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