The CXEC is a cohort program that brings together US Department of Agriculture (USDA) staff across America to learn about customer experience (CX) and develop new solutions to common CX issues faced by American farmers. In doing so, it creates a unique space for collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and the development of locally-informed solutions.
The USDA’s Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) Mission Area has thousands of employees who work directly with American farmers and producers to help ensure their continued success. These staff members have first-hand experience with the challenges that farmers face in working with the federal government. Additionally, they are more likely than other USDA staff members to be farmers themselves, giving them unique insights into producers’ needs.
In order to capitalize on this knowledge and use it to inform broader improvements to farmers’ customer experience (CX), FPAC's Customer Experience Team created a nationwide cohort program, the Customer Experience Enhancement Committee (CXEC). The CXEC is an application-based, year-long program that brings together staff from the three primary FPAC agencies (Farm Service Agency, Natural Resource Conservation Service, and Risk Management Agency) to collaboratively create ideas for solutions to address common farmer CX issues. It also provides a space for participants to learn more formally about the discipline of customer experience, gain additional training, and use that knowledge to drive continued CX improvement in their own workplaces. CXEC members are accepted at all levels of seniority, with a focus on field-facing employees.
Approximately 30 participants are accepted every year, and, over the course of the program, they work together in small groups to build their skills and identify solutions related to a specific challenge (for example, “Customer Communications”). The program includes bimonthly all-cohort meetings and trainings, small-group working sessions at least once per month, and optional learning and collaboration sessions. It also requires the submission of structured deliverables designed to help participants learn how to develop customer-focused service innovations. Additionally, cohort members have dedicated virtual channels for chat and co-working, and the program prioritizes creating a culture and environment in which participants can get to know each other and form bonds that will last after the program is completed.
Throughout the year, participants work with the larger FPAC CX team to refine their work, and their final concepts are presented at the end of the year to both the CX Team and FPAC leadership as candidates for further development. In the course of this work, they also learn specific skills related to both customer experience and human-centered program design, such as how to define users’ needs.
The program is now in its second year, with plans to continue in future years as well. In addition to working directly with participants, the FPAC CX Team has also begun working with program alumni to help support them in sharing their knowledge and advocating for customer experience improvements among their local peers.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The CXEC is an innovative approach to improving customer experience in many ways. These include:
1. Providing a unique space for vertical and horizontal CX collaboration – across borders, across agencies, and across roles. FPAC employees don’t always have time to meet or work with peers in other locations, especially when those peers have different titles or focus areas. The CXEC helps them connect, both literally (through specific virtual channels) and metaphorically (by asking them to dedicate space and effort to working together).
2. Enabling the adoption of skills that employees can immediately apply. The highly interactive nature of the program means that the curriculum constantly evolves to meet participants’ CX needs.
3. Developing field-informed solutions. Because the concepts generated by the committee are rooted in members’ lived experiences, they not only are more likely to be successful, but also provide invaluable data on field staff’s challenges and pain points.
What is the current status of your innovation?
The CXEC is currently in its second year, with six subcommittees developing customer experience solutions focused on areas including cross-governmental collaboration, seamless delivery, digital tools and data, and consistent communications. Committee members are slated to present their solutions to FPAC leadership and potential implementing partners in September of 2021. Solutions proposed by the 2020 CXEC are being further studied and prototyped through a sister program within FPAC, the Customer Experience Innovation Lab (CX iLab).
Collaborations & Partnerships
The FPAC CX team partnered with the three primary agencies in FPAC – the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the Risk Management Agency – to bring this program to life. They assisted in recruiting participants, created space in each employee’s scope of work to allow them to engage in the CXEC, and have provided valuable feedback on both the program itself and the ideas generated by the CXEC.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
The end users of this innovation are the CXEC members. By participating in the program, they learn new skills, have the opportunity to share their ideas, and gain access to a network of like-minded peers. Other stakeholders include leadership from FPAC agencies, who benefit from the development of their employees and receive a steady stream of potential solutions to farmer-related CX challenges, and the larger USDA, which now has a model program that can be used to design similar cohorts.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
CX SOLUTIONS: Of the five concepts proposed in the program’s first year, two are currently being developed with potential or committed implementation partners within FPAC, one has been accepted for adoption by an implementing partner in its original form, and two are being further studied by subcommittees in the FY2021 CXEC. The FY2021 cohort is projected to submit a similar number of solutions this year.
