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How to Get Better Results when you call the VA.GOV Phone Number

Have a question about your claim? Often, your only option is to call the phone number. 

Have you ever had a reason to call this phone number?  

It’s the toll-free number (1-800-827-1000) that we all love to hate.

Hours on hold….information that is not really all that helpful….one Veteran described it to me by saying that the phone number is a “…far better mental  torture device than a tool to help Veterans.”

Calling the phone number can be an incredibly frustrating experience, with long wait times, followed by a conversation with an employee that may not be able to answer your questions.

The VA knows this, too – in 2010, the VA Office of Inspector General released a report that said – direct quote – “…we concluded that any one call placed by a unique caller had a 49 percent chance of reaching an agent and getting the correct information.”

Recently, I had a chance to meet several current and former VA call center employees and talk to them about their work answering the phones at the phone number.  

These meetings and interviews were done “off the clock” and every one of them asked to remain anonymous, as many feared for their jobs by talking to me. 

 (Yes, VA employees live in constant fear that the mid and upper managers are going to fire them for helping Veterans.)  

The employees that work in the 8 VA Call Centers are called PCRs.  There are approximately 700-750 of these these employees, handling millions of calls.   They are entry level jobs, and pay among the lowest of all Federal employees (they start at GS-05 level which equates to an unsustainable wage of $28,000 – $32,000 per year, depending where in the country the worker lives).

Bottom line – pay an employee a shit wage, ask them to do the hardest job in the agency, and you have a recipe for really bad customer service. While the Upper Crust of the VA come up with catchy jingles for the regime, they miss the most basic lesson of leadership: a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

In my conversations and meetings with these current and former call center employees, I got to hear about the experience of phone number from their perspective.  

It didn’t take long before I started hearing the same themes, over and over.   In a nutshell, the common theme I heard was this – know what you are calling to find out, be polite and ask questions, and remember that I am just a messenger.

So, with no further ado, here are the themes, quotes and takeaway points from my Call Center interviews.

#1. We are people, too.

This theme was prevalent in my interviews.   Here are some of the comments that were passed on.

“We do empathize – and sympathize – with you.” 

“Many of us are Veterans, many of us want to help, but our hands are tied by the policies and rules of upper management.”

“It’s totally fine to express your frustration, but patience is important.”

“I get the frustration – remember where I work. I’m just the messenger. Don’t shoot the messenger.”

“Nobody likes talking to jerks – we try to be patient, but when someone is call you stupid, or un-patriotic, the only thing you can think of is to escape the abusive language.”

“We can and will hang up on you if you are rude. It’s not our job to take abuse.”

“I have worked here 2 years, and only 1 Veteran has said thank you. I remember his name, and if I ever got a call from him, I’d move heaven and earth to help him.”

Saying thank you, or telling me I did a good job, can brighten my day.  I hear so many horrible stories that I am physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted by the end of the day.  I don’t mind working in this environment, but it helps to know I’m appreciated.”

“Nothing feels better for me than someone who wants to tell our supervisor about a good job we did! We get certificates and congratulated at team meetings! We hear so many complaints, that often our hard work is forgotten. Positivity always steers us in the right direction!”

These sentiments are consistent with what I’ve learned managing a law firm.  

The hardest job in my law firm is the one that handles the phone calls from Veterans looking for help.  Veterans, as a community, are angry, frustrated, isolated, abandoned and all too often are looking for someone to vent their frustration too. 

Chances are, though, that the person on the other end of the line doesn’t have it any easier than you

Maybe the person talking to you is the single mother of special needs child, stressed from working 8 hour days to pay for 12 hours a week of physical therapy and medical treatment.

Maybe they just lost a family member to a battle with cancer.  Maybe they lost their house in a foreclosure and are struggling to get their feet on the ground.

We have a bulletin board in one of our offices where we thumb-tack compliments from Vets. It helps us to go back and remember that someone thought we helped them through this horrible and chaotic claims process.

