VA claims office

How VA put 13 systems into one view at call centers

Until fairly recently, getting the right claims information from the Veterans Affairs Department’s National Call Centers was something of a coin toss.

VA's Unified Desktop

VA’s Veterans Relationship Management Unified Desktop integrates 13 different databases that previously had to be queried individually and now can be viewed simultaneously. The system offers benefits to both call center agents and veterans.

Benefits for veterans

  • Better client services
  • Decreased wait times
  • Fewer blocked calls
  • Increased self-service access to VA
  • Accurate, consistent answers to inquiries
  • Single sign-on capability

Benefits for VA

  • Access to veteran contact history
  • User-friendly technology
  • Ability to transfer calls across multiple service lines
  • Increased consistency of accurate information to provide to clients
  • Improved call quality through call recording capability

Source: Veterans Affairs Department

Call agents had to individually query 13 different systems to find claims information. The systems often would time out as agents searched multiple databases for information, leaving callers to either receive a busy signal or hang up while on hold. And because the process was not standardized, each call center agent had to apply different techniques with different systems to find answers to veterans’ inquiries. 

In fact, three years ago callers seeking help from the Veterans Benefits Administration had only a 49 percent chance of reaching an agent and getting accurate information, according to an audit released in 2010 by the VA’s Office of Inspector General.

But over the past year, the department has executed a transformation that has made it easier for call center agents to quickly retrieve benefits and claims information and, at the same time, give veterans timely access to health care, claims status and business information.

VA officials integrated the 13 different systems using Microsoft Dynamics customer relationship management system, giving agents a unified view of all systems from one computer screen. Known as the Veterans Relationship Management (VRM) Unified Desktop, the system also includes integrated knowledge management capabilities and is hosted in Verizon Terremark’s secure private cloud. VA also overhauled the call centers’ phone systems, implementing a national queuing system and interactive voice response capabilities.

Deploying Microsoft Dynamics CRM was the easier part. The challenge lay in integrating the data services where the information resides, according to Maureen Ellenberger, director of Veterans Relationship Management, a division within the Veterans Benefits Administration, which runs the seven National Call Centers and VA’s Pension Call Center.  

“The hardest part was not the CRM component, but the integration of all our multitude of back-end systems,” Ellenberger said. “I think we underestimated that.”

Nine weeks into a 15-week pilot project VRM officials realized “we weren’t going to get the services wrapped in a way that let us abstract them from the user interface,” Ellenberger said.  The VRM team had to rethink how to accomplish that task. “How we architected that at the beginning, to not get too tightly coupled to specific elements of data, is really important,” she said.

VRM also pulled the project together in increments. The team knew the first pilot would not have all the needed functionality so they started with five people in one office, then added another five people in another call center so that five people in each of the eight call centers were involved in pilot projects. This allowed the VRM team to get feedback from some of the early adopters, who then were instrumental in helping to push the application into their environments. This approach also allowed VRM to develop a standardized platform to increase quality and consistency, Ellenberger said.

The first implementation of the system was rolled out in December 2011. The VRM Unified Desktop was fully deployed a year later in December, Ellenberger said. During a period of that time, the VRM team was not moving very fast, only doing five people in an office every month. The real, focused deployment started in September 2012, when the VA started ramping up the volume of users, she said.

Microsoft Dynamics CRM is designed so business users can make scripting changes for process flows and changes to boost performance without assistance from the department, one of the reasons why VA picked the platform, she said. Changes for reports and correspondences also can be made without the IT department. 

Putting the CRM system in the cloud allowed VA to meet Office of Management and Budget “cloud-first” requirements, but more importantly it gave the VA flexibility, Ellenberger said. While the back-end systems that needed to be integrated were in VA’s on-premise environment, the actual CRM-based system was developed in Terremark’s cloud infrastructure, which speeded up the development time.

To date, over a million calls have been better supported using CRM, Ellenberger said.

VRM is now conducting five more CRM projects for other VA offices. “We are building a standard architecture so we can support all the people who want to use the application,” she said. Doing this in the cloud gives the organization the flexibility to set up a variety of development environments, bring on new people and build out standard policies and procedures.

“We can move a lot faster because we are not as tightly coupled to all the constraints of the internal data center,” Ellenberger said. 

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