Press the Blue Button for Improved Customer Service

The Blue Button began as a Department of Veterans Affairs initiative in response to an executive order but has grown into a driving force behind the patient-centered care movement. By placing people before software, the Blue Button offers lessons in customer-focused service for executives in all markets.

By Jason Bloomberg
Mon, August 06, 2012

CIO — Which comes first, technology or customers? We all know the correct answer is customers, but all too often, technology receives top billing. Software applications drive our processes, our relationships, and all too often, again, our businesses.

Technology priorities drive integration and architecture decisions, leaving customers out in the cold. Executives are indignant. "We must be more customer-focused!" they shout. Somewhere along the line, though, this message becomes muddled, customers suffer and, in the end, the bottom line takes the brunt of the attack.

The good news: It doesn't have to be this way. Sometimes, executive mandates for better customer focus—even when mandating better use of technology—can lead to profound improvements in customer service. While executive leadership is critical, refocusing a large organization requires good decisions at multiple levels. Difficult, yes, but it can be done.

Take, for example, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Blue Button Initiative. At its core, Blue Button lets veterans download their personal health records (PHRs) from the VA in a simple, readable format that they can share with their doctors or other people they trust.

Study: EHR Use By Doctors Will Foster Personal Health Record Uptake

It's a simple idea and relatively straightforward for the VA to implement, but the strategic benefits of Blue Button continue to grow. Blue Button is impacting patient care well beyond the community of veterans, perhaps even improving customer focus at organizations outside the healthcare industry entirely. The executive mandate that fostered Blue Button, and the critical decisions along the way that took this simple idea and turned it into a transformative force for business at large, present a lesson that all executives can take to heart.

Blue Button Empowers Veterans, Not Software

The Blue Button story began in April 2011, when President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13571: Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service. This Executive Order called on U.S. government agencies to improve how they delivered customer service, and furthermore, required each agency to announce a "signature initiative" to improve customer service using technology.

Two aspects of this order highlighted its efficacy—first, the call for a single, signature open initiative, instead of a simple order for improved customer service, and second, the requirement to use technology without being any more specific about what technology or how to use it. This combination of strategic mandates encouraged agencies to be creative, while at the same time presenting to each agency a reasonable challenge with a high chance of success.

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