INCREASED AWARENESS OF CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE AT THE FIELD LEVEL: A total of 71 employees from 35 states have participated or are participating in the CXEC as of May 2021, representing roles ranging from soil conservation to farm loan management. Each participant gained actionable skills they can apply and share, and nearly 1/3 of the FY2020 cohort opted to stay actively involved in CX promotion after program graduation. This meant working on specific projects and/or serving as part of the CXEC Alumni Network, which is currently examining how to create a larger CX Advocacy initiative.
Challenges and Failures
TIME CONSTRAINTS: Because participants continued working at their jobs while participating, they had a limited number of hours allotted per month to participate in CXEC work and trainings. The CX team addressed this by providing recordings and take-home materials for members who couldn’t participate in some activities, creating “scaffolded” deliverables that gave teams options for how much they could contribute, and working with supervisors and leadership to create space for this work.
EXPECTATION MANAGEMENT: Given the size and structure of the USDA, developing new projects can take time. However, some early participants were surprised that their ideas were not immediately adopted by leadership. The CX team addressed this by developing a new R&D facility, the CX iLab, which provided a clear space for CXEC solutions (among others) to be more thoroughly researched, piloted, and matched with appropriate partners.
Conditions for Success
A FOCUS ON PARTICIPANTS’ NEEDS. Early on, the CX team discovered that CXEC members wanted to feel empowered to make change and acknowledged for their commitment to innovation. To that end, the program has institutionalized regular recognition of members’ accomplishments, opportunities for them to interact with leadership, and space for them to share their own successes and ideas. These aspects of the program are regularly cited by current and past participants as some of the CXEC’s strongest qualities.
AN ENABLING POLICY ENVIRONMENT. For several years, the US government has mandated that Departments prioritize and measure the quality of the customer experience they provide. These guidelines have helped generate leadership support for programs that have a clear focus on CX, such as the CXEC.
DIVERSITY. The CXEC’s members come from a wide variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. This diversity has helped teams refine their solutions and make them more inclusive.
While the exact model of the CXEC has not yet been replicated, its progress has led to the development of a related initiative, the CX iLab. The iLab is a research and development facility that works with implementing partners to create, test, and refine solutions to FPAC’s customer experience challenges. It was created in partpartly in response to the need for a place to build out the solutions created by each CXEC; depending on the concept, the iLab conducts additional user research, creates or refines prototypes, and works with partners to pilot and scale the solutions as full projects or initiatives. While the iLab also develops solutions independent of the CXEC, the majority of its portfolio consists of CXEC projects, and the two initiatives together have created a pipeline that ultimately reduces risk and increases the likelihood of user acceptance for new customer experience projects.
BUILD LEADERSHIP INVESTMENT. The FPAC CX Team made a point to regularly update leaders from all agencies represented in the CXEC on the project’s progress, as well as giving them opportunities to hear from participating staff. As a result, those stakeholders became not only aware of the effect of the program, but also personally invested in its success.
MEET PARTICIPANTS WHERE THEY ARE. Many, if not most, participants were unfamiliar with customer experience and human-centered design as formal disciplines. To make the program materials relevant and effective, the CX team drew on real-life examples of farmer-specific CX challenges. They also focused the training more on analogous concepts and less on sector-specific vocabulary (e.g. in a project brief, a “design requirement” might become a “must-have”). This made the program more accessible for participants and helped them recognize their existing skills and expertise on these topics.