When the federal government’s 401(k)-style retirement savings program underwent an effort to significantly upgrade the capacity of its customer-service phone line, officials expected wait times to improve. Instead, they grew by nearly two minutes last month.
Last year, the Thrift Savings Plan completed a massive upgrade to the hardware, software and overall capacity of its call center, the TSP Thriftline. The effort improved the call center’s reliability, made the IT environment more secure, and it quadrupled the number of available phone lines.
But officials said Monday that while the Thriftline is handling more calls than ever before, the amount of time that customers must wait before reaching a representative has grown as well. This is due to a combination of staffing shortages, increased efforts to validate customers’ identities, and a previously unmeasurable number of people who simply weren’t getting through to the answering system in the first place.
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January is considered the peak season for TSP’s call center, as people examine or re-examine their investments and contributions and prepare for tax season. Over the course of last month, average wait times ranged from eight to nine minutes. In January 2016 and 2017, wait times never exceeded seven minutes.
Clayton Lee, program manager of the TSP’s contact center, explained one potential reason for the recent call volume exceeding officials’ expectations: calls that never connected in the first place.
“We’ve had more calls than we ever had before,” he said. “Previously, we suspect people were receiving fast busy signals—beep beep beep beep—or the calls were simply dropping [before people reached the answering system].”
Lee said his office also is still working to increase staffing at the call center, a difficult task for an occupation known for its high turnover. He also noted that simultaneous efforts to improve identity verification of customers, like institution of a “strong password” system, as well as validating participants’ phone numbers and emails have increased both call length and the wait to reach a representative.
David Jones, a board member for the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which administers the TSP, asked how officials could have missed such a basic problem as people not being able to reach the call center.
“It seems that an unintended consequence of the increased capacity is it has uncovered a deficiency that may have been there for quite some time,” he said. “And we didn’t know about it. Were we not getting feedback?”
TSP Executive Director Ravindra Deo suggested the problem went unreported because people generally are used to low customer service standards in the private sector.
“Other companies try actively not to answer your call—their systems are designed that way,” Deo said. “So it could be that people simply accept that and decide to call back later.”
Lee added that some may simply chalk up the so-called “fast busy signal” to a technical hiccup.
“Many people may think nothing of it or that they dialed the wrong number,” he said. “We think they may initially get a busy signal, and then immediately called back and [got to the answering system.]”
Lee said he hopes to increase staff by 30 percent by late spring or early summer to help cope with the increased demand. And he has extended the hours of both of the TSP’s call centers.
Another area where the TSP has seen a greater increase than expected so far this year is the new Blended Retirement System, which went live on Jan. 1 and for the first time offers an employer contribution for members of the military, provided they agree to a less generous defined benefit pension.
Blended Project Manager Tanner Nohe said that as of last week, more than 119,000 service members have opted into the program. All service members who signed up as of January 1 are automatically enrolled in the blended system, and existing members have until the end of 2018 to opt in.
“Hitting the 100,000 mark [on Feb. 8] really surprised me,” Nohe said. “I didn’t expect to see that many so early in the year.”
Nohe said most participants in the program so far were already participants in the TSP, contributing to their accounts without a government match. Of the around 13,000 new participants, most are reservists, and officials expect another uptick in new TSP accounts next month.