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Are government call centers ready for the generation gap?

Due to cultural shifts and technological advancements, multiple industries have seen rapid changes during the last few years in the way their customers are receiving information and communicating with others. We live in a digital world that affects everyone from the estimated 40 million baby boomers to the growing number of millennials -- and their needs for communication are different and changing.

Culture and technology has largely affected the customer care industry on both the commercial and federal sides. Commercial contact centers have seen success in advancing to a more informative, consolidated center with multiple channels of communication. Now it is time for government agencies to take the plunge.

The generation gap in the American population has grown. According to the Health and Human Services Department, there are nearly 40 million people aged 65 or older in the United States -- almost 13 percent of the population. By 2030, HHS projects, there will be more than 72 million older citizens making up 19 percent of the population.

Federal agencies must tend to the needs of the growing baby boomer population, which relies on government services now more than ever. If agencies don’t accommodate this cultural shift, they will not be able to provide the level of constituent care that these generations expect and demand.

Company contact centers used to be segmented and have multiple phone numbers for consumers to call, based on the department or service needed. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for a customer to provide one number to call for technical service and another number for parts, for example. Today, consumers demand speedy, reliable information. They want a one-stop shop to answer several questions on various topics. Contact centers must be considered knowledge centers to meet the new demands of the general population.

The shifting preference of communication methods is a challenge for any contact center, brand or service. The millennial generation is technology-focused and prefers digital forms of communication via channels like text messages, email, social media and Web tools. According to the report “Contact Center Satisfaction Index 2012” by the customer analytics firm CFI Group, contact channels other than the phone – such as email, Web self-service, chat and other online techniques -- now account for more than 30 percent of customer service engagements. Web self-service and email appear to dominate this mix.

On the other end of the spectrum, baby boomers -- the largest segment of the population -- would rather call a customer service line to get an answer quickly. Agencies must be able to understand who their beneficiaries are and which method of communication they prefer. Then they can decide which methods to employ to better serve their constituents.

Cultural and technological shifts are also drastically changing the face of contact centers. Running multiple centers and customer service lines is inefficient, wasting resources and money. To encourage efficiency and collaboration, many organizations have started to consolidate centers in a virtual space. In many cases, contact center employees don’t work in the same building, let alone the same state. Workforce provisions like at-home cubicles can be shipped to an employee’s residence for simple installation, equipping that employee with the necessary tools to provide customer care in an environment that not only is secure, but convenient and economical. Remote employees receive interactive training and intuitive software that provides service prompts to help them answer questions and process customer requests faster and more accurately.  These advancements play a vital role in creating the new unified, knowledge-based center. They ensure agents are efficient and constituents view them as experts, ultimately increasing customer satisfaction and saving agencies money.

There’s a cultural shift on the horizon. The baby boomer generation is fast approaching retirement and will generate such an incredible volume of service and constituent care issues that federal contact centers must be prepared. Meanwhile, the millennial generation requires entirely new means of communication that service agencies will need to figure out to engage them properly -- whether it is via email, social or a mix. Federal agencies must adhere to a cultural change and greater consolidation that will prepare their contact centers for the seismic generational shifts to come.

Ron Woody is a senior solution architect at Xerox with more than 20 years’ experience in customer care, operations, budgeting and business development for commercial and government enterprises.