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How the US benefits service is letting down veterans and what it can do to win back favor

For a nation that prides itself on having the strongest military on the planet, the satisfaction level for the department of military affairs is extraordinarily low. In a recent survey of federal services conducted by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) came in at 65/100, just above the tax-collecting Department of the Treasury, and three points lower than the average across all federal departments.

So why are veterans so frustrated with the service they receive? It can’t be caused by lack of money in the VA. This financial year the VA has received a 9.5% increase in spend, a shot of $19B extra. In fact, at $216B, the VA is now four times larger than it was before 9/11.

However, one of the reasons that veterans are dissatisfied with the VA is the decision to ‘round down’ annual cost-of-living increases to the nearest whole dollar. Though this was standard policy until 2013 and even though it will cost veterans no more than $12 a year, veteran groups have condemned what they see as unfairly using their benefits to balance the books.

But a more serious problem with the VA is the levels of bureaucracy that veterans need to navigate, and the numerous programs and initiatives they need to keep track of. Schemes like TRICARE (which will see a hefty rise this year), FEDVIP and COLA require regular attention from veterans to make sure they are on the right plan for themselves. On top of that, veterans are entitled to housing allowance, disability benefits, Basic Allowance for Subsistence and that’s before you even consider the likes of social security and retirement pay.

Offering this fragmented service, with each of these initiatives subject to increases and decreases of their own, creates a customer experience problem. In a previous blog we looked at why myStudentAid is so highly applauded by its users (88/100 approval rating,) and explained that its ability to bring all services together in one place earned its high ranking. A lack of this resource, which may not be right for the VA’s demographic anyway, means that veterans more often than not have to phone up and, as we all know, great customer service should mean that your customers should never have to call and ask.

The VA needs to become more proactive in its communications. This means regularly updating its users, both through the medium they expect and at the time they expect it. Despite inflation in the number of employees at the VA, no contact center could hope to do this in a satisfactory and cost-effective way, which is where AI must come into play. Using a self-learning tool, the VA could make sure that its database learns the needs of veterans and updates each of them individually with bespoke communication.

This could also be used to soften the blow of that $12 reduction. The tool could automatically calculate how much each veteran would be set to lose, but reveal how much he or she will be better off in other ways. The VA has the funding that it needs to serve American veterans well; the challenge now is to spend it in the right way. Proactive, bespoke customer communications that radically reduce the number of inbound calls from disgruntled veterans presents both an opportunity to save costs and increase satisfaction levels.

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