Customer-service training lands VA in hot water
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Customer-service training lands VA in hot water

Dear Philadelphia Office of Department of Veterans Affairs:

I would like to invite you to subscribe to this blog. It’s free. And if you’d been a subscriber, you might have read my August 13 post about the public-relations hazards of bad training. The one that asked: “Would you be comfortable if your organization’s customers saw your training materials? In these days of citizen journalism, you should assume they will.”

If you’d read that post, you might have thought twice before you ran a customer-service training session that compares veterans — your customers — to Oscar the Grouch. Or at least not handed out printouts of the PowerPoint slides — which, inevitably, ended up in a Philadelphia Inquirer front-page story.

Preparing for the public

Ironically, the training was conducted in preparation for a series of town hall meetings where veterans were expected to air complaints about shoddy treatment at the hands of VA bureaucrats.

The VA is under investigation for manipulating its schedules to cover up massive delays in setting up appointments for veterans. It set up town hall meetings at every VA hospital and office in the country to offer an open forum to veterans and clinics to help expedite their claims. To prepare for these meetings, the Philadelphia office put together a slide show called “What to Say to Oscar the Grouch — Dealing with Veterans During Town Hall Clinics.”

The training “was intended to remind our employees to conduct themselves as courteously and professionally as possible when dealing with veterans and their concerns,” according to a VA spokesperson.

In one slide, Oscar’s trash can sports a sign that says, “CRANKY.” Another one includes a caption that reads, “100% GROUCHY, DEAL WITH IT.” One part of the presentation, which discusses how to deal with angry customers, is called “Don’t Get in the Swamp With the Alligator.”

More than a P.R. problem

The fact that this stuff leaked is a public relations disaster. Even more disastrous is what it says about the organization’s culture. No doubt, somebody thought they were making training more fun and engaging by bringing Muppets and gators into the discussion. But training often opens a window into the collective psyche of the organization. This training didn’t just slip through the cracks — in fact, it was apparently pulled from older training materials that had been kicking around the office for quite some time. I suspect it got approved and presented because it resonated with the office’s culture and values — a culture that saw veterans as problems to be dealt with rather than customers to be served.

So for all of my readers, I’d like to ask a potentially uncomfortable question: What does your training say about your organization? In particular, what message does your sales training say about your organization’s attitude toward its customers? I hope and believe that for most organizations, it will be a positive message. If not, it may be time to think harder about the culture you’re helping create.

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