Be agile. Organizations must pivot quickly to respond to ever-changing customer expectations and circumstances. For example, during the early part of the pandemic, national lands and parks shut down along with most businesses. Through Recreation.gov, Booz Allen partnered with the client to quickly deploy timed entry and mobile payment options that allowed parks to reopen safely and enable visitors to enjoy socially distanced outdoor activities.
As part of our series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie McPherson, Executive Vice President at Booz Allen Hamilton.
Julie leads Booz Allen’s Digital Solutions business, focused on transforming federal government agencies with innovative digital applications and services. Julie and her team deliver digital strategies and user experiences, modern software development as well as cloud and data platform implementations. She has led high-profile technology and transformation initiatives, including Recreation.gov, a modern, user-friendly e-commerce platform that provides citizens access to recreation opportunities at national parks and federal lands. Julie holds a B.A. in psychology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and an M.S. in management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have more than 25 years of experience in IT consulting and I currently lead Booz Allen’s digital business. In certain ways, my path was different than many other technology leaders. Early on, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for a profession, and I actually got my bachelor’s degree in psychology — knowing that no matter what career path I would take, I would have to understand how people think and what motivates them to take action.
I feel fortunate that I serendipitously ended up in the technology space, after an opportunity came up to interview with Booz Allen — a strategic partner and technology integrator for the federal government. At Booz Allen, I started out as a researcher on a team helping the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) modernize and transform its processes. I spent every day in design sessions interviewing the FDA’s users to capture their business challenges and then translating those back to the technical teams to build the new systems and processes. This was when I first began to see the intersection between business problems, customer needs and technology — and what happens when you use purposeful transformation to solve and automate business problems.
From that point, I knew where I was headed. Since then, I’ve worked across numerous areas of the business and the spectrum of client challenges — and went back for additional degrees in IT to hone my ability to problem solve, re-invent digital processes, and build solutions that are focused on outcomes for real people, rather than technology alone.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In my first few years in IT, the industry’s approach was remarkably different from what we’re used to today. At the time, building large-scale systems didn’t involve human-centered design or an in-depth understanding of user requirements. In large part, the developers built whatever digital experiences seemed most intuitive or easiest to them. We spent a ridiculous amount of time debating things like button colors because each client had a different personal preference and there were no user experience or design standards like we have today.
I recall a time when my team was building an important mission system and trying to get the users to accept it. It’s hard to imagine now, but we didn’t talk at all about what the user preferences, expectations, and end goals were for the experience — something that nowadays is addressed from the very beginning. Our primary client’s personal preferences were implemented and by the time the whole system came together, it was like a Frankenstein product. No two modules were the same and it was a huge challenge to get people to adopt it, even though it gave them features and capabilities to transform their mission.
These early experiences helped me fully appreciate the importance of a ‘chief translator’ or someone who can put both the customer or the mission at the center of the design process, and also understand what data or information the technologists need to be successful. If you can fill this translator role, you can help create a system that can reach its full technical potential and meet the mission of the organization.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’m particularly grateful for my colleague, Susan Penfield, who is now Booz Allen’s Chief Innovation Officer. I met Susan right around the time I started at Booz Allen. We didn’t work together directly but she would regularly check in on me to see what I was working on. Wherever I was in my career, Susan always stayed in touch with me.
After a decade building systems and supporting clients across the federal government, I was looking for a change and Booz Allen was in the process of creating an internal organization focused on innovation. Susan put in a good word for me with a firm leader, affording me the opportunity to join the Strategic Innovation Group, which at the time was a completely new business for the firm. This move has allowed me to play a leadership role in accelerating growth and investing in emerging technologies so our clients can stay ahead of the next disruption.
Having someone who understood where I was on my journey and who was willing to open up opportunities kept me challenged in my career and helped me focus on where I could make the most impact. I think Susan always felt I was more capable than I thought I was and I’m grateful for her confidence in me. I’ve learned a lot from her and try to carry those qualities forward in my organization today so we’re continually creating opportunities for our technical staff and mentoring emerging leaders as they take on new opportunities.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?
Good customer experience (CX) is not about whether a transaction was successful, but about how the transaction made us feel. When we have a positive experience, we feel good and then correlate that experience with a brand or company. So for me, customer experience is the emotional connection — often intangible and hard to put your finger on as a consumer.
For the brand or company, however, the ability to make customers or users feel good through seamless experiences is an art that very tangibly correlates with success. Certainly, in the world of social media when everything people feel ends up online either in an endorsement or a rant, experience can’t be underestimated.
