VA changing customer service frame of reference with new framework

Tom Allin, the Veterans Affairs Department’s chief veterans experience officer, developed an approach that lets employees take a different perspective when de...

Jason Miller: VA changing customer service frame of reference with new framework

The Veterans Affairs Department’s ongoing goal to provide world class customer service always begins with a simple premise: understand the veterans experience first and foremost.

To that end, VA is giving hospitals, clinics and other parts of the agency a new framework to map out its customer service experience to figure out where the gaps exist and close them.

“Our goal is to make it a trusted life-long relationship. When we are working with our veterans it has to be viewed as a relational and not a transactional experience with our veterans,” said Tom Allin, VA’s chief veterans experience officer, at the ACT-IAC Customer Service Summit in Washington Oct. 7. “It’s the purpose that guides the behavior and has them doing the right thing rather than just doing things right. For the veterans experience team, our function is to create a seamless end-to-end journey across administrations, across offices, but the purpose is to create trusted life-long relationships.”

Allin said the framework will give VA employees a different perspective or lens for how they view their role in working with veterans.

“If you are talking to 340,000 employees how do you have a common understanding of the goal and what it is we are trying to achieve? It’s been very difficult for me in terms of experience and how you describe the experience,” he said.

He said Secretary Bob McDonald and other senior executives have reviewed this new approach and liked what they saw. Allin said several VA organizations are just beginning to use the framework to improve the experience of the veterans they serve.

The framework breaks the customer experience in three stages—borrowed from the theater industry.

  • The Front Stage—This stage is invisible to VA and its employees. He said VA doesn’t see the veterans yet this is where the veterans are living and feeling. “We use human-centered design to gain insight into the front stage. To do that, we try to find out what our veterans are doing, what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling. All three are important. That lets us know if we are architecting a good experience or not,” he said.
  • On Stage—This is where the veteran meets VA. Allin said this is the connection point—in person, by phone, through the mail or online. He said VA must architect a seamless enjoyable journey from end-to-end. “This is where we unite the organizational the silos to deliver a one-company experience. Right now at VA, that’s where we are working the hardest,” he said. VA is introducing human-centered design through a series of training courses. Allin said this approach tells VA “what they are trying to achieve,” because they are working with veterans to create shared outcomes.
  • The Back Stage—This stage is invisible to the veteran. Allin said the customer has no clue what’s back there and nor should they. “This is where many of our employees are. This is where we have the processes, the policies and the systems. This is where the customer experience is being determined in a way that isn’t foreseen, isn’t planned and this is where we are spending a lot of our time trying to understand what’s happening back stage that is impacting our veterans, and letting the people know there that what they are doing is impacting our veterans’ experience.” Allin said VA is implementing Lean Six Sigma so employees can improve the “how” it delivers services.Through this effort, Allin said VA set a two-year agencywide goal to improve customer service across the board, and within three years earn a 90 percent approval rating from veterans for its customer service based on these new metrics and approach.Sloan Gibson, the VA deputy secretary, said the framework is building on agency efforts over the last 18 months.He said VA is improving, specifically around access to care.“When you look at the kind of feedback we receive from veterans both directly and through our Veteran Service Organizations, what we hear consistently is that people are seeing and feeling the difference out there, and we also feel it from our intern staff,” Gibson said in an interview with Federal News Radio after his speech at the ACT-IAC event. “There is a need for us as senior leaders to make sure that the system is working for our front line staff. We have 350,000 people out there that care about the mission, that want to do the right thing and that work really hard to care for and serve veterans, but sometimes the system isn’t working to enable that care. Part of our challenge in areas like supply chain, construction, IT and human resources, we have work to do to make it a powerful enabler for our frontline staff.”Gibson said one way VA is ensuring the best ideas from the frontline staff is through a “suggestion box” called IdeaHouse. He said in employees have submitted about 5,000 ideas for improvements in just a few months.

    “Part of what we are doing now is working our way through those nearly 5,000 suggestions that have come in to the IdeaHouse. Many of them, in fact, have been approved. There are things that are, in some instances, of a more relatively local nature where we have the ability to move very quickly to make those changes,” he said. “Others you have to look at from more of a systemic standpoint because you change something over here, you are likely to have an impact someplace else. You want to make sure you don’t have unintended consequences. For us it’s very important to come back to our employees. We feel accountable to those employees that make those suggestions to say, ‘we heard you and here are the actions that we are taking to pursue those.’”

    Gibson said VA is launching two other customer service focused initiatives.

    One is to capture timely feedback through a system called VetLINK where veterans can offer insights and comments through a kiosk at hospitals or centers.

    The second is the interactive customer evaluation (ICE), which also focuses on capturing feedback, but this one empowers the frontline staff by giving them timely contemporaneous information.

    “It’s about improving the veteran experience. We sit and look at a lot of different work we have to do. We are an organization that is fraught with opportunities to do things better,” he said. “It is a question of prioritization and it’s about putting the veteran at the center of that analysis so that you can see where you can have the greatest impact on the quality of the veteran experience.”

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