Millions of people interact with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website and staff every year seeking citizenship, permanent residency, refugee status, help getting a relative into the country and other assistance. The process can be intimidating and confusing. Individuals have to fill out detailed forms and meet very specific legal requirements, often while overcoming language barriers.
Mariela Melero and her customer service team at the immigration agency have been working to change this dynamic, helping individuals get assistance faster and easier and in ways that are tailored to their educational, cultural and linguistic needs.
Melero is “a visionary,” who has altered the agency’s public engagement strategy from simply providing information on a website or over the telephone to providing a far more accessible and understandable service to those seeking assistance, said Kathleen Stanley, chief of the USCIS Office of Transformation Coordination.
“We need to provide information to the public in the way the public understands it,” Stanley said. “Mariela always thinks about the customer first.”
Central to Melero’s work is an online portal called myUSCIS that offers customers a one-stop shop for immigrant information. It includes a help center with up-to-date information about the application process, tools to prepare for naturalization, and resources to find citizenship preparation classes and doctors in the community.
Working with an innovation and design firm, Melero and her team relied on customers’ perceptions of the agency and what was important to them in redesigning the online resources. The number of myUSCIS visitors grew exponentially in 2015, from 209 distinct users that January to more than 182,000 in December. During 2015, the site had more than 1.8 million visits.
“During a two-year period, Mariela worked with this organization to change the look and feel of our website and to get much better tools to our customers,” Stanley said.
An innovative component of Melero’s strategy to improve customer access is “Emma”, a virtual assistant that helps nearly 5,000 unique users a day find answers to their questions and delivers the information in plain English. Since its launch in December 2015, Emma has seen a significant increase in usage. In an average month, Emma answers close to 500,000 questions with a success rate of nearly 90 percent. To ensure this resource is helpful to a much larger customer base, Melero is now overseeing the creation of a Spanish-speaking Emma that will come online in 2016.
Eric Hysen, director of digital services at the Department of Homeland Security, said Melero brought together operations personnel who preferred English-only immigration applications and immigration advocates who wanted to see all documents available in a variety of languages.
“More products are now available in other languages, but with English subtitles, so that you are actually helping people learn English,” Hysen said.
Melero and her team also have upgraded the agency’s Case Status Online, another site which allows individuals to keep track of their applications and get an estimate of how much time it will take the agency to process an application or petition. Recent enhancements include providing customers with a history of actions taken on their case and next steps. An average of 1.3 million distinct users visit Case Status Online every month, and annual volume consistently exceeds 50 million visits, making it one of the most highly trafficked government sites.
Melero prioritizes the development of accurate online content so users can avoid having to call a government office, but she also realizes some customers will always prefer phone contact, her colleagues said. USCIS’s bilingual call center employs a callback feature enabling customers to receive a return call and keep their place in the queue. Previously, the average wait time was 47 minutes during peak hours, but callers now can leave their phone number and get a call back without being placed on hold.
“Mariela talks very often to our customer base and has very good connections with the outside community that represents the people who use the tools, so she has a great sense of what is needed,” said Lori Scialabba, deputy director of USCIS. “The tools that they developed continue to get high marks.”
Making it easier for customers to get good information not only assists those individuals, but it’s also highly beneficial for the agency, said Mark Schwartz, the chief information officer for USCIS.
The streamlined and easy-to-use tools Melero’s team created result in “better applications, and that means fewer requests for evidence that we have to send out,” Schwartz said.
“I think this is really the core of it, because in the end we are driving efficiency throughout our processes by providing better customer service,” he said.
Melero, the daughter of Cuban parents who sought refuge in Puerto Rico when she was 5, can trace some of her understanding of what immigrants face to her own childhood experiences. She recalls that at age 12, she and her sister helped their parents study for the U.S. citizenship examination, and how important that was to them.
“I am a refugee and a product of the system,” Melero said. “For a little girl from Cuba to run the Customer Service and Public Engagement Directorate on behalf of the largest immigration system in the world, I just pinch myself because I can’t believe it really.”