VBA links offices on virtual network

Richard Culp says VBA now needs 17 percent fewer service reps.

The Veterans Benefits Administration is linking regional offices to improve the customer service offered by its call centers.

The agency is implementing the Virtual Information Center program, which links staff from several offices in a multistate region to handle calls from veterans.

The program is greatly reducing wait times on the toll-free benefits line (800-827-1000) and has eliminated the problem of calls being dropped due to high volume, said Leo A. Phelan, director of VBA's Office of Access Management and Facilities.

VBA gets about 22 million calls a year, 12 million through the toll-free number.

In 1998, 52 percent of calls to the toll-free number were dropped because VBA's telephone system couldn't handle the volume.

Even when calls did go through, callers had to wait so long to speak to a service representative that 13 percent of them hung up, said Richard Culp, director for VBA's telecommunications staff.

In 1999, the administration devised a plan to tackle the problem by setting up virtual information centers. The first one was piloted in May 2000.

The center links VBA offices in Delaware, Indiana, Indianapolis, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which had the highest blocked-call rates, Culp said.

All calls to the toll-free number go to VBA's interactive, voice-operated National Automated Response System.

Calls are managed and routed by a centralized facility using Coral FlexCT software from Tadiran Telecom Inc. of Clearwater, Fla., which manages calls and operates on a standard Tadiran Coral PBX.

Geographic routing

Calls are routed based on the phone number from which they originate. If the caller is in an area served by a virtual call center, the system determines whether there is an agent available at the regional office that serves the area.

If an agent is available, the call is routed to him. If no agent becomes available at the regional office within 30 seconds, the routing facility sends the call to the agent in the network who has been idle the longest.

If no agent is available, the call remains in queue. Tadiran's CallMaster software, which collects information about the number of agents logged in and the average talk time per agent, sends the information to a wait-time announcer program. The program uses an algorithm that determines the average wait time and tells the caller the expected wait.

The program updates the information every 15 minutes, Culp said.

Sprint Corp., under the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service's FTS 2001 contract, provides data and voice communications services to the department.

No dropped calls

A second center, connecting Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, went live earlier this year.

VBA has spent $2.7 million setting up the two centers.

Phelan said the second center handled 73,000 calls in May, and reported no dropped calls, a three percent rate of callers who abandoned their wait and an average wait time of 49 seconds.

Ted O'Brien, VBA's project manager, said the next virtual information center, to be launched in December, will link nine states including Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The fourth and the last center will be ready in fiscal 2005.

Culp said the number of veterans services representatives needed to handle calls has dropped by 17 percent, freeing them up to process claims.

'We get peaks and valleys during the day,' Phelan said. 'During peak call times, more representatives are available, and in less busy times, they can work on other areas.'

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