Better Service Through Customers

Every federal agency has a variety of customers. These customers can be citizens, businesses, other government agencies and even offices within an agency. Each customer interaction produces extensive data. Using these data to develop new channels of service is what customer relationship management (CRM) is all about. CRM is a conglomeration of technologies and management strategies. It is to the front office, the operational side of the house, what enterprise resource planning is to the back office, the domain of human resources and financial systems.

"We tend to have all this data about ourselves but have no data about our customers," says Kevin Fitzgerald, vice president for the public sector at Siebel Systems Inc., a San Mateo, Calif., e-business application developer.

Customer focus involves more than just implementing fancy technologies, however. CRM is inherently a management tool, but at the same time many technologies are at its core. They include call centers, computer telephony, Internet storefronts, databases and data mining. Yet CRM can take many roles because each of the technologies serves a different purpose. Fitzgerald breaks CRM technologies into three parts:

  • Operational. These technologies run customer service activities, whether they are Web storefronts or call center and field service databases.
  • Collaborative. The ability to field self-service applications on the World Wide Web enables different types of customers to work across a single service channel.
  • Analytical. The data warehousing and data mining side of CRM involves sifting through data created during customer transactions to find useful business information. For instance, Fitzgerald says, agencies could use the data to determine the cost of providing a particular service. Agencies also could analyze the data to identify common customer problems, questions or even desires.

"CRM puts systems in place at all customer touch points-be it sales, marketing, customer service or technical support," says Kristen Nauta, manager of the public sector technology center at the SAS Institute Inc., a Cary, N.C., company specializing in data warehousing and data mining. "CRM combines all this data into one place such that any time a customer is contacted, the agency can see a customer snapshot. And since you have all this data in one place, the thinking is that you should be able to analyze it."

CRM isn't really a technology, although technology is involved, says Colleen Amuso, research director in the CRM practice at Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn., research firm. Rather, it is a business strategy. "What we found was that as we talked about behaviors, processes weren't following suit," Amuso says. "We recognized that an organization needs to change with technology."

CRM, like electronic government, is about transformation. "CRM is not an island," Amuso says. "CRM technologies need to be integrated into an agency's back office systems. The front office is just one piece of the puzzle. If an agency only changes its customer service center, it will be no better than when it started."

The government's motives for using CRM are much different from those of the private sector. Businesses tend to use CRM to weed out customers that are costly to serve, Nauta says. That's not an option for government. And unlike government, businesses use CRM as a tool to help them acquire more customers.

Yet it is possible for agencies to leverage CRM. Using CRM to learn about customer habits can bear fruit in terms of savings and efficiency. Moreover, divining why some customers cost more to deal with can unearth confusing and thereby costly practices. The Internal Revenue Service's Electronic Federal Tax Payment System is a case in point.

Anexsys LLC, a Chicago-based IT company, is one of two operators running the program, which is designed to facilitate the collection of corporate tax payments. "If a taxpayer has a problem, or if they need to give us information or even are inquiring about the status of a payment, they call a service number," says Tony Castellano, the system's program manager for Anexsys. The company provides the IRS with aggregate data about the nature of the calls.

"The government has been very creative at mining the data," Castellano says. In the last three years, such analysis has reduced the time it takes taxpayers to phone in payments by more than 40 percent. And the number of taxpayer requests for help has dropped by 90 percent. The average payment now takes just 2 minutes and 20 seconds, and it happens 100,000 times a day.

By looking at call volumes, the team made IRS mailings more efficient. "Early on, the IRS did mailings with no consideration of the implications," Castellano says. "Everybody called in at the same time. We couldn't handle the volume of calls and had a lot of unhappy taxpayers. By doing analysis, we were able to do a rolling mail-out by ZIP code. We can mail out letters to the same number of people as long as they are in different parts of the country. This means we won't get calls at the same hours of the day." It also means fewer taxpayers wait on hold. Agencies can take some steps without spending a dime on CRM. "Understanding who your customers are and why they do business with you is a good first step," Amuso says.

Kenneth Munson, director of public sector strategy at PeopleSoft Inc., a Pleasanton, Calif., e-business application developer, has the following tips for agencies:

  • Take an inventory of your customers. A customer can be anyone ranging from the citizen contacting your call center to the employee in the office next door, where you submit a monthly report.
  • Identify the products and services you provide those customers.
  • Identify the methods you use to provide the products and services.
  • Measure the effectiveness of communications with your customers through your service channels.

"Technology is the easy part," Amuso says. "It's an organization's turf wars-who owns the customers, who owns the processes-that make CRM difficult. CRM requires consistency in processes, especially when it comes down to adding more channels, more ways of working with customers." Amuso says significant gains can result from merely focusing on the issue of customer service and implementing employee training programs. Federal managers may decide to hire outside consultants for guidance, but Amuso says agencies should choose one of their own to help navigate the effort. No one understands the IRS like the people who run it, she says. However, no two agencies will pursue CRM in the same way, Amuso says. "You can't say that all customer service strategies are the same." Those varied missions, coupled with the prevalence of legacy systems in the federal government, can require special integration or customization of commercial off-the-shelf technology.

The Federal Technology Service, for example, is in the business of providing technology solutions to government customers, while the Military Traffic Management Command transports goods throughout the world. Its customers include service personnel on the move, logistics officers and even commercial carriers. Both agencies are using software created by Siebel.

FTS is using the software to automate its sales force. By knowing what prospective customers have bought in the past, FTS hopes to be farther along the road to helping agencies when they make the first call. "In CRM, you're trying to know enough about the customer so that you can offer them what they think is important," says Mary Whitley, the assistant commissioner for sales at FTS.

As a prelude to implementing any technology, FTS had to decide to live and die by the customer. As such, Whitley agrees that the management aspect of CRM is as important, or even more so, than the technology. FTS plans to launch a 65-desk pilot program in February.

While FTS is trying to sell its services, MTMC is fielding help desk calls from military transportation officers and the commercial trucking industry. The command is using Siebel software to segment incoming calls into different levels of urgency and importance so employees can analyze the types of calls.

"We do keep track of customer calls, and we can generate statistics as to how often a [customer] may call," says Lori Barnhill, a management information systems specialist at MTMC. The command uses this data to help create training courses for its multitude of users that directly respond to common problems.

Gartner lists CRM as one of the key technologies in the construction of an electronic government. And because so much activity is occurring in the e-gov arena, it is likely that some agencies are already working on CRM without recognizing it.

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