Federal Student Aid Customer Experience Journey: A Recap

Aug 14, 2015
U.S. Department of Education's Federal Student Aid logo and a quote that reads, Minds can achieve anything. We make sure they get to college. At Federal Student Aid, we make it easier to get money for higher education.

Customer Experience (CX) deserves a voice at an agency’s senior levels. Putting CX at the forefront of policy-making decisions will have the most positive impact for customers. Elevating CX is how the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid (FSA) champions the 22 million applicants seeking $150 billion in education loans each year. Brenda Wensil, Chief Customer Experience Officer at FSA, shared her insights with DigitalGov University in a July 28, 2015, webinar about the establishment of the FSA CX Team.

The Department of Education was spurred by the financial crisis of 2008-09 to move from working strictly with banks to functioning as a direct lender to students seeking loans. FSA is the largest provider of grants, loans, and work-study funds in the U.S. Wensil, with her background in banking, came to FSA with the conviction that a strong CX program would pull different business lines together so they’d function well in this new space. Customer advocacy is the prime responsibility of her group.

The CX team is small and dedicated, with only 106 of 1,200 total FSA employees, but it has a huge impact in five key ways:

  1. Awareness & Outreach Group—centralizes all marketing, print production, etc.
  2. Ombudsman Group—handles the most difficult issues
  3. Student Experience Group—manages loan application process (FAFSA); owns budget, program delivery, policy
  4. School Experience Group—deals directly with colleges
  5. Customer Analytics Group—uses data from across the organization to build business cases and make decisions
Office of the Chief Customer Experience Office organizational chart

Strategic priorities, such as the following, guide their work:

  • Maintain disciplined budget management and work closely with the CFO
  • Clearly define business functions
  • Have a strong social media strategy since it’s an important channel for student customers
  • Create an efficient, easy, one-stop-shop for users at all phases of the borrower life-cycle

What makes it work?

First, there is the aforementioned seat at the table with senior leadership, which enables integration of CX into policies and processes agency-wide. Two other components worth discussing are the digital experience and the use of return on investment (ROI) to prioritize FSA’s actions.

Digital matters because it’s a force multiplier. A message disseminated using social media, email, or any other digital channel always has a greater reach than putting someone on a plane to give a talk.

FSA launched StudentAid.gov in 2012 as a central portal for all information about the student aid program, allowing the Department to retire a number of redundant websites, which saved the Department millions of dollars. The plain language content on the website educates customers along each step of the borrower lifecycle, from initial program awareness, to people submitting applications, to those in repayment. Concentrated, relevant information can now be found all in one place, providing a much easier and pleasant experience.

FSA also holds social media “office hours” on Twitter. Instead of a simple pull or push message, there’s a two-way conversation that allows the FSA team to respond to questions in real time. Another benefit of social media is that it makes those two-way conversations a matter of record. Anyone watching can learn from an exchange, not just the person who initiated it.

Digital platforms provide opportunities to do user testing and surveys, then review the data/metrics, to refocus on delivering what customers need.

This is not to say that they neglect the more traditional call centers. They provide an inroad and sometimes outlet for customers in proven ways and also capture data valuable to determining customer needs and pain points.

How does the CX team prioritize its energy with only 106 employees? ROI drives the discussion. It asks, “What’s the best experience that we’re willing to afford?” On one side of the equation, you have man hours and operational expenditures. On the other, you have cost savings for efficiencies like consolidating websites, plus the number of new loan applications through FSA. When there is a compelling impact for a CX initiative, it takes priority and is shared with senior leadership.

Finally, let’s end with how it began. In late 2010, when CX became an entity rather than disparate functions, Wensil’s group did one thing to orient their group. They listened. And they continue to listen, with an emphasis on simplifying the StudentAid.gov website and building a centralized complaint intake process system.

You can watch the recording, view the slides from the FSA presentation (PowerPoint presentation, 8.2 MB, 33 slides), or join the CX Community of Practice.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPHECSa4HQo&w=600]Zachary Lerner is the Content Manager for the Professional Services Hallway on the Acquisition Gateway at the U.S. General Services Administration.