VA outsources call center

VA outsources call center

After passage of the 1996 Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act, the Veterans Affairs Department faced the task of communicating the new rules to veterans as well as employees.

'They were unclear about eligibility requirements,' said Kent Simonis, director of Veterans Health Administration Services. 'My concern was making sure there was a clear and consistent message.'

The department got its message out via an outsourced call center run by Condor Technology Solutions Inc. of Annapolis, Md.

'Looking at the challenge of developing an in-house solution, it was clear we would not be able to achieve it in the time available,' Simonis said.

Open for service

The Veterans Health Benefits Service Center opened in 1998 in Langhorne, Pa., and VA has exercised a $4.1 million one-year option. There are three more one-year options on the contract, which Simonis called cost-effective.

'It would cost more to field the calls locally at VA centers,' he said.

Most of the inquiries, averaging 2,000 a day, come through a toll-free telephone number. A small but growing number arrive online from VA Web sites, however. About 5 percent of the contacts are electronic, up from 2 percent or 3 percent three years ago, said Condor's chief technology officer, Joe Crostarosa. He said he believes the Internet eventually will become the preferred contact medium.

'I see the Web interface becoming more important to the VA,' he said.

Condor wants to add services such as Web chat and voice-over-Internet connections as online contacts increase.

But the call center's human contact will remain one of its most important features, Simonis said.

'I want the phones answered by a live agent,' he said. 'We have patients calling in with life and death inquiries.'

Condor's Langhorne facility serves 35 to 40 customer service and help desk accounts. About 45 agents work exclusively for the VA call center. Calls are logged via a browser interface developed with Domino server software from Lotus Development Corp. Scripted responses to questions come through a proprietary call center application called ArmiSys, for Advanced Request Management Information System.

The knowledge base resides in an Oracle database management system. ArmiSys provides advanced search capabilities and output ranked by relevance.

The center started with 45 scripted answers that agents could give callers, and it has grown to more than 700, Simonis said. When questions have no preset answers, agents refer them via e-mail to VA agents in Baltimore.

The growing library of answers has made some features of the call center unnecessary. When it began operations three years ago, conference calls sometimes were set up with agents at the VA Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta.

'The number of instances when we needed that kind of response dropped drastically over time,' Crostarosa said.

For now, contact with a live human is one of the call center's most popular features, Simonis said. Agents answer within two rings on average to avoid interactive voice response whenever possible.

'Part of that is my experience in dealing with automated IVR,' Simonis said.

When call volume spikes, IVR can be put in place on the fly with recorded answers for the most common questions of the moment.

One reason for the emphasis on telephone contact is that the average age of callers is 59, and many of them are not tech-savvy. Web contact is rudimentary: Questions entered online from any of several VA sites receive e-mail replies or telephone callback.

If Condor does implement real-time Web chat, callers will be able to open dialog boxes on a Web page, ask questions and get live answers from agents. A screen-sharing feature will let an agent control a caller's computer screen and point to the desired information.

If the caller has a microphone and speakers available, 'we are also able to talk to him,' Crostarosa said.

Whatever the medium, Simonis said he insists on human contact at the call center. He said he often gets compliments from veterans who have used the center and regard its agents as advocates for them.

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