it's important to note that customer service is just one component of a larger whole. Customer service is the quality of the human interaction between the provider and the customer, whereas CX is all-encompassing to include every touch point along the customer's journey.
In the GovCon community, I think we sometimes focus solely on the customer service aspect of CX rather than examining the entire value chain of our line of business and whether our customers are having a good experience with the entirety of the procurement process from the point of requirement ideation through to contract execution and beyond. Do customers have the right tools available to them, in an easily accessible fashion, to do business with Contracting offices? Are Contracting professionals educating new customers - rather, do they have adequate time to - on the myriad of policies and processes involved, or updating existing customers on what has changed since the last time the customer needed to buy a good or service? Is the interaction between a government customer and their Federal business advisor fixated on stagnant, outdated information or driven by real-time intelligence? Are Contracting professionals equipped with the necessary tools themselves to execute all of the pre-and-post solicitation activities seamlessly? I'm going to be bold here and speak for the majority of the GovCon community when I say that the answer is resoundingly NO to these questions. Here's why ...
Our counterparts in the private sector that are more aligned to the Supply Chain function of their companies usually have outstanding IT tools that automate the procurement process much better than on the Federal side. And even if a procurement professional outside of Federal government is operating in an environment that more closely resembles the Federal process, in terms of pure contract management versus purchasing, they do not have to contend with the complexity of a dense regulatory framework to accomplish their work. Given this reality, one might think, "Well, even if you can't change the regulatory environment, why can't you invest in better tools to get the job done?" That's a great question and, unfortunately, the answer is because the very offices that are charged with the duty of spending money across the Federal enterprise are usually unfunded themselves. Broke, busted, cash-strapped and downright poor! GovCon contracting offices are typically considered administrative overhead and receive paltry operating budgets - or in some cases they may share a budget with other offices in an agency- and without dedicated funding it's hard to invest in the operation of the procurement function. And even if a Contracting office does have some budget to invest in its own success, which would translate to better success for their customers, it's hard to integrate new-age technology that might expedite procurement processes into older government IT systems that can't accommodate it.
But just because the tools may not all be there, that doesn't mean that CX has to take a back seat when it comes to Federal procurement. In fact, if CX should be front and center anywhere it should be in the GovCon community. Access to better tools to improve the process for customers is great when you have it, but there's something else, which is completely free, that can be employed to improve CX for government customers. It's called good, old-fashioned, follow-up. I learned about it, literally, on day one when I started my career almost 25 years ago. My first supervisor, I still remember his name, was unsure exactly what to do with me so he put me in a cubicle next to someone else and told me that I'd be responsible for the "follow-up" section for my first several months on the job. No kidding ... my indoctrination into Federal procurement involved calling vendors to inquire about the status of product delivery for large stacks of Purchase Orders (POs) that never dwindled. Just as I'd make my way through the majority of POs on my desk, there would be a fresh stack the next morning. And I do mean "called" the vendors - email was just starting to become a thing back then. I also called the customers to give them the most current status of their order and if they weren't satisfied with how long it was taking, I called the company back to haggle with them in an attempt to accelerate. And after the product was delivered, I also called the companies to get them to submit their invoices so that we could quickly move the POs into close-out. It was kind of like trying to be Amazon for an entire military base. And I'm forever grateful that I spent the first six months of my career doing "follow-up" because it built my foundation as a Contracting professional.
Fast-forward many years and now, ironically, I serve as the Head of Contracting Activity for a large military organization and, when I think about CX across our enterprise, I'm reminded about the basics from where I started my career. Perhaps, the single most important thing we could do to improve CX for our operators in the field and program customers at headquarter directorates would be to build follow-up into our processes. And I think the notion applies to any Federal agency. Contracting professionals can, and should, inject follow-up into all of the touch points of the procurement process. From that initial inquiry for service, through the education process of submitting an actionable Purchase Request package and then accomplishing all of the required documentation to obligate the dollars on a PO or a contract vehicle, there is value in the Contracting professional performing follow-up along the way with their customer. You may not have the latest technology available at your fingertips, but you can go the extra mile by picking up the phone, or better yet getting out of your chair, to talk to someone.
I encourage folks in the GovCon community to increase their overall follow-up efforts to bolster CX in 2020. I believe that bringing back this tried and true approach can really make the difference. Sure, it takes more time to follow-up at every touch point, with every customer, but the return on investment is worth it. When government customers trying to get their requirements met have a great customer experience, and they get the right outcomes to support their mission, they are likely to be better repeat customers who understand their role in the procurement process and are willing to be good team players. And everyone involved in the team sport of GovCon benefits from that.