That said, many Veterans struggle with physical and mental pain that limits their impulse control mechanisms.  Here are some tips and pointers:

  • Tell the person on the phone at the beginning of the call that because of your medical condition, you struggle with impulse control, and may become rude or harsh. Tell them you don’t want to be that way, and ask for their patience to keep working with you, ignoring the mean things you say or the harsh language you use and remember that is part of your service-connected condition
  • Have a good friend or family member help keep you calm during the call.
  • When you become aware you are being rude, take responsibility for what happened, swallow your pride and apologize. Then forgive yourself and move on.

TAKEAWAY POINT:  Stay calm, stay polite, and remember that no matter how crappy your situation is, the person on the other end of the line is a human being. It takes NOTHING away from to be friendly – it costs NOTHING to be polite.  I keep a mirror over my phone, so that I can look at myself smiling when I’m talking.  It is hard to be a jerk when looking at yourself smiling.

#2. Ask more questions.

Many of the call center employees I talked to were amazed how few questions Veterans asked – they talked about spending most of their day listening – and while they were happy to do it, they were surprised that so few Veterans asked open ended questions.

Here’s what they said:  

“Ask us why and how questions, and then listen to the answers. We have tools to give you general information, and are happy to look for what you ask.”

“We have systems that provides us our answers, but there are a plethora of answers, so we need your help to sort out the right answer from the wrong answer. So when you are educated, you can help us look for the right answer!”

“I’m not a lawyer and I’m not a doctor.  When Veterans talk to me about complex medical questions, or what the law says, my eyes glass over.  

“Even if you are 100% correct, there’s nothing I can do about it other than give you the limited information I have. What I can do is answer general questions about what to do and what might happen next.”

“A PCR is only as good as their knowledge. You might get a PCR who has been there for 3 years or someone who just started taking calls yesterday. When I first started, I had veterans tell me they could tell I was new, BUT they said I could take my time. This relieved so much pressure, and I think I was able to help the Veterans better”

“I’ve had veterans tell me their whole life story, everything that’s happened with the VA, and when they’re done, I still don’t understand what they were calling for. To be honest, too much talking and storytelling is confusing and distracting. My opinion is that unless it relates to your actual question, it’s better to leave it out.”

TAKEAWAY POINT:  Write down the purpose of your call on an index card – write down what you want to get out of the call.  If you aren’t getting the answers you need, ask simple How? What? Why? Where? Who? type questions, then stop talking and let them answer.  If it’s not the answer you want or if it was not helpful, ask the question again in a different way.  

Your goal in this call is simple: to get to the point of the conversation – what you need to find out – as quickly and easily as possible.

Your goal is NOT to try to persuade the PCR on the other end of the phone of anything.

#3. It is What it Is.

The folks at the VA Call Center do not set VA policy.  They can’t change the rules, so they have to live with rules that even they think are pointless and harmful.

As one PCR told me, “Protocol is protocol, and no amount of pressure or supervisor authority is going to change that.”

Here are some more insights along this line:

“There’s a reason things are the way they are, and a PCR doesn’t have the power to change a lot of things.” 

“Asking for a supervisor doesn’t mean you will get a different answer. But if you ask for a supervisor callback, they have the authority to review your file to see if a callback is warranted.  If they feel the PCR was right, and had a good demeanor, you probably won’t get a call back.”

“PCRs have what are called ‘talk time’ requirements. Our call times are averaged every day.  So we feel pressure to get you answers as quickly and efficiently as possible.  Many of us would probably not follow these rules, and prefer helping Veterans as much as we can.  But we need our jobs, too….take it up with the VA Secretary, and ask him to re-focus our standards on quality of interaction, not quantity. ” (Author note: if you want to contact Bob McDonald, click here to read a post with his email).

“Wait times are horrible.  But there is nothing I can do about it as a PCR.  Please don’t take your totally legit complaint out on me.” 

