Works to develop a better understanding of customer needs and helps translate those findings into actions.
April 17, 2019
[This is the first in a series of three articles on customer journey maps: what they are, how to read them, and how to use them to improve your customers’ experiences.]
In the first few months of our work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), we started working with the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to better understand and improve the direct farm loan experience. A key document from that research was a customer journey map showing a typical farm loan experience from the viewpoints of both a loan applicant (a producer like a new farmer or rancher) and an FSA loan officer.
With the help of the journey map and accompanying research, the Customer Experience Center of Excellence (CX CoE) team was able to identify potential improvements that both producers and loan officers gave high priority—things like simplifying and pre-populating forms and adding online features (without detracting from highly valued face-to-face interactions). But how did the journey map contribute to those findings? How can you read a journey map to help reveal potential improvements?
Direct Farm Loans Customer Journey Map
As you can see, a journey map can be complex. If you’re unfamiliar with the format, it can be overwhelming at first glance. Here are some tips on how to read and use a customer journey map like a skilled Customer Experience (CX) practitioner.
What Is a Journey Map?
First, a journey map is a visual tool to help you better understand your customer’s experience. This allows you to make better decisions and build more effective solutions to fulfill their needs.
Journey maps give you an overview of your customers, from start to finish as they use your product or service. They include information about:
- The different steps a customer must go through (including official processes, workarounds, and additional incidental steps)
- Specific actions and decisions they must make
- Touchpoints, or ways customers interact with your people and systems (like through in-person meetings, emails, website content, or phone calls)
- Importantly, the emotions (both positive and negative) that they feel throughout the journey
The goal of a journey map is to give team members a common, research-based view of what the customer is trying to do, what they’re going through, and how they’re feeling. This view of the customer grounds the team in the human challenges they need to solve.
How Do You Make a Journey Map?
Before you can make a journey map, you have to do your homework, including doing desk research on business needs, systems, and customers; creating draft personas (generalized profiles of key customers) to represent who you’re designing solutions for; and immersing yourself with your customers and stakeholders in field interviews and observations. (Depending on the scope of your project, the research phase can last days, weeks, or sometimes a few months, but you should avoid never-ending research.) You’ll then work to organize and analyze your research to uncover patterns, trends, and insights. (See the Journey Map Process we used in Phase 1.)
Then, the team will work to translate those insights into a visual map, refining, and iterating to develop something that’s both a process diagram and a record of your stakeholders’ and customers’ emotional states.
There’s no single format for a journey map; they’ll be different based on the complexity of the process you’re looking at, as well as many other factors. A few considerations when making journey maps:
- They should be as simple as possible, while still conveying all the required information
- Journey maps can’t cover every customer type; instead, your journey map will represent a generalized experience of one type of key customer, based on your research (If you need to, you can make multiple journey maps.)
- They’re arranged chronologically (usually from left to right) with the individual steps grouped into phases (though sometimes the boundaries between phases can blur together)
- Journey maps present multiple dimensions of data (like touchpoints, actions, and emotions), displayed using an information hierarchy
After you create your journey map, you should validate it by showing it to people familiar with the process, including members of your key customer group.
In our next article, we’ll show you how you read a journey map, and how you can use that information to guide your efforts.
April 10, 2019
Every organization wants to put customers first. But before you can meet customer expectations, you first have to fully, and deeply understand your customers, their challenges...and ultimately, the human needs they’re looking at you to fulfill.
That’s the challenge of getting to “customer-centricity." Organizations can be good about knowing their business problems but very often don’t understand the whys behind their customers’ issues. Instead, they rely on preconceived and untested assumptions of what customers want and need.
The best way to learn about your customers’ needs is to go where your customers are; observe them in their daily environment as they live, work, and use your products and services; and ask them directly using methods that test assumptions, reveal hidden needs, lead to practical solutions, and are supported by data.
