When it comes to providing services, constituents want government to be just as efficient as the private sector. Knowing this, many government agencies are turning to call center technology to help make customer service within their agencies more efficient.

"Call centers are all about access -- a client or a constituent can dial a phone number or click on a mouse and reach the service they need when they need it," said Brad Cleveland, president and CEO of the Incoming Calls Management Institute in Annapolis, Md., which consults both public and private firms.

Whether its a customer relationship management system that gives the agent whos handling a call immediate access to a callers case history; technology that allows an organization to track call volume so future patterns can be predicted; an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system; or the Web; technology can greatly improve an agencys ability to handle constituent needs.

Getting There

Jean Bave-Kerwin, president of New York-based JBK Consulting, said government managers often fall victim to hype when it comes to call center technology. "In the public sector, I find a lot of people saying, I cant get that, because Im government. But the penetration of the latest and greatest technology into call centers is not as deep as the vendors would have you think," she said.

For example, she said click-to-talk technology -- where a user can click their mouse to actually speak with an agent through their computer -- has only penetrated 10 percent to 12 percent of the call-center market.

Bave-Kerwin, who also serves as president of the Call Center Management Association of New York, said in many cases, call center technology helps government managers squeeze every last inch of usefulness out of the technology they have rather than throwing money at new technology. "You see people doing amazing things with IVR systems instead of buying expensive custom software," she said.

The Child Support Division of Texas Office of the Attorney General revamped its call centers in late 1999. Kerby Spruiell, assistant deputy director of field operations, said the organization focused on minimizing 800 number traffic. "Before, we had a single call center with one number," he said. "Now, weve gone to regional call centers -- six altogether."

Since the majority of inquiries now come from a local number, the agencys long-distance charges have dropped significantly.

According to Spruiell, the Child Support Division began rethinking its call center about three years ago. "We werent doing a good job," he said. "Wait times were up to 20 minutes. We were only answering about 14 percent of the calls. So the legislature basically gave us two years to fix it."

Spruiell said their goal was to achieve a 95-percent answer rate. In order to accomplish that, they installed call center technology to help them do three things: go to zero busy signals, shorten their wait times and ensure that the constituents first point of contact would be able to answer their question. Currently, the agencys call center handles 95.2 percent of its calls with an average wait time of 33 seconds, and 94 percent of the calls are handled by the first point of contact. "Customers have a different tolerance level," said Spruiell. "We found that its impossible to reach a 95-percent answer rate if you go over a 40-second wait time."

Utilizing the Web

Many government agencies have improved telephone access considerably, and some are now taking it a step further by providing Web-based solutions to complement the traditional call center.

At the state level, Texas and Washington have both moved in this direction. Texas is currently in the process of phasing in its Texas Online initiative. "The vision is: from the Web site you can access any state agency within Texas, and that translates across all forms

Kerry Eleveld  |  Special to Government Technology