Think about the last time you went through airport security. Or applied for federal benefits. Or paid your taxes.

How did those experiences make you feel? What specific emotions did they invoke in you? Did you feel comforted, hopeful, and valued — or insulted, frustrated, and nervous?

Questions like these are the most important things for federal customer experience (CX) professionals to ask themselves, and our CX Index™ proves it. As my colleague Megan Burns writes in her new CX Index report, “Emotion is the biggest lever you have to pull” to improve CX. In fact, organizations at the top of the CX Index elicited positive emotions about 20 times as often as orgs at the bottom of the Index.

Every customer experience has three dimensions, called the “three E's” of CX: effectiveness, ease, and emotion. Our research shows that the emotions a customer experience elicits influence the quality of the experience more than ease and effectiveness in practically every industry — including government.

That means that federal CX professionals who want to really improve their agencies’ CX must focus on improving the emotional dimension of those experiences. Of course, that doesn’t mean ignoring effectiveness and ease, but it does mean embracing the reality that customers are human and humans are emotional animals. When we renew our passports or apply for Social Security or change our TSP allocations, we don’t just want to get the job done efficiently like robots — we want to feel good about it.

So how can federal agencies start improving the emotional dimension of their customer experiences? They should emulate the same comprehensive research methods that leading companies use to gain a deeper understanding of their customers:

  • Voice of the customer (VoC) programs. A VoC program is "a systematic approach for collecting customer feedback, mining that feedback for insights, and then incorporating the insights" into decisions. Effective VoC programs seek feedback through methods like surveys, social media, emails, and calls across all customer-facing channels and departments; analyze this feedback for actionable insights; react to it; and monitor the results of their efforts to ensure that the program is effective. The best VoC programs capture not just what people say or do but also what they feel.
  • Field research. Qualitative field research includes techniques like interviews, journal studies, and ethnography that help CX pros understand how people live. Federal agencies should use these methods to go beyond what customers tell VoC programs and explore people's lives in greater detail. This deeper understanding will help agencies identify CX problems that customers don't report to VoC programs, conceive of new services that no one realized were necessary, and develop entirely new ways of understanding their missions.
  • Personas. A persona is a personification of a key customer segment, based on detailed quantitative and qualitative research. A good persona will go beyond basic demographic details to offer a window into the life of a fictitious but seemingly real customer in ways that are relevant to the agency. Personas can also help agencies prioritize CX investments by identifying agencies’ most important customers and the experiences they want most.
  • Customer journey mapping. A customer journey map charts the path that a particular persona follows as she tries to accomplish a task. This map must view the experience from the customer's perspective and emphasize her perceptions and emotions along the way. Organizations with mature CX use customer journey maps to understand what customers go through while trying to accomplish their goals, design more customer-centric experiences, align internal operations to these experiences, and inform strategic planning. (Pro tip: Federal CX pros who have already created customer journey maps should expand them out into CX ecosystem maps for even greater insight.)

Implementing these four research methods is just the start of the solution to improving the emotional dimension of federal CX. Federal agencies must integrate these methods into their standard operating procedures and empower CX pros to make decisions based on emotional insights. Until that happens, federal CX will remain far behind the private sector. And nobody feels good about that.