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Good Calls

Telephone help centers are winning good will for agencies.

The words "government" and "customer service" don't often find their way into the same sentence. Most Americans would probably say they expect the worst when they call about their taxes or their Social Security, Medicare, or veterans benefits. By contrast, they'd say the private sector does a much better job. But according to research conducted at Purdue University's

Center for Customer-Driven Quality, they'd be wrong. In a 2002 survey and subsequent follow-ups, government call centers bested their private sector counterparts in such indicators as overall customer satisfaction and answer accuracy.

"That was the big surprise to all the researchers on the project," says Jon Anton, who conducted the study. But that's not to say government call centers are perfect. In fact, some have had serious problems, as evidenced in recent reports by the Government Accountability Office and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. And beating the private sector isn't as impressive as one might imagine. In overall customer satisfaction, for example, Anton found that only 45 percent of consumers were satisfied with private sector call center service. Government topped that, with a 55 percent satisfaction rating: better, but not great.

The good news is 10 federal agencies are working with Anton to receive his "center of excellence" designation. The General Services Administration's USA Services Division has been conducting weekly conference calls with government call center managers. The goal is to eventually set customer service and technology standards that all government call centers would meet.

Some agencies, such as the Education and Veterans Affairs departments, have led the way in providing better customer service and won awards for their efforts. They did it through a combination of training, top-of-the-line technology and good management. But there is no magic formula for success. Anton says committed agency leadership is most important, both to reward employees who serve customers well and to hold accountable those who don't. Other agencies, such as the Health and Human Services Department's Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Homeland Security Department's Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau have tried to boost customer service by contracting with private firms, only to find that they provided poor service.

Listening Post

Daryl Covey's day job is at the National Weather Service NEXRAD Radar Operations Center in Norman, Okla., where he is a hotline manager. He and his team help about 7,500 government employees at the Commerce, Transportation and Defense departments navigate and operate the Doppler radar weather system. But for the past four years, he also has organized the Government Customer Support Conference, which gives awards each year to the top government call centers, internal help desks and Web portals. Among this year's nominees are call centers at the Internal Revenue Service, Labor Department, NASA, Navy and the Social Security Administration.

Their efforts indicate how far government has come in a short time, says Covey. When he first got involved in call center work in 1989, he says, there was "little or no government awareness" of best practices. But now, government leads the way in some cases. Last year's big winner for overall excellence-the Veterans Affairs Insurance Call Center-processed almost all its customers' requests faster than industry standards. For example, the life insurance industry processes death claims in 6.3 days on average, while the VA processes them in 1.7, according to LOMA, an Atlanta-based financial services and insurance trade association. LOMA also reports that the industry processes requests for disbursements in 5.7 days on average, while VA accomplishes that in 1.8. And the American Customer Satisfaction Index-an ongoing study of industry and government conducted by the University of Michigan in partnership with the American Society for Quality and the CFI Group-found the VA center's approval ratings were higher than those of any other comparable government service.

Based in Philadelphia, the center has 92 employees who handle more than 55,000 calls a month from veterans who bought government life insurance policies during World War II and the Korean War. Prudential Financial Inc. of Newark, N.J., began offering policies to military personnel during the Vietnam War, but veterans with service-connected disabilities still can buy government-sponsored insurance. The policyholders, who average 76 years old, call with questions about premiums, dividends and benefits. And their beneficiaries call to report deaths.

The system works because of its emphasis on these special constituents, says Stephen Wurtz, deputy assistant director for insurance at the Veterans Benefits Administration. "We're proud of them, and we're constantly reminding ourselves that this is a deserving bunch of folks," Wurtz says. Employees receive special training in how to work with the elderly and the bereaved.

Wurtz is particularly pleased with the center's user surveys. Eighty callers are surveyed every month. More than 60 percent return the surveys, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. At the same time, top Veterans Affairs insurance managers hold "listening post" sessions with call-takers every other week to get a sense of their work and their needs. Call-takers are evaluated regularly and rated on a scale of one to five. Top performers are eligible for annual awards that range as high as $800. If the entire center meets its goals, employees receive more. Evaluations focus on timeliness, accuracy and courtesy. Periodic smaller awards, including days off and restaurant coupons, are handed out to those who go beyond the call of duty.

