The Road to Improving Customer Experience for Veterans


Tom Allin is realistic about the challenge that lies in front of him.

There are some challenging jobs in government, and then there’s the job Tom Allin recently stepped into at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A former chief executive officer of a large Asian-based foods corporation, Allin’s position was created to dramatically improve the agency’s relationship with its customers – the millions of veterans VA serves.

In a keynote speech Wednesday at the Customer Experience Summit – hosted by Government Executive and Nextgov – Allin laid bare the vast challenges his office has undertaken.

“We have over 1,000 websites in VA,” Allin said. “If a veteran is on Google, it’s just about impossible to get something done.”

For a veteran beginning his or her customer journey with VA, going through a thousand websites for information is not ideal. Nor is picking and choosing from another 950 toll-free numbers to VA facilities and health centers. Allin said VA has been working with personnel from the recently created U.S. Digital Service to consolidate its enormous amount of websites into one portal. It’ll do the same kind of consolidation with its phone numbers.

“Our goal is to make it easier to be a VA customer,” Allin said. “Our goal is to make it predictable, consistent and easy.”

Prior to the creation of the chief veteran experience position, no one within the 300,000-person organization owned customer experience. As such, Allin admitted there is no blueprint for tackling the myriad challenges VA faces.

Yet, Allin shared his early “initial learnings,” which include a roadmap to building enterprise-level capabilities.

The first step, he said, begins with defining customer experience. For VA, that means predictability, consistency and ease of being a customer. Other steps include building national capabilities, defining intended outcomes, setting customer measurements, leveraging employee experience and then building enterprise-level capabilities.

There are many substeps to each of those steps, but what’s particularly important to bear in mind is that VA has not attempted this level of customer-centric thinking prior to the creation of Allin’s veteran experience office. Allin said he’d like to set outcomes for each VA line of business to promote “effectiveness for the customer” and “efficiency for the taxpayer.”

Perhaps most vital of all, Allin said, is truly listening to what veterans are saying.

VA “does not lack” measurements, taking in lots of survey data from veterans, but Allin pointed out that most of that data is six months old by the time it is finalized. Furthermore, the surveys themselves can be skewed if they aren’t asking the right questions.

“We’ve been asking the questions we think must be important, but we haven’t asked our veterans what’s important to them,” Allin said.

It’s going to be a long road, but Allin said he’s dedicated to helping VA achieve “world-class customer service.”

(Image via dencg/