How the VA Makes Customer Service Personal

For Scott Blackburn, Interim Deputy Secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), improving customer service means more than driving efficiency and improving public image for government. It means taking the customer experience personally.

Speaking at the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) 2017 Customer Experience Summit, Blackburn explained,  “The essence of customer service for us has to be, ‘I am the veteran,’” Blackburn said. “It has to be about the customer and not the organization itself.”

Blackburn previously served as interim executive director of the MyVA Task Force, a team that provides advice to the Secretary of VA and the Executive Director on matters concerning the VA’s ability to rebuild trust with veterans and other stakeholders. In that role, he helped lead the department’s ambitious transformation journey to become a leading customer service agency in government. But prior to this role, Blackburn was like the veterans he strives to serve today. He served in the Army from 1999 to 2003 as an Armor and Signals Corps officer and was medically discharged from the Army after suffering a non-combat related back injury in Kuwait. It was VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program that facilitated his transition from uniform to university, and in 2005, Blackburn graduated from Harvard Business School.

That’s why for Blackburn, customer service for veterans is very personal. But it would take more than empathy and personalization to improve the image of VA. As recently as 2014, the VA was cited with poor customer service due to lack of timeliness and adequate communication, and extremely long wait times for veterans to attain access to healthcare. Blackburn recognized that in order to improve VA services, the agency would first need to improve its level of trust with veterans and the American people.

One central focus for VA in customer service is VA’s I CARE core values, which support VA’s mission to provide the best care and service to veterans, their families and beneficiaries.

To deliver on those values, improve trust with the public and personalize customer service delivery, Blackburn and his team focused on improving customer service effectiveness, ease and emotional connectedness with customers.

“Effectiveness in customer service delivery for the veteran means they got the care or services they needed,” Blackburn said. “Ease means how easy it was for veterans to access the services they needed. And emotion ties to their personal stories and whether they felt taken care of.”

Focusing on these three E’s has helped the VA to provide deliverables in all three areas so far:

-Effectiveness:  As of January 2016, the VA’s benefits call center blocked 59 percent of calls because of high volume. That meant veterans who called during such times couldn’t even speak to a representative and had to call back at another time. But today, the VA has reduced blocked calls to 0 percent and less than 3 percent of calls from veterans are dropped or abandoned.

Ease: The VA has over 500 websites to manage, which means veterans have to sort through hundreds of sites to find the right services. But with, those websites are being consolidated into one portal where veterans can easily navigate the services they need. Additionally, there are now same-day services in all 166 VA medical centers and direct scheduling for optometry (eye appointments, glasses) and audiology (hearing devices) needs.

Emotion: While difficult to quantify, Blackburn and his team have focused on the personal stories of veterans to improve and personalize service delivery. “You have to think about what gives your customers meaning,” he said.

Ultimately, customer experiences in government agencies, like the VA, can only be improved when employees put themselves in the customer’s shoes. By improving effectiveness, ease and emotional connectedness to customers, agencies can improve trust with the public and make service delivery less about meeting requirements and more about personalizing the customer experience.


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