A Step Ahead

The Education Department's Washington call center, winner of the 2004 award for teamwork from the Government Customer Support Conference, has set up a "beat system," through which employees continually expand their knowledge of education issues. Experts from across the agency take time from their regular duties to brief employees on topics such as the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, special education, and resources for teaching and improving children's learning. Education's Sharon Stevens, who runs the call center, has a small staff, only eight people. They face a daunting task: responding to about 20,000 calls and e-mails a month on anything and everything about education. "We have to be on top of our game and keep each other informed to answer a whole range of questions," she says.

A job with the call center starts with three to four weeks of training on the issues as well as phone techniques, such as how to deal with angry callers. Employees then are given a topic or beat to master. They share their knowledge with other call center employees. Any call-taker who gets stumped on a question can refer to a database of answers or consult the resident beat expert.

During the past year, Education and Veterans Affairs have focused on improving their ability to offer online and e-mail services. VA has expanded its Web self-service center, allowing insurance policyholders to request loans online. Education has set up an electronic service center using software purchased from RightNow Technologies, a Bozeman, Mont.-based company. The center offers a Web-based database of frequently asked questions and allows Stevens to track the subjects of incoming e-mails. It also allows her to see how long it takes to respond to e-mail inquiries, something her team has down to less than two days.

Education and VA are a step ahead, Covey says, but each year his conference judges hear about more high-quality nominees. What stands out, he says, is the culture that top call centers have created in which customer service, teamwork, a sense of owner- ship and professional growth are core values.

Technology Helps

To be the best, it helps to invest in the best available technology. At the VA center, for example, any manager can tell at any time who is handling a call, who's available, how much time callers are spending on hold and how long calls are taking. The data changes color when customer service representatives are moving too slowly, allowing managers to keep tabs on their best and worst performers.

VA built its system in-house. But other agencies are relying on companies that provide software and hardware to do the job. Many agencies rely on phone systems from Avaya or Rockwell Automation to track and answer calls. Oracle Corp., SAP and Siebel Systems Inc. are among the leaders in customer relationship management software, which agents use on their PCs to respond to queries. At the same time, agencies are using technology to store records. VA's Veterans Benefits Administration, for example, has created a "Virtual VA" with software developed by Costa Mesa, Calif.-based FileNet Corp. so customer service agents nationwide have access to electronic data about veterans receiving disability pensions.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is using quality assurance technology created by Witness Systems of Roswell, Ga. The system not only records calls, which can be reviewed and used for training, but also captures the keystrokes that a customer service representative types.

The Education Department recently switched to a new Cisco system that steers calls over a secure computer network rather than telephone wires and costs less. Other agencies are using systems, such as those provided by Richardson, Texas-based AnswerSoft, that allow agents to search for key words in caller questions. "This area has gone from almost no innovative tech in the last 15 years to all these technologies now popping up," says Anton.

With time, agencies expect more citizens will find the information they need on Web sites, via e-mail inquiries or Web chats. Stevens' colleagues at the Office of Federal Student Aid are among the first to offer Web chat, where people can write in and receive responses online. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services might offer chats soon.

Other agencies are using innovative human resources tactics. The IRS, for example, which relies on a huge cadre of seasonal workers to process tax returns, has sought out workers with disabilities interested in working from home. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has contracted with Glendale, Calif.-based Tele-Interpreters, a firm that provides translators who speak 150 languages, to help respond to citizens who say they have been victims of discrimination.

More controversial are decisions by agencies such as the EEOC, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, and the Homeland Security Department's Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau to outsource call center operations. The General Services Administration has tried to facilitate the use of private sector companies by making it easier for agencies to sign deals. In July, GSA started FirstContact, a program that allows agencies to contract with five firms-Aspen Systems Corp., Datatrac Information Services Inc., ICT Group Inc., Pearson Government Solutions and TeleTech Government Solutions-without going through standard agency procurement processes. But only GSA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have taken advantage of the program.

