Agency contact centers win praise

Government agencies are using training and technology to set up contact centers that are providing customer service as good as any offered in the private sector, according to a new analysis published by Virginia-based Pearson Government Solutions.

The centers, which respond to inquiries from the public by phone, mail and e-mail, are an "overlooked success story," according to the study, which was released Wednesday.

Pearson, which operates call centers on behalf of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Homeland Security Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as well as other agencies, offers advice for agencies launching contact centers and discusses the changing customer service expectations of the public.

"The federal government is in the midst of enacting significant changes to a wide variety of government programs affecting virtually every U.S. household, and so government agency executives need successful strategies for interacting directly with the public," said Mac Curtis, Pearson's president, in a statement.

The report stated that customer service officials for agencies should focus on a few key issues, including the diversity of their constituencies, staff training and their relationship with agency leaders and contractors.

Because of the diversity of the populations served by government programs, agencies must consider different modes of communication in reaching out to citizens, the report stated. Older citizens still prefer to talk on the phone. Younger ones find e-mail and Web chats more accessible. At the same time, agencies must hire customer service representatives sensitive to diverse constituents and willing to undergo regular training.

Finally, contact centers cannot succeed without the assistance of subject matter experts outside the contact center, according to the report. So top agency leaders must invest in good customer service, and ensure that employees are willing to assist customer service representatives with difficult questions.

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