When customer experience is seamless and intuitive from the beginning, organizations not only drive down support costs but enhance customer loyalty for more interactions down the road. One of the keys to designing positive experiences from the start is simplicity. I always believe that if you have to train someone to use your system, it’s too complex. And if people can’t easily “self-help,” and you are using the customer support center as a first line of defense, the system is not truly built for the customer. As consumers, we are used to experiences that are fluid and seamless, and when an experience or process is not intuitive, it can be very frustrating. With our clients, we see time and again how customer experience is a metric that drives all other metrics, ultimately making an impact across the business — from driving up revenue to reducing overhead costs.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
Most organizations understand the significance of customer experience, but they aren’t sure how to execute on it. Often, this starts with the question of “Who owns CX in its entirety?” Organizations are typically structured around discrete functions such as marketing, IT or HR. Customer experience can be affected by the actions of all of those functions, but since none of them control the entire customer journey, customers can easily get lost in the gaps between them. That’s why when organizations designate an experience function or hire a chief experience officer (CXO), that person or office has the difficult job of working horizontally across an organization to get everyone on board and implement a holistic approach to customer experience.
I think about how we helped the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as they were looking to elevate experience into an enterprise function. USDA’s customers include farmers, inspectors, rural residents, and other stakeholders across a broad and diverse mission set that includes 29 agencies at more than 4,500 locations across the country and abroad. The agency had previously implemented customer experience efforts in different areas of the organization responsible for different customer touchpoints. But customers tend to engage with the USDA to achieve an overarching goal like trying to start a farming business or to increase the size of their farm — and those goals require multiple services that the USDA offers. Leadership recognized that a siloed experience model required a customer to transverse multiple offices and interactions with the agency. They partnered with the General Services Administration (GSA) to be the “lighthouse” agency in its IT Modernization Centers of Excellence, with Booz Allen supporting the CX effort with our team of researchers and designers. Booz Allen helped USDA create an enterprise-wide strategy for CX to reimagine how they organize their services against their constituents’ overarching goals to help streamline the customer journey.
The reason this is so difficult for many organizations is because the process requires putting the end user, and their needs, at the center of the experience framework. Truly optimizing for experience involves evaluating the end-to-end customer journey across an organization, reimaging how internal business units and services are tied together, and reorganizing customer touchpoints in a logical way.
Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?
Customers’ expectations are constantly being reset by their interactions with, or perceptions of, a company or its competitors. At a bare minimum, organizations need to keep pace with those expectations to remain competitive. But there are other external pressures to improve customer experience, including the fact that your customers may have constrained budgets — particularly during difficult economic times. If your product or service offers a superior customer experience, they may be more inclined to do business with you rather than with a competitor.
From a revenue and cost perspective, it also pays to offer a positive customer experience. If an organization’s customer experience is negative or subpar, it needs to devote more resources to marketing and sales efforts to attract and retain customers. Internally, it needs to invest more on employee engagement and morale to retain employees — and also to recruit new talent. Who wants to work for a company that has a negative brand experience? Overall, a poor customer experience is often more expensive than the effort it takes to improve it when you consider these second order effects beyond experience itself.
On the federal side, agencies are increasingly expected — and in some cases, mandated — to advance their experience capabilities. Congressional legislation, President’s Management Agenda CAP Goals, and Office of Management and Budget standards and guidelines have been key drivers for federal organizations to elevate the CX function.
Over the past few years, several federal organizations and programs have been established to help meet these legislative and executive orders that are changing policies. These include the United States Digital Service and the Lab at OPM to help navigate the rapidly changing experience landscape. In addition, lighthouse agencies (e.g., USDA) and lead agency partners (e.g., the Department of Veterans Affairs) for CX have been identified to blaze the trail and provide a successful blueprint to follow. These organizations and programs have been consistently knocking down barriers to enhancing CX, including providing access to appropriate and accelerated contracting vehicles, consultative and advisory services at the application, service, and programmatic levels, best practices and toolkits, and thought leadership.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
I have the privilege to lead the partnership between Booz Allen and Recreation One Stop, which is a partnership among seven federal agencies including the Forest Service and National Park Service (NPS) to provide reservation services and recreation trip planning tools for federal lands and waters across the U.S. via a platform called Recreation.gov.
In 2018, working closely with our agency partners, Booz Allen launched a completely modernized Recreation.gov platform that aligned with “.com” consumer expectations. The website can be used for booking public campsites, getting park permits and reserving activities or tour tickets. There are more than 3,600 facilities and 103,000 individual sites across the country, including national parks, recreation areas, and historic sites like the Washington Monument available on Recreation.gov.
During the pandemic, everyone, from seasoned outdoor enthusiasts to families heading out to their local park for the first time, wanted a little guidance about how to stay safe. As facilities began to close in March and April of last year, we worked closely with them to streamline communications, providing new tools to rapidly update visitors about individual facility status. Our team worked 24/7 to ensure we communicated changes as soon as we had the information, answering questions via the contact center and on social media, and posting information online.
