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  • Robert Murtha

Customer Experience is Everywhere

Updated: Apr 7

What if I told you that there is a way to create a customer-centered environment for any industry, even an industry like Defense? Would you believe that there's a wildly valuable opportunity to implement a "Customer Experience" approach within the United States Military?

Imagine an environment where Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen, and Guardians all viewed each other as "customers" that provide high-quality customer experiences for each other. There could even be a way to create the equivalent of a "Net Promoter Score" (NPS) that impacts how servicemembers are evaluated for "success".

In this article, I'll provide raw examples of how Customer Experience was used to enhance operational effectiveness in a warzone setting, which greatly contributed to massive counter-insurgency victories in Afghanistan.

Two anime US female military members analyzing a dashboard.

What benefits does a "customer-obsessed" environment provide to a large bureaucratic enterprise like the Department of Defense?

Customer-obsession promotes a culture that is outward facing rather than inward. It directly aligns with the Army Value of "selfless service". It shifts the focus to "value creation" rather than arbitrary processes and "boxes to check". It puts pressure on how each military member produces value for their battle buddies. It reinforces modern cultural expectations within the military by incorporating diversity, inclusion, empathy, and a human-centered approach that could be measured for each organization.

Let's discuss the adoption of Design Thinking and Customer Experience at the tactical and combat level of mission execution. My personal experience as an Intelligence Operator supporting counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan directly influenced my journey in design. The concept of customer experience coupled with selfless service, helped fuel one of the most successful task forces ever to support Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).

Tactical Customer Experience

It was 2012, I was an Intelligence Operator supporting an undisclosed task force that was considered a "national asset", meaning we could be "tasked" by any organization to be used as a support capability for their missions. The previous group of soldiers that we replaced had destroyed our organization's reputation and lowered morale. They did everything you shouldn't do while supporting operations overseas. They consumed alcohol and participated in other inappropriate activities that resulted in a wave of demotions and forced-separations from the military due to their violation of "General Order Number One".

Our task force of 24 personnel understood that it was going to be an uphill battle to regain favor with the other military organizations that depended on us. We wanted them to use our capabilities...our "products". In order to support these organizations they would have to put in a request to use us as a support asset. If we were going to have a meaningful combat deployment, we needed more requests...more delivery. We needed to re-brand our organization through designing a new "brand promise", a communication strategy, and an executable strategy. We believed in our capabilities, they were our "product lines"; our "sales channels" were operated through email, radio, and Internet Relay Chat (IRC).

We immediately went into "self reflection mode". We hosted a series of deep-dives with internal stakeholders to explore previous mission products to better understand "what went well, what didn't go well, and how to address it". We outlined the current processes and how we could optimize and adapt them.

During this review we isolated the process components that were required and governed by legal policy to constrain our strategies. We eventually ended up with the equivalent of a "value stream map" that articulated:

  1. What our products were

  2. What our services enabled

  3. Who our assets were

  4. Who our customers were

  5. Who our stakeholders were

  6. Where the gaps resided

  7. How we were going to "build, measure, and learn" our way to a higher quality "delivery environment" to help us generate more OPERATIONAL CUSTOMERS through providing MORE VALUE, while REPORTING PROGRESS

Be Unique; Create New and Unexpected Value

We were obsessed with the idea of gamifying our operational duties while providing safety-enhancing capabilities for our fellow servicemembers. Our research guided us towards focusing on the historic "go-to-market" strategies of notable private sector companies such as Walmart, Amazon, and Apple. The strategy we designed was similar to the components of a Customer Relationship Reactivation (CRR) model. The strategy was to acquire more tactical customers through a measurable Customer Experience.

sticky notes on a concrete wall

Now that we had identified the core areas that we had to optimize, execute, and continuously assess - we could select a framework to catalog our inputs and strategies. It was time to identify Key Performance Indicators for these areas. Our team was determined to find a military-equivalent for private industry's "revenue".

We used "capability need", "capability created", "asset cost", and "time" to measure and track our operational delivery. Our revenue equivalent was a combination of unit awards and personnel accolades. Our operators were hungry, they were part of a real system that was being assessed. There were tangible rewards that everyone could see that impacted delivery and inspired real customer-obsession. We created messaging templates that cascaded beneath our communications strategy. Our lead mission manager created the equivalent of a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool and began populating it with a variety of units that could request our support. She prioritized unit by value and impact, while associating them with either or both of our operational "product lines", which were unique capabilities that provided different outcomes that satisfied a variety of mission needs.

Quickly we gained traction, units were intrigued and began to formally request our support for a wide variety of missions. We knew we had to perform, it was our chance to improve the value we provide to our customers, and to right the wrongs of our unit's past. It would solidify our re-branding effort. This philosophy and approach changed our operational mentality forever. It helped us appreciate truly, how customer experience is everywhere, regardless of the industry or role you're performing.

We did everything we could to provide an exceptional Customer Experience. From pre-mission coordination, to execution, and post-mission debrief; we treated every component intentionally, and constantly monitored our delivery. We provided the equivalent of surveys to operational users to discover ways that we could provide more value to them. Our mission managers even conducted the equivalent of "user interviews" with our operational customers. It was truly spectacular. We finally looked like an efficient organization that could measure our success.

Combat operations now had another layer of inspiration associated with them, there was a system that evaluated our ability to deliver towards mission outcomes. It's sort of an awkward thing to admit, but it was was was absolutely addictive. Ultimately, the systems that were introduced, incorporated both incentivization and accountability models to encouraged successful delivery. Systems without high-quality incentivization and accountability models are destined to fail. People are driven by purpose and reward.

The Conclusion - Customer Experience is Everywhere

Customer Experience is everywhere, especially in the military - it has a purpose in both combat and non-combat environments. Whether you work in the private or public sector, you have a "customer". That customer depends on you, your capabilities, and your eagerness to perform. Always find ways to better understand your customers and what they value.

Adjective is a design company that focuses on user experience, human factors, and AI Development. The company combines deep technology with human-centered principles to ensure solutions are developed in high-quality and humane ways. Automation is good when it considers the human impact. Currently we are collaborating with exceptional partners in a variety of industries such as: Defense, Academia, Healthcare, and Energy. We are a NIST 800-171 compliant company.


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