Inclusion and the Journey Toward Customer Centricity

Much of the literature on diversity and inclusion has focussed on employees. Could it be that the principles underpinning employee diversity and inclusion are also applicable to customer diversity and inclusion?

Deloitte defines inclusion as the active process of organisations and individuals adapting their practices or behaviours so as to meet people’s diverse needs. Deloitte’s 2012 research (“Waiter, is that inclusion in my soup) found that employees feel included when they perceive they are respected and being treated fairly, when their unique value is known and appreciated, and when they feel a sense of connectedness and belonging.1

The same principles play out for customers; customers feel respected and valued when they perceive that they are seen as a person, that their voice is heard and that services and products are adapted.

customer centricityPutting this together, we would expect a virtuous circle: when employees feel more included they are likely to adapt their behaviour to ensure that customers also feel included. If that’s true, then customer-centric organisations are likely to seek to create an end-to-end inclusive environment so as to drive the engagement of employees and customers.

The following United States Department of Veterans Affairs case study explores how customer-facing design teams can create an inclusive environment throughout both the design and delivery of customer experiences. This case study highlights the challenges that design teams often face, and how human-centred design can help to drive engagement of employees and customers in parallel.

Background on the United States Department of Veterans Affairs

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) exists to serve and honour the US’s 22 million veterans. Approximately 9 million veterans use VA’s services, which include the nation’s largest integrated health care system, education, compensation, rehabilitation, burial and memorial services.3 With approximately 335,000 employees and a broad range of services, VA faces similar complexities to other large organisations with significant opportunities to improve their end-to-end customer experience.4

Sarah Brooks (Director, Insight & Design, VA) and Julia Kim (Presidential Innovation Fellow, VA) presented on VA’s journey to radically improve its relationship with veterans at the global Service Design Network conference in October 2015.5 With multiple initiatives underway within VA, Sarah and Julia shared in their words, a personal view of changing a fairly entrenched organisation.

Similar to many government agencies caught in the complexity of doing more with less, the customer experience of VA leaves much to be desired. Julia flagged a number of root causes, including encouraging a heavy focus on process reengineering in the absence of a coordinated end-to-end customer journey. VA is an organistion that is deeply siloed operationally and local touchpoints with customers are inconsistent. Julia remarked, “if you’ve walked into one VA facility, you’ve walked into one VA facility”.5

With a fragmented experience for customers, Sarah and Julia described the pressing need for VA to become more customer-centric. The first step involved creating a shared understanding of who were the VA’s customers and how were they using the VA’s services. To find out, Sarah and a team of five researchers hit the road in 2014 to talk with over 100 veterans across the US.6

What does it mean to connect with and serve Veterans?

Sarah and the team found that front-line employees have a huge amount of power in shaping perceptions of the entire VA system. First impressions can create a welcoming, honest and safe introduction, whereas an over-emphasis on protocol leaves veterans feeling de-personalised and excluded from their care. Veterans often have unique needs and want flexible care options. Yet for some, access to care feels like a fight and “it’s easy to fall through the cracks.” Veterans often feel ignored by the system; “they make me feel like I’m just another person who walks through the door.”6

When considering the future customer experience, VA arrived at three design principles: be predictable; be consistent; and make it easy to be a customer. Sarah noted that the team were focused on the concept of doing right by their customers. In Sarah’s words, “how do we do right by all these people who have served and deserve these services?”5 Julia summarised that their ultimate goal is to build trusted lifelong relationships with veterans, and that more broadly the government must build a lifelong relationship with its citizens.

What challenges do customer-facing design teams encounter?

Understanding the individual needs of veterans – Sarah pointed to understanding customers’ needs as one of the key challenges to address. Approximately 30 percent of VA employees are veterans and Sarah noted that as veterans, they often believe they understand what veterans need, better than non-veterans.5 But this may not always be true. Although Veterans often share similar needs, the research uncovered preferences for services to be delivered in different ways.

VA needs to be employee centric, to be customer centric – Sarah found that when benchmarking customer-centric organisations, at their core, they were also employee-centric organisations. They gave employees all the tools, support and incentives to do what they needed to do for customers in any given situation. As a result enabling employees to deliver great customer experiences is a major challenge for VA. Sarah noted that doing this will require significant cultural change. VA needs to move from a rule bound, command-and-control culture to one that supports a very different way of working.5 This sentiment is echoed by a recent survey of more than 1,200 government officials from over 70 countries on digital transformation and the redesign of services. A collaborative and innovative culture was cited as one of the most significant barriers to customer transformation efforts.7

Using human-centred design to drive an inclusive environment

Sarah and Julia’s presentation highlighted the value of using human-centred design tools and methods to engage employees and leaders internally. The team used personas to create a portrait of who customers were and how they were accessing services. Sarah reported that this resonated with people, particularly senior leaders, with the personas ‘going viral’ internally. The use of personas encouraged VA employees and leaders to look beyond traditional demographics to truly understand the needs of the veterans – their customers. VA is also looking to foster a design mindset, by delivering training around human-centred design. Sarah and Julia see a need to create flexibility of thinking and risk taking, as well as building creative muscle around co-design within the organisation. Sarah mentioned that there are many people who want to be engaged in a design process. There are bright spots everywhere and Sarah sees her and Julia’s roles as trying to find these people, connect them to each other and amplify their efforts.


  • The concept of inclusion (perceptions of fairness and respect, value and belonging) can provide a common language for driving engagement with employees and customers. While this may not be relevant to all interactions, creating an inclusive environment is fundamental to the moments that matter for both employees and customers
  • Human-Centred Design involves understanding and empathising with the needs of the people for whom the team are designing. The design process constantly pushes teams to take an outside-in perspective and think beyond the existing constraints of what they know to be true. We see similar traits with inclusive leaders; they are curious about the views of others and seek to understand the broader context. They are cognisant of their own blind spots and how this influences their perspective of others and the system.2 With this in mind, we should consider how we can use the tools and methods of Human-Centred Design to drive behaviour change internally. For example, using in-depth personas to move beyond a superficial understanding of diversity. Or supporting leaders to map employee experiences, with the aim of identifying critical moments where inclusive leadership matters.
  • Creating an inclusive environment is critical to driving innovative and customer centric cultures.8 Sarah and Julia’s experience at VA illustrates the clear intersection point between customer-facing design teams and D&I practitioners. There are multiple opportunities to drive the engagement of employees and customers in parallel, learning from each other along the way. In thinking about where to start, Bruce Stewart (OPM, US Federal Government) shares some useful advice: “start small, with small acts of inclusion…find a couple of concrete actions and make a habit and where everyone does that, what emerges is some conditions for excellence, conditions for creativity.”2

For further information, please contact Jess Corbett at

A recording of Sarah Brooks and Julia Kim’s presentation is available online at

  1. (2013). Waiter, is that inclusion in my soup? [report]. Retrieved from
  2. Deloitte (2015). Fast forward: leading in a brave new world of diversity (customers, ideas and talent) [report]. Retrieved from
  3. United States Department of Veteran Affairs (2015). National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics [website]. Retrieved from
  4. United States Department of Veteran Affairs (2015). Agency Financial Report [report]. Retrieved from
  5. Brooks, Sarah, & Kim, Julia (2015). Veterans, VA and Customer Experience: Busting Stereotypes [presentation]. Retrieved from
  6. United States Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Innovation (2014). Voices of veterans: Introducing personas to better understand our customers [report]. Retrieved from
  7. Deloitte (2015). The journey to government’s digital transformation [report]. Retrieved from
  8. Google People Operations (2015). The five keys to a successful Google team [blog].

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