We also quickly pivoted to deploy services that helped facilities and visitors as locations started to reopen. One of the most important new features on Recreation.gov is timed entry. A great example of how this new feature works can be seen at Rocky Mountain National Park — the third-most visited park in the NPS system with nearly 4.6 million visitors last year. Prior to COVID-19, visitors could simply arrive when they wanted. Frequently there was a surge between 10 AM and noon, which became concerning from a safety perspective. As Rocky Mountain planned to reopen, they turned to Recreation.gov to implement timed entry, allowing visitors to reserve a specific time slot to enter the park with the goal of safely managing the pace and flow of visitor use and limiting crowding at the park. We did this in a very compressed timeline — two weeks to onboard the park. After the success in Rocky Mountain, the team then helped other high-traffic sites like Denali and Yosemite National Parks deploy the same services, timing new deployments based on the peak season of each park.
Another key feature that we deployed to protect both field staff and visitors is the expanded digital pass. This offers users a way to purchase entry or amenity passes online and allows the facility to collect those fees without handling cash at the entrance station. Users can purchase the pass on Recreation.gov or scan a QR code at the facility to purchase the pass. Passes are available for download and can be used from visitors’ phone or tablet.
From seasoned outdoor enthusiasts to families heading out to their local park for the first time, outdoor recreation wasn’t just “fun” once COVID-19 hit — it became a necessity for so many individuals. The outdoors has provided an outlet for the public, along with moments of normalcy during a challenging year. The Recreation One Stop team’s quick pivot to deploy services helped facilities and visitors stay safe and feel comfortable to experience the outdoors in a time of need.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
The trends we have seen through the Recreation.gov site and the mobile app reflect this increased need for outdoor recreation, and the new services launched continue to have ripple effects creating a better and safer experience for a major influx of users. Over last summer, we also saw a huge uptick in interest in the Recreation.gov mobile app. While the app has always been helpful for visitors on the go, it became a critical way to stay up to date with facility status and to change plans on the fly last summer. In addition, the website saw a 108% increase in new users last summer, compared to the previous summer; and nearly 1.4 million new accounts were created.
Interest nearly doubled what it was in the same period in 2019, and the team is staying agile and ready for whatever this season holds. As volume increases, we’re exploring other forms of service offerings and CX needs such as using AI in the contact center to help manage questions efficiently in order to best support field staff and visitors around the clock as we head into the 2021 busy season.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.
Five things about customer experience that I want to relay to company leaders are to:
- Be agile. Organizations must pivot quickly to respond to ever-changing customer expectations and circumstances. For example, during the early part of the pandemic, national lands and parks shut down along with most businesses. Through Recreation.gov, Booz Allen partnered with the client to quickly deploy timed entry and mobile payment options that allowed parks to reopen safely and enable visitors to enjoy socially distanced outdoor activities.
- Be open. Our customer experience professionals share stages of delivery and progress with our clients and their customers. This allows us to get feedback early, make refinements to optimize the solutions, and create excitement for what we’re doing to better support our customers. For example, as we’ve supported the Government Services Administration’s Center of Excellence for customer experience, we’ve seen how their Technology Transformation Services have proactively shared new methods and best practices with multiple government agencies, allowing other organizations to learn from the programs resulting in approaches that work.
- Embrace data. Collecting and analyzing CX data, such as qualitative ethnographic or research data and quantitative usage patterns and user feedback, is invaluable in designing the customer experience. One civilian agency we work with collects data with every citizen interaction. In continuous surveys, this client asks customers to rate their experiences and whether a particular interaction reinforced or damaged their trust in the organization to deliver critical services.
- Design holistically. One of the biggest pitfalls in customer experience is just focusing on the outermost layer of the experience. It’s important to consider the spectrum of activities that ultimately impact the customer experience. For example, how many clicks does it take to get to point of purchase? Do your orders ship on time or do customers wait weeks longer than expected? Evaluate every facet of the business for its impact on the customer experience and optimize it for customer satisfaction.
- Design inclusively. Customer experience is about better serving every customer. To do this effectively, it’s essential to incorporate participatory design and other inclusive design practices. Think expansively about who you’re serving, the impact you’re having, and who you’re inviting into the design process. Many of our CX teams are becoming increasingly involved in helping CXO’s at a range of Federal agencies assess the degree to which their organizations are designing and delivering services to their customers in an equitable manner, which is in accordance with current Office of Personnel Management guidelines.
Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?
When you deliver an above average customer experience, you shift the proportion of your efforts and resources from customer service to customer advocacy — where the customer is out there building up your brand on your behalf. You can capitalize on this scenario by making it easy for customers to share their positive experiences with others. For example, every year, Booz Allen partners with the National Park Foundation to sponsor and moderate the Share the Experience amateur photo contest, which surfaces user-generated photo content for Recreation.gov and all participating agencies to share publicly. In January 2021, we also launched the Recreation.gov Share Your Story contest, which askes people to submit a story about their experience of federal lands and waters for the chance to win prizes. Stories are featured on Recreation.gov, and more than 700 stories have been submitted since the contest launched. This user-generated content is very compelling to others who might be considering planning a trip using Recreation.gov.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I believe that everyone has a unique voice and role in making tomorrow better. We have to create inclusive experiences and opportunities to realize the dream.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/julie-mcpherson-a87669a/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!