Managing Calls

GSA wants to set the bar for customer service standards.

Any government call center manager has a sense of what good customer service is. Callers can't be put on hold for too long. The answers they receive should be accurate and complete.

But how many know how they stack up against their peers, both in government and beyond?

This year, James Vaughn and Teresa Nasif intend to make sure they do. The two General Services Administration employees work in the agency's USA Services division, which oversees a governmentwide call center, and recently started the Citizen Service Level Inter-agency Committee. The group of 50 agency contact center managers is working to set standards for government centers. They will make their recommendations to the Office of Management and Budget by October. OMB will decide whether agencies will be required to meet the standards, or use them as guideposts.

Vaughn, a deputy program manager at GSA, credits the President's Management Agenda with bringing customer service standards to the forefront. "It's a great goal, but how do you measure it?" he asks. "With this [standardization], we'll be able to go back and measure."

Nasif has firsthand experience with customer service. As director of the GSA Federal Citizen Information Center, she oversees a new call center that answers general inquiries about the government and serves as a clearinghouse for inquiries that other agencies receive but cannot answer. Last year, it received about 5 million phone calls in addition to e-mails.

The managers they've assembled have held several meetings and are narrowing a list of areas where they believe standards should be set. The list is long and includes everything from hours of operation to privacy. Among the other areas:

  • First contact resolution. How many calls should be resolved on the first call?
  • Queue position information. Should callers be told they have a few minutes to wait, or that they are the fifth person in line?
  • Time to call back. How long should a customer wait to receive a callback on an unresolved query?
  • Call recording. Should all agencies record calls and review them for quality assurance?
  • Languages. In how many should a call center be able to answer an inquiry?

Fortunately, Vaughn and Nasif are planning to provide daunted managers with some tips. GSA has hired the Mitre Corp., a not-for-profit research and development organization with headquarters in Massa-chusetts and Virginia, to research these questions: "How do citizens want to contact the government and what do they expect when they do so?" Then, they'll look for examples of successful call centers in the private sector and government that meet those standards. "We are going to demonstrate that it can be done," says Vaughn.

Many technologies are available to help agencies provide better call center service. Nasif is impressed with the FAQ system from Bozeman, Mont.-based RightNow Technologies, a customer relationship management firm. It allows citizens to receive quick self-service online by entering a question and receiving a menu of possible answers. If the question is new, then the system captures it and prompts a manager to add an answer.

Nasif and Vaughn are happy to make recommendations, but technology moves too fast, they point out, to set requirements. "Small agencies will say they don't have the resources" for some of the technologies, Vaughn adds. "Large ones will say that specific requirements don't make sense."

The ultimate goal, says Nasif, is to boost citizen trust in government: "We want them to know that they will get the right answer."