That might be due, at least in part, to the outcry that has followed the EEOC, CMS and CIS as they've moved to outsourced call centers. The EEOC opened its National Contact Center in March under a contract with Arlington, Va.-based Pearson. The move came in spite of stiff opposition from the agency's employee union, a local of the American Federation of Government Employees, which argued that it is leading to a reduction in EEOC staffing, and potentially, to reduced service to citizens. The union's attempt to convince Congress to block the center failed, but many Democrats on Capitol Hill wrote letters protesting the move.

EEOC Director of Field Management Programs Cynthia Pierre points out that an agency working group found that it would cost nearly four times as much as the $4.9 million charged by Pearson to staff an in-house call center for two years and to procure the technology necessary to run it. In the past, she says, EEOC employees, such as receptionists, attorneys, investigators and even administrative judges, took calls in addition to performing their regular duties. The EEOC had no staff dedicated solely to taking calls and as a result, "there were a lot of calls that weren't getting answered," Pierre says. "People would wait for days for messages to be returned. The technology was pretty obsolete or inadequate. . . . It was taking away from time we need to spend investigating and litigating" discrimination cases.

Growing Pains

It's too early to evaluate how well the EEOC's center is doing, but unfortunately, the CMS and CIS centers didn't fare well in reports evaluating the quality of their customer service representatives' responses to callers. Both call centers are run primarily by Pearson employees.

Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes applications for immigration benefits such as naturalization and permanent residence, launched its nationwide call center in the late 1990s. In 2003, the agency stopped taking calls at its local service centers, hoping to ease the burden on district offices plagued by huge processing backlogs. But a recent American Immigration Lawyers Association survey of immigration attorneys and members of the public who had called the center found that nearly 80 percent rated the service unsatisfactory. Many reported receiving incorrect answers to their inquiries. Others said the call center employees provided slower service than CIS' local offices had previously.

Mike Aytes, director of CIS' information and customer service division, has reached out to the lawyers association to determine which calls should be directed to civil servant call-takers. As a result, CIS now routes some calls to its own service centers based on a customer's responses to automated prompts. But Aytes acknowledges that Pearson has not lived up to expectations. "They don't have enough butts in the seats," he says. "The average speed of answer is far [slower] than we require, and the abandonment rate [when callers hang up out of frustration] is far higher than we require." CIS plans to recompete the contract and revamp customer service representative training, he says. David Hakensen, vice president of public relations at Pearson, says that complex scripts for answering CIS calls and regular changes in them made it difficult to retain employees, but the company is working with CIS to improve retention and customer service.

Hard-to-use scripts, which customer service representatives rely on to answer questions, also were blamed for the problems at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, whose Pearson-operated call centers took a hit in a Government Accountability Office report in December 2004 (GAO-05-130). GAO found that the contractor employees answered completely and accurately only 61 percent of calls about Medicare recipient concerns in a July 2004 test. GAO said the scripts used by customer service representatives were not always clear, and that some had received inadequate training in using them.

Part of the problem stemmed from an unexpectedly large increase in call volume after Congress passed legislation adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, Hakensen says. Mary Agnes Laureno, director of beneficiary information services for CMS, says the agency has boosted training and quality oversight since the report came out. She says the agency is pleased with Pearson's work, and that its own quality tests show much better results than GAO found.

Agency officials say problems so far amount to growing pains. With more time to work out the kinks and better training, private sector call-takers will perform just as well as, and more cost-effectively than, public sector workers, they believe. Anton says outsourcing in and of itself is neither good nor bad. What matters, he says, is that agency leaders dedicate themselves and their resources to the task of improving customer service. Leadership is paramount, he stresses, but it's also not a job that can be done on the cheap. "Those that do it well have spent the money on people, processes and technology," he says.

Numbers

Public
(federal government)
Private
(business to consumer)
Average talk time 10.8 minutes 6.5 minutes
Average pickup time for most calls 34.4 seconds 35.7 seconds
Calls handled on the first try 68.1 percent 62.6 percent
Average time on hold 33 seconds 33 seconds
Caller satisfaction * 54.5 percent 44.7 percent

* % of perfect scores given in survey