SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The Virginia Department of Taxation recently slashed Web-related calls from citizens by 70 percent, thanks to an online chat device with an instant messenger function that costs roughly $1,000, according to Sharon Kitchens, assistant tax commissioner for the state's Office of Technology.

Kitchens presented the cost-effective solution Thursday, March 18, on the Modernizing Critical Systems panel at the Managing Technology conference, a government IT event. The agency deployed the chat device in July 2009 as a pilot experiment in response to a tax amnesty program it would announce in late 2009. A tax amnesty program waives all fees and interest for citizens with unpaid back taxes if they come forward voluntarily. Naturally the department expected the program to set off a dramatic spike in phone inquiries.

"This was the best $1,000 we've ever spent," Kitchens remarked.

By communicating with customers via chat, service representatives can interact simultaneously with four citizens. As customers type their responses to service representatives, those representatives use that time to answer the questions from other customers using the chat function. At any given time during business hours, the agency assigns 10 employees to handle the 500 to 600 chats it receives a day, as well as the phone calls customers place.

Taxpayers file their returns online, and the chat questions typically relate to that process. The agency hasn't even advertised availability of the chat function yet.

"Right now, the only people who know it's there are people who went onto our Web site for some reason and found it," Kitchens said.

She said the state planned to advertise it more aggressively once her agency deploys a more robust chat tool by January 2011. Kitchens said there was a good chance the current model wouldn't be able to handle many more than the 500 to 600 calls it currently facilitates. The state uses PHP Live, which Kitchens said should work fine for any state wanting to deploy the chat functionality as a pilot. Downloading it to the agency's system was lightning fast, and training service representatives took an hour, according to Kitchens.

 

Andy Opsahl  |  Features Editor