On the other hand, just because the VA has a policy doesn’t mean you have to accept it or agree with it.  If you run into a situation where you feel like something you are told is wrong, ask for a reference to where you can find that rule or policy written down, then attack it through the claim process – the call center representative is not going to have the knowledge, power or ability to make a change.  

But you do have that power: in the course of your claim or appeal. 

TAKEAWAY POINT:  Choose your battles. Use the call-center to get the information you need, and use the VA Claims process as a way to challenge the right-ness or wrong-ness of the information. 

#4. Practical Tips when calling the Phone Number.

Here are some more specific pieces of feedback that you can use the next time you have to call the phone number:

Tip#1:  “If you have a direct deposit account, it’s better to call before the 15th of the month if you want it effective for the 1st of the month. We have cut off dates (which can vary by the way) because we send the payments to the US Treasury, who officially submits the payments. So once those payments are scheduled, there is no availability for change. We have no authority to cancel a pending payment either.”

Tip #2: “If you get married, VA will not know. If you get divorced, VA will not know. To avoid delays later, tell the PCR at the phone number when your family or marriage or dependent situations change – as soon as they change.”

Tip #3: “Keep your phone numbers and addresses up to date.  When you update your information – contact, family, dependents, spouse, etc – also mail a written copy to the Evidence Intake Center.  Our systems don’t talk well together, and if you tell the VA twice, its more likely that we’ll hear once.”

Tip #4: “When someone calls phone number, I can send statements to the VSRs (author’s note: the VSR is the VA employee that decides and rates your claim). But don’t ask me to pass evidence or notes about the theory of your case.  You should do that yourself – not because I don’t want to, but because you know your claim better than me, and there’s a good chance I might pass on bad information because I didn’t understand what you were saying or asking me to do.”

Tip #5: “I have seen so many documents that are hard to read because of the hand writing, and also because it’s one giant paragraph. My supervisor once told me that when I’m sending over a statement on behalf of a veteran, I should keep it short and sweet or at least separate it into short paragraphs. The raters in the regional office have limited time to read through a document. It’s worth the extra effort to have it typed and spaced out.”  {Author’s note – this is not the first time we’ve heard this. In fact, I heard it so much that I have a whole training course dedicated to teaching Veterans how to write more clean and persuasive arguments in their VA claims.}

Tip #6: “Please, if you can, find a quiet place to call us.  I know it’s not always possible, but if you have a ton of wind while you are talking outside, or your car window is rolled down, or you are talking to us in a restaurant, it can be hard to hear and understand what you are saying.”

Tip #7: “If someone else (like a VSO or attorney) sends in paperwork for you, such as your notice of disagreement or claim form, make sure you get a copy for yourself. This protects YOU if for some reason it’s never received. Never assume they sent it, and never assume the VA got it, until you see it in writing.”

Tip #8: “You can ask for a copy of the PCRs notes from the call.  You are entitled to a copy, but you have to ask! Make the request in writing, and be specific.  Add this statement: “I would like a copy of the VBMS notes dated ____.” 

Tip #9: “After you get off the call, write down what I told you. Put it in a letter to the VA confirming our discussion, and send it to the EIC and ask that it be put in your claims file.  This will help you if someone puts my notes in the wrong file, or if you had a different perspective on what we talked about.” 

Final Notes from the Veterans Law Blog about the phone number:

  1. How do you find out if your summaries of the phone call, or the PCR’s notes are in your file?  Get a copy of your C-File.    
  2. Learn how to write more clear, concise, and persuasive arguments and letters to the VA using my Get to the Point Training Program.   
  3. The EIC is the VA’s Evidence Intake Center – I took a tour of the EIC, and shared what I learned about this facility on the Veterans Law Blog starting with this post.

1 Comment

  1. anonymous

    I truly appreciate your article. As VA call center rep, I would like to add one more point:

    Please don’t use the toilet while you’re talking to me. If it’s unavoidable, please mute your phone.

    We can hear a lot more than you think we can.


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