Heeding the Call

Many governments are turning to call-center technology to improve constituent relations and efficiency within their organizations.

by / August 1, 2001
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 of communication -- phone, e-mail or Web," explained Kimberly Butler, account manager for the Internet Communication Software Group of Cisco Systems Inc.

Cisco, along with other companies, is working with Texas to implement the system. Butler said it will provide a single point of entry for telephone users and Web users. With the 800 number, Butler said, "Therell be a bank of customer service agents that can answer preliminary questions on something like how to get a marriage license or how to file for child support. And if its more complicated, they can direct the person to the appropriate agency."

The Web will work in a similar fashion, with one master Web site where constituents can ask a question and be routed either to a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page or to the appropriate agency. If at any point a Web user wishes to speak to an agent, they can use a click-to-talk function. The agent can respond in realtime via e-mail or chat, and at the same time, the agent can push users the appropriate pages of the site, almost as if theyre controlling the users Web browser. "You may sign on to the state of Texas site and tell someone you want information on septic systems. Then the agent will send a Web page to your system," Butler explained.

According to Butler, the benefit is twofold: First, its a learning tool for constituents. Second, it allows constituents to have the freedom of answering their questions themselves with the confidence of knowing theres help available should they need it.

Around the Clock
Washington rolled out a similar initiative in January. Called Access Washington, the initiative is a collaboration between the state, SafeHarbor Technology Corp. and Ask Jeeves Inc.

Rhonda Polidori, Washingtons digital government Web properties manager, said the state contracted SafeHarbor to implement and run Access Washington, including its call center and Web and e-mail services. Prior to that, Washingtons Web site and its support staff had been housed by the state. "We didnt outsource our services because the technology wasnt there to do it at that point," she said. "But as we grew, we knew that we needed to increase our hours. Traditional government hours are eight to five, but the Internet hours are 24/7/365. By partnering with SafeHarbor, we meet those Internet hours."

Bo Wandell, president and co-founder of SafeHarbor, said their product creates a self-help environment. "What weve found is that customers really appreciate being able to help themselves. The whole idea behind SafeHarbor is to migrate users from a tendency toward getting on the telephone to request and receive support to deriving self-help support."

Wandell said the Access Washington Web site utilizes a combination of graphical solutions and FAQs to enable users to find their own answers. Much of the knowledge base for the FAQs came directly from Washingtons original site.

"We had a database of all the correspondence since 1998," said Polidori. "We gathered up all the e-mail from our constituents and turned it over to SafeHarbor to integrate into their knowledge base."

Another aspect of the site is Ask George, which was created specifically for Access Washington by the Business Solutions division of Ask Jeeves Inc. Rolled out this February, Ask George allows users to ask any question they want and receive a list of places where they can find the answer. "Our users have told us it allows them to learn more about what theyre looking for," said Claudio Pinkus, president of business solutions for Ask Jeeves.

The function was put to the test during the states recent earthquake. According to Pinkus, a hundredfold jump in Ask George queries occurred from February 27 to February 28, 2000 following the earthquake.

So far, SafeHarbors goal of moving constituents toward self-help seems to be working. "On average, from January 1 to today, we are at 83 percent self help. The remaining balance is e-mail or webcases. And phone calls are nearly nonexistent," said Polidori.

And the case for moving away from phones is a strong one. "Every time someone picks up the telephone, it costs the state of Washington about $15," said Wandell.

Using the Web, answers can be supplied for less than a dollar.

Look Before You Leap
Though call center technology can be beneficial, experts warn that technology cant stand alone.

"Technology just opens up the channel -- it doesnt run the business," said Cleveland. "You still have to have the right strategies, the right people, and the right processes to make a call center functional."
Kerry Eleveld Special to Government Technology