Tom Allin is the Chief Veterans Experience Officer at the US Department of Veterans Affairs. He was appointed by President Obama, and reports directly to Robert McDonald, the head of the VA.
Tom’s experience is extremely rich. He was a leader of the McDonald’s empire in Europe, and also owned his own food business. One of the more interesting aspects of this conversation is the differences (and similarities) between major enterprise work and major governmental work. There are obviously notable differences, but it was surprising how similar some of the context is in terms of roles and responsibilities.
A graduate of Duke University and Harvard Business School, Tom has been in the VA role since January 2015. He was the owner of Chow Fun Holdings for over a decade, and served as Managing Director of McDonald’s Europe for five years.
Tom never really had “CX” in the title of his previous jobs, although he often was tasked with organizational operations around the customer. A good example is his work with McDonald’s in France. He was given the responsibility of changing the concept from a product-based business (i.e. hamburgers) to a destination-driven business, which is all about the customer experience. So while he doesn’t have six CCO slugs on his LinkedIn, he’s one of the most accomplished customer-driven executives I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with.
The Scope Of The Work
For context: the VA has a budget of $180 billion, and a total workforce of about 360,000. (That’s six times the size of Google, as an example.) They field about 140 million calls per year, or about 383,561 per day. And you thought your inbox was a challenge, right?
Tom spent his first three weeks on the job having seven 1-to-1 meetings per day with different stakeholders. The goal at this stage:
- Understand how customer experience was being defined
- Get a list of different concerns
- Answer the invariable “What is this role and why are you here?” question that we’ve all heard at least once
Creating A Value Proposition
Tom wanted to create a value proposition quickly as “a win” for his team and the overall VA. He focused initially on the exam experience for veterans. This is a diagnostic that veterans go through to determine benefits and services. Tom and his team mapped the experience end-to-end — you can see it below — and talked to hundreds of veterans in the process. Tom talks in the interview about “front stage” and “back stage” elements of mapping out an experience. The end goal is that you want people (both your colleagues and the customers, in this case veterans) to see how the work impacts the overall experience.
Here is the journey map they created, which Tom has graciously made available for download:
An Important Note On Staffing
When Tom began, he only had four team members. While they were all stellar (and one was a word-class human-centered design expert), it’s still a very small team. The big takeaway for me when we discussed staffing is that Tom’s experience applies to all of us in the CCO world: start with a good core team and build out from there. It’s crucial. Rushing to grab headcount before the value prop is defined is folly.
And An Important Note On Surveys
You all know (hopefully) by this point that I am not the biggest fan of surveys. I think too many management teams manage only by survey, which creates silo-by-silo management that’s usually crippling to customer experience. We all have this vision of the government as over-bureaucratic, and Tom did mention one thing I found funny and troubling all at once. When he first started and took stock of the different surveys the VA was using, there were over 143 different ones. In this era of big data and connected information, 143 different surveys is a lot — but honestly, I’m sure some billion-dollar enterprise companies probably have twice that.
The government is like any business in this respect — they want targets to assess every quarter. Tom, in conversations with hundreds of veterans, shifted one metric to “Do I trust the VA to take care of me?” as a key indicator. Previously, it had been “Do I recommend the VA?” The latter is more of a net promoter (NPS) idea, but the former was more relevant to the work. They use a three-E approach to determine this trust:
Now Tom has clear metrics and something he can present every quarter as a gauge. That’s crucial because many people in all business/government really only understand the work in the context of quarterly reporting.
The Pay-It Forward Question
What does Tom know now that he wish he knew then? A few suggestions:
- Define (and measure) experience early. People want to see numbers. So once you get a hold on the definition of experience, build out a measurement system for the key metrics involved. Do this early because it’s crucial to how the work is viewed, the resources you have access to, and everything else.
- Simple language: Use simple language with internal and external stakeholders. Make it appeal to them on an emotional and rational level. This is crucial. If you have different departments using different terms for essentially the same thing, everyone gets confused and quality work suffers.
- Talk to customers over and over: Nothing beats this.
Tom’s time at the VA will end with the Obama-to-Trump transition next week. I’d like to thank him profusely for his service to our country and its veterans.