Agencies get advice on improving phone service

In order to provide quality customer service over the phone at large call centers, federal agencies need clear goals, committed managers and good compensation packages for employees, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office.

Because agencies most frequently interact with their customers via call centers, Rep. Amo Houghton, R-N.Y., whose committee has oversight of the IRS, asked GAO to find out the best ways of staffing and operating courteous call centers. GAO studied operations at 11 federal and private-sector call centers throughout the United States that are known for their excellent customer service.

"A key to determining the number of telephone customer service representatives and the mix of skills and expertise they needed was to have clearly articulated service-level goals for meeting customer needs," GAO concluded in the report, "Customer Service: Human Capital Management at Selected Public and Private Call Centers" (GGD-00-161).

For example, General Electric's call center aims to answer all calls within 90 seconds, while the Social Security Administration's center wants 95 percent of callers to reach its 800 number within 5 minutes of their first attempt. Each agency must determine what its service goals should be based on its unique circumstances and customer base, the report said.

Another tip experienced and successful call centers offered was to ensure the committment of managers. Leaders need to recognize the importance of customer service and those who provide it and should do everything necessary to support it, the report said. At the Illinois Department of Revenue, call center workspace was reconfigured to better accommodate employees, and volunteers were trained to supplement regular staff during lunch hours and when volume was high. Call center employees were also given the opportunity to receive training in other areas of the business during slow periods on the phones.

"Interviewees said that leaders with a clear sense of vision and those who encouraged change and innovation created a call center environment that was conducive to success," GAO said.

At the same time, pay and benefits packages must match those offered by competing firms in the labor market, interviewees told GAO. A manager with the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency said front-line call center employees shouldn't necessarily be the lowest cost personnel in the agency.

And at Kaiser Permanente, the top performing call center workers are awarded an extra 10 percent of their base monthly wages each month.

The IRS could learn from these companies' experiences, GAO said, and a follow-up report will address how the agency can apply these lessons to the management of its call centers.

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