That’s what we do at the Customer Experience Center of Excellence (CX CoE) and why we went out into the field (literally), during our first phase of work , to interview 40 producers who were applying for Farm Service Agency (FSA) Direct Farm Loans, looking for ways to improve the loan process.
Our initial assumption was that producers would want more online tools and fewer face-to-face meetings with their loan officer (to reduce the need to drive long distances to their FSA Service Center). However, our field research quickly found that producers value their in-person interactions with FSA loan officers as a vital source of guidance and advice. Producers want new digital services to enhance those personal interactions, not replace them. And, both producers and staff wanted those digital services to fit with their lives, level of expertise, and technology challenges. These and other valuable insights are guiding our current work.
How We Do CX
CX research methods rely on empathy, but don’t confuse that with “touchy-feely”: We use solid frameworks for gathering qualitative data in field interviews and customer observations in the real world (not behind glass in focus groups) using ethnographic research: studying people in their culture.
CX is also data-driven, using quantitative data on customer experiences gathered from sources like satisfaction surveys, operational metrics, and website usage data. Combined with the qualitative data, we’re able to provide the needed context behind the number and go further to identify problems and challenges (“pain points”). This partnership of qualitative and quantitative methods results in deeper insights on the behaviors of actual human customers.
Once the design research is gathered and organized, we use CX methods to identify themes and patterns—a process we call “synthesis.” We then generate ideas for solutions— "ideation”—not in unstructured brainstorming, but using a proven framework to recombine ideas into often-unexpected ways. From there, CX practitioners create solution prototypes that we can rapidly test, evaluate, and refine.
Here’s a core tenet of CX work in slogan form: “No unending research.” The goal of CX is to quickly—but thoroughly—define the customer problem so we can start prototyping solutions. Depending on the size of the challenge, the research phase could be a few days, weeks, or months. By using this iterative process, we can “fail early, fail often,” to build on what works and throw out what doesn’t. By doing so, we deploy working solutions that pass real-world testing—instead of creating gigantic solutions that take so long to build that they’re no longer suitable because the challenges have changed.
CX is a solution—CX isn’t the only solution. CX is a great way to get deeper customer insights, and plugs in nicely to other approaches for process improvement, including Six Sigma, lean process management, and Agile. No matter what additional methods you use, CX helps you translate customer insights into actions that create outstanding experiences for customers.
In a coming post, we’ll look closer at CX terms, methods, and outputs.
Mar 27, 2019
The Customer Experience Center of Excellence (CX CoE) aims to improve the digital and human experiences of USDA customers—our nation’s agricultural producers, consumers, and users of public lands—using human-centered design, service design, user experience, and design thinking to identify and meet the core human needs at the heart of every customer’s interaction.
Phase 1 began in April 2018, and the team used modern CX practices including design-led field research —we’ll talk more about CX research methods in upcoming posts- in a pilot to help USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) better understand the burdens faced by farmers, ranchers, and service center staff as they direct farm loan applications.
For new producers, these burdens—a range of technology challenges, knowledge gaps, and process complexities—make an already-difficult application process even harder. Because these producers are new to the process, they don’t fully understand what their overall loan journey will look like. They’re faced with mysterious delays, strange terminology, and seemingly endless requirements for paperwork. All too often, something as simple as some missing data from a farm business plan or asset list can only be corrected by yet another long drive to a sometimes-distant service center. All this conspires to make the direct loans experience more stressful—and more costly—for new producers who are the least-equipped to absorb those costs.
During our research, we conducted interviews, field observations, and workshops with dozens of producers and USDA employees in six states and Washington, DC. This enabled us to map the Farm Loans Customer Journey, 13 key findings, and related recommendations—including areas where USDA can develop solutions that both address the biggest pain points between producers and loan officers and preserve the unique, highly valued collaborative relationship between the two groups.
