The poor economy and an accompanying increase in citizen demand have spurred government agencies to adopt more advanced customer service technologies in their call centers.

One reason the agencies have been able to invest in improvement projects in their call centers, despite state budget cuts, is that they meet strict standards for ROI and effectiveness, state officials say.

“This growth has been fueled by high unemployment and questions about unemployment extensions that have overwhelmed call centers,” said Eric Camulli, vice president of marketing for Virtual Hold Technology. “These state agencies are highly visible and need to provide excellent service to taxpayers who are already under stress from job losses.”

Virtual Hold Technology based in Akron, Ohio, provides a solution that allows callers to receive a callback without waiting on hold or losing their place in the phone queue. The company has added several new state labor departments to its list of government clients.

Washington State Employment Security Department Commissioner Paul Trause said “virtual queuing” helped his department reduce its phone bill by about $500,000 in the first year of implementation. Unemployment claimants in the state spent about 15 million fewer minutes — about 28 fewer years — holding phones to their ears as a result.

Trause said about 75 percent of callers are choosing the option to receive a callback without losing their place in line rather than wait on hold. On average, customers receive that return call after about 20 minutes. The agency also extended call center hours by one hour per day to better handle the dramatic increase in claims, and more people are now using the state’s recently upgraded online claims system.

Unemployment offices tend to be busiest during the winter months, when industries such as construction and agriculture are in their off-season. “Virtual hold saves cell phone minutes for our clients and reduces our phone bill as well,” said Nan Thomas, Washington state’s assistant commissioner for unemployment insurance.

New York state was awarded $1.1 million by the federal government in 2009 to launch its UI Will Call program, which is expected to save its Department of Labor more than $370,000 in phone bills a year while enhancing services for New Yorkers.

With more than 900,000 New Yorkers jobless, about 680,000 are collecting unemployment benefits. In a given week, the Department of Labor answers 60,000 calls at its Tel-Claims Centers — more than double the call volume from two years prior. The labor department estimates that UI Will Call will lead to a 48 percent decrease in hang-ups and 19,500 fewer repeat calls in its first year of operation.

The state’s Labor Commissioner Colleen C. Gardner said the program will dramatically improve service to claimants and employers.

“How many times have you called a customer service hotline, pressed button after button, and after many minutes of wasted time and energy, just given up?” Gardner asked. “Now add to it the fact that you’re unemployed and calling about your livelihood. UI Will Call makes waiting on hold a thing of the past.”

Unemployment offices are not the only government agencies making call center improvements. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), headquartered in Sacramento, Calif., is the nation’s largest public pension fund. CalPERS provides health benefits to 1.3 million members and retirement benefits to more than 1.6 million public employees, retirees and their families.

The CalPERS Customer Contact Center typically fields more than 650,000 phone calls a year with 80 full-time and 20 part-time agents. The center’s aggressive customer service goals include an abandon rate of less than 5 percent; 95 percent of calls answered within 2.5 minutes; and a maximum hold time 2.5 minutes.

Calls to CalPERS peak at various times throughout the year. Prime time is the first two weeks of January when retirement checks change with tax and health premium deductions. Tax season, open enrollment periods, Mondays and the days following holidays are other peak periods.

“We’re a state agency, so we definitely don’t have an unlimited budget to hire for peak call volumes,” said Debbie Hanson, assistant division chief of the CalPERS Customer Contact Center. “However, we also can’t let our members wait on hold — that defeats our mission to provide quality service. Long wait times impact the callers’ perception of the service we provide, and it’s reflected back to our agents when they answer the phone.”

When Virtual Hold Technology began working with CalPERS, its business case analysis revealed the benefits of increasing part-time staffing a bit and adding the virtual queuing solution. When these steps were taken, CalPERS immediately saw positive results in its customer service goals and operational efficiency.

“We are consistently meeting and exceeding our customer service goals,” Hanson said. “We’re way below our 2.5-minute wait time goal, and we’re actually looking at lowering that goal now.” Hanson also noted morale among call-takers is up, while vacancy is down. Instead of hearing complaints about hold time, agents are hearing, “thank you.”

Callers don’t mind waiting when they’re not on the phone, Hanson said. And happier callers mean allowing call-takers to do their jobs in a more pleasant environment. “Virtual queuing balances out our phone volumes,” she said. “Plus, our phone bill was cut by a third in just part of the fiscal year.”

Virtual Hold Technology’s Camulli said there’s a misperception about virtual queuing that it’s just another name for callback technology that has existed for decades. Callback typically describes a manual process of reviewing voicemails, dialing phone numbers, hoping for a connection and rescheduling when there isn’t one.

“Basic callback technology fails to provide an adequate solution for quality-conscious contact centers because it generally launches callbacks after the peak is over, yielding both poor return-call expectations with customers and low callback hit rates,” he said in a Virtual Hold Technology white paper. “In contrast, the customer reconnection rate for virtual queuing solutions is 93 percent according to a 2007 report by Forrester Consulting.”

Paula DePasquale is an accredited public relations professional and technical writer.

Paula DePasquale  |  Contributing Writer

Paula DePasquale is an accredited public relations professional and technical writer.