Meet New York’s chief customer experience officer

As a governor-appointed customer experience lead for New York, Tonya Webster is taking an expansive look at how her state's agencies deliver services.
Tonya Webster
(Scoop News Group)

Six months after taking over as New York state’s first chief customer experience officer, Tonya Webster says the unique new role is attracting attention from other states and even other nations.

In the new role, Webster is tasked with working across New York’s agencies to ensure they’re thinking strategically about how to make services convenient, easy-to-use and consistent. While the term “customer experience” has been around for at least a century in business circles, the rising ubiquity over the last decade of seamless, online services like Amazon, Netflix and Uber has given new life to the concept of designing experiences with users in mind.

Webster is bringing to New York a discipline she’s honed over a career inside private corporations — most recently at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Comcast and Citigroup. In an interview with StateScoop, Webster says there’s excitement around her effort to bring an enterprisewide rigor to a practice that has for many years existed only in pockets throughout government.

StateScoop Editor-in-Chief Colin Wood: How is it that you came to have this role?


New York Chief Customer Experience Officer Tonya Webster: When Gov. [Kathy] Hochul announced that New York state was actually going to take on a customer experience agenda in order to put the customer front and center of everything we do and make it a focus as part of the administration, it’s something I was extremely interested in. It’s something I’m extremely passionate about. And to be the first state in the country to really look at it in this way was really intriguing as well.

Has your experience in the role so far matched your expectations?

I’ve learned a lot coming in. I started customer experience transformations in many legacy industries, so I feel like I’ve seen it all. But what I find coming into New York state which was really a pleasant surprise is there’s a lot of great customer experience work, digital work happening out in the agencies already. What this role and this office does is make it a more strategic point of view around that.

What are those ongoing projects?

There’s so many of them as I think across the state. The state liquor authority, where we’re thinking about application processing time and that’s been some tremendous work that’s happening. We’re looking at our payment processing for nonprofits — how do we expedite that so they’re getting paid in an expeditious way so they can continue to deliver services on the ground in the communities. We’re working with the Department of Labor on how they’re looking at their interactions, from how they provide updates for an unemployment insurance claim and how a New Yorker can start seeing where they are in the process.


There’s lots of great things happening and all with a very specific customer experience goal, whether we’re driving efficiency, we’re moving faster, we’re digitizing it, we’re taking out some of the complexities and making it simpler.

And I’m stepping back and asking: How do we formally make sure we embed the customer into the fabric of what we do? Just putting that strategic wrapper and focus on accountability around it is really the opportunity here.

Given that there’s lots of work already going on, what’s your reception been like? Are people eager for a more strategic approach to this kind of work?

There’s definitely a shift in the conversation. There will be, by nature of customer experience, a shift in our culture, but the temperature is really one of excitement.

I’ve been on listening tours and been out in the agencies and have done sessions with New Yorkers. Within the agencies, they want to address their problems, they want to provide great experiences. They want processing times to be best in class. So they are looking at this as, in the state, we will start having expertise around business process, simplification, digitization and how we think about all of that, which is a muscle government hasn’t had in the past. There’s a lot of interest and excitement in that. I will tell you probably more demand than I thought.


Even the things they had in flight, they’re going back and taking a look at it with already a customer experience lens as we’re embedding voice of the customer data and information. We’re thinking about process flows, how to simplify some of the complexity, so it’s a different type of conversation we haven’t had before.

What happens to an organization that doesn’t take this strategic approach to customer experience that you’re talking about?

The result of not having customer experience is inconsistency in what you’re delivering to the customer. There can be a mistrust because it is inconsistent. It can be a frustrating experience, just mired with unnecessary complexity because you don’t have a focus on that.

The other piece is operational inefficiency. So you’re just operating, you’re doing things sans having the goal of what is it that we’re trying to deliver? In our customer experience strategy for the state, we want to make sure that New Yorkers have access to the services and benefits they need from us, when they need it, where they need and how they need it. 

In my experience, when you don’t have a strong customer experience strategy and everyone’s kind of working in their own fiefdoms and one area is not talking to another, it starts feeling disjointed overall, and very complex and hard to access and that’s how a lot of the customer experience breakdowns happen in trust and very little engagement in your products and services.


Has this new role attracted interest from other states?

Other states have leaned in, and the federal government as well, and actually foreign governments, as well. There is an interest globally in customer experience and how you embed that into government operations.

A lot of the questions are around how do we get outside of just looking at and fixing digital services and capabilities, and how do we start looking at the overarching end-to-end of what it takes to actually deliver the experience, regardless of the technology — whether it’s actually in a brick-and-mortar building that people actually go to, whether it’s in a call center, how do you get outside of what’s just on the web?

A lot of questions around the set-up, the structure, the influence, how do we know what’s the North Star? How do we know when we get it right? What kind of things are we looking at? How do we think about budgets for it?

And how are you answering those questions?


A lot of it has to do with making sure that you’re empowered to not just be an influencer of the strategy, but you actually get to own and you’re held accountable for the strategy for the state. With this being such a significant agenda item for the governor, it helps provide a prioritized focus on customer experience, which I think for other states will be important — to have that voice as they try to work through some of the legacy infrastructure and have to influence budgets and the go-forwards. It’ll be important for states that are thinking about this that they have an empowered voice to be that decision-maker.

How important is technology in what you do?

Technology is extremely important. It’s one of my strongest partnerships in this role with our technology and cybersecurity teams. Though some of customer experience is looking at the business processes and the people, a lot of it still runs on the chassis of technology. How do we get the best tools for employees so they can actually deliver the right experience, how do we have strong channels of service delivery, whether it’s in our call center, whether it’s online, whether it’s in a mobile app.

As New York’s effort to improve customer experience matures, do you imagine your role will evolve?

This will definitely evolve as we continue to get mature in the customer experience space.


We’re definitely on the right path to building that, but again you’re talking about reshaping the way our state government works so that customer experience is embedded in that and how we strategically create our long-term plans at the agency level for how we deliver services to the state and how we hold ourselves accountable to that.

In three years from now, you really want this to be a part of the way we just work and it’s embedded and it has its own memory muscle into this to where it’s baked in our budget process, it’s baked in the way we think about the implementation of different policies and procedures and things like that. It’s not a question of what this is, but it becomes a way we work.

This story was featured in StateScoop Special Report: Digital Services — A StateScoop Special Report

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