You can see a full report of our work, including methods, resources, and other artifacts in the USDA Direct Farms Loan Journey. Our research revealed improvements that some service centers have already discovered and that need to be adapted and spread throughout the system. We also uncovered some relatively simple, low-cost solutions, that if skillfully applied at the right points of the loan process, could help relieve some of the biggest pain points faced by both producers and loan officers. For example, we're currently prototyping targeted digital and paper farm loan eligibility guides to help streamline the process for applicants, and help them better understand their entire loan journey with USDA, and the steps they need to take within it.
During Phase 2 of the initiative, which kicked off in October 2018, the CX CoE team has been keeping up our momentum, following up on priorities identified in Phase 1, and partnering with USDA mission areas (and the other CoE) to find additional high-impact USDA business challenges where we can apply CX methods to get better insights and build effective, customer-focused solutions./
Along the way, we’re going to be helping USDA agencies understand, grow, and develop their own customer experience capabilities. Together, we can expand USDA’s ability to use CX to help USDA achieve its vision of becoming the most customer-focused department in the federal government and fulfill its goal to goal to "Do Right and Feed Everyone."
Stay tuned as we talk more about our work, including sharing progress on our current round of projects, showing you how we’re working to grow USDA’s CX capabilities throughout the agency, and developing tools and techniques that you or your organization can adopt into efforts to improve your customers’ experiences.
Sep 18, 2018
Customer service is a key part of customer experience, but the two are not the same.
Customer service is an event that happens between a customer and a service provider, at a specific time and place. It’s the advice you get, the help you receive. Customer service is responsive to a person’s needs at a place and point in time. Good customer service is focused on making specific interactions positive and effective.
Customer experience is the sum of a person’s involvement with a brand or an agency. It encompasses all their interactions in different places, via different channels, and over time. Customer experience is about how people perceive their relationship with the service provider. It’s about how they feel, and what they do as a result.
On our part, designing good customer experiences requires us to consider the customer’s journey with our service from start to finish, even before they first come to us.
Aug 17, 2018
The Customer Experience Center of Excellence followed a customer journey mapping model for the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to evaluate the experience of producers and service center staff in applying for and processing direct farm loan applications.
We conducted interviews and ethnographic observations with over 40 FPAC subject matter experts and employees in Washington DC and at six service centers, and almost 40 producers in six states. We also hosted four workshops with stakeholders in Washington, DC to guide the research, update the customer journey map, vet important findings, and develop recommended solutions to improve the customer experience.
Among the 13 key findings, the following were identified as the most impactful:
- Producers value in person interactions with Loan Officers
- Loan Officers deal with fragile and limited technology at service centers
- First-time borrowers need help understanding the entire loan process
- Producers find loan forms challenging
- Producers find the current loan limits constraining and inadequate to cover their needs
Aug 03, 2018
Driving through a landscape of stretched cotton fields and grasslands towards Hollis, Oklahoma was both mesmerizing and a refreshing reminder I was far from the traffic-ridden hustle of downtown DC. Located in the southwest corner of Oklahoma, Hollis could be considered a nondescript pass-through town on a cross-country drive, but for my fellow researcher and I, Hollis, a small town with a population just above 2,000 people, was a long-planned destination.
We found ourselves in rural Oklahoma to understand from the perspective of local farmers what it’s like to obtain a USDA farm loan. Although not commonly known, ownership and operating loans are provided to small farmers by the USDA, and our core project was to improve the experience of the farmer as he or she completes the loan application process and moves through the administration lifecycle. We were visiting this countryside town for ethnographic research on USDA farm loans. Ethnographic research, or the study of people in their culture, is a core part of the Customer Experience Center of Excellence’s (CX CoE) approach to finding solutions that meet the needs of end customers.
In and around Hollis, where farming is one of the mainstays of the region’s economy and livestock, wheat, and cotton are the key products, we met the USDA field office team and farmers who represented the diversity of USDA farm loan borrowers.
We first met Simon, who had recently borrowed from the USDA. Simon, also a veteran, grew up helping on his family farm and returned to it after retiring from the military. We met him at his cattle farm, and he was kind enough to permit us to ride in his feeder truck around the 200-plus acres of his lot - we actually conducted our interview in the middle of the field. We learned about the difficulty he had in understanding eligibility requirements from the information on the loan application website. It was much easier when a loan officer walked him through the requirements and handed him an application packet that was tailored to his needs.
When we did a solution prioritization activity with each of our interviewees, it was interesting to see that age and preference for digital solutions weren’t always correlated as we would expect them. Glenn, a young rancher and member of the Texas Cowboys Association, feared digital solutions will replace the personal relationship he has with his loan officer. Whereas Sarah, a farmer in her 50s and savvy with the Internet, longed for the option to be able to check her loan balance and payment information online without having to reach out to someone at the local service center, which to Sarah felt like an onerous process for both her and her loan officer.
We also visited the regional USDA service center, which is a field office of the USDA that helps local farmers. At the service center, we spent quality time interviewing and following around Larry, the Farm Loan Manager, who had been at this USDA service center for over 30 years. He gets in to work at the crack of dawn and he lives by the mission of lender of first opportunity. If a farmer or rancher is in need of a loan and they can’t get it elsewhere, he will work his hardest to assist the farmer, even if it means securing a loan for a short period of time so that the farmer can get to a stable place. We also met Larry’s team of loan officers and program technicians who have figured out efficiencies, despite frequent and common failures in IT and telecom systems, to close loan applications and service them with the least amount of delays possible. We saw rooms and desks full of boxes from loan paperwork that limits their ability to grow the team without the option of being able to expand or relocate.
Although our research wasn’t conducted in the most conventional of meeting spaces, our team and USDA learned more than we expected from working in the field (literally!). We learned more about the USDA borrowers on their farms - even once working from the back of a pick-up truck - and in their homes on their kitchen-room tables than we could from a remote conference call all the way back in D.C. The best place to understand a customer is in their natural environment, and that’s what we aimed to do.
During our four days in Hollis, everyone we met was exceptionally kind and welcoming. Over the course of our research about USDA farm loans, our teams also traveled to Georgia, Oregon, New York, North Dakota, and Virginia. Through in-depth interviews, observation of their physical environment and solution prioritization exercises, we learnt about small farmers’ relationship with USDA and their experience of obtaining a loan through USDA. In the process, we uncovered insights, opportunities and unmet needs. The customer journey map that was produced as a result of this research helps teams working on farm loans and farmers.gov gain a shared understanding of the process and the ability to identify quickly where changes need to happen to alleviate pain points.
May 22, 2018
Vrinda Gupta, a CX CoE researcher, conducts a ‘card sort’ activity with a farmer in Hollis, Oklahoma. After an in-depth interview about the farmer’s experience of the direct loan process, card sorting was used to capture which of the proposed solutions would be the most beneficial to improve the direct loan experience for farmers.
May 21, 2018
Three Key FPAC Personas
We’re working with leaders across USDA’s Farm Production and Conservation Mission Area to inform the development of Farmers.gov a simple, one-stop-shop that consolidates information for farmers, ranchers and producers. We are actively researching who the best audience is for the information we will be producing. One activity and tangible output of research are personas. Personas are research-based, archetypal representations of key customers that capture what we know about our audiences. They tell stories that guide decision-making and help us develop products that align with people’s attitudes, motivations, expectations, and behaviors and what would make their lives easier.
May 17, 2018
Journey Map Process
Customer Journey Mapping (CJM) is intended to guide program development and decision making and help operationalize a customer-centric approach at USDA. For the farm loans program, CJM activities capture program touchpoints at each step of the customer’s journey to provide a research-based understanding of producers’ and loan officers’ pain points, points of delight, and moments of truth.
These phases, emotions, and critical events are captured in a multi-dimensional diagram to provide a shared understanding of the current journey. The CJM process and findings are intended to help USDA prioritize its customer-facing activities and develop action plans to improve the customer experience.