Government Customer Service: No Longer an Oxymoron?

Next year, when taxpayers call theInternal Revenue Service for help answering questions as they fill out a return, they will know how many minutes they will have to wait on hold before they can speak with an agent.

At the beginning of this year, constituents may not have known they would be holding for, say, five minutes — but some may have noticed a far shorter wait time than they were forced to endure in previous years.

That is because the government agency has been spending millions on contact center equipment in order to shift to an IP (Internet protocol) environment — a move in part being guided by AT&T’s government solutions division.

Under a US$12.5 million contract that it won last year, AT&T helped to deploy the Cisco-based Customer Voice Portal (CVP) infrastructure and will provide related services.

The new platform supports 26 call centers with 8,000 IRS agents who process more than 130 million calls annually. The IRS’ motivation in undertaking the project, explained Jeff Hayes, client business manager for AT&T, was to centralize call queuing from the various centers.

“For instance, a caller with a 1040 question would be routed to a certain call center, then have to wait for an agent that could answer questions about that particular form,” he told CRM Buyer. The changes made last year — in time for this year’s April 15 deadline — allow callers to be routed to the first available agent in any call center who can address a particular question.

Build-Out to IP

AT&T and the IRS are taking steps to flesh out the system before the tax cycle begins again. With the basic equipment deployed, the goal is to continue to turn on related features — such as wait-time notification — and build out to a complete IP environment.

“The first big phase was last year’s move to CVP,” Hayes said. “That gives them the basic infrastructure to move towards an IP call center environment.”

With that foundation in place, “we are having a number of ongoing conversations with the IRS on how to enhance its current environment,” Frank Black, sales director for AT&T government solutions, told CRM Buyer.

The larger initiative is to deploy a MPLS (multiprotocol label switching) backbone to support an IP environment. “The agency wants to enable their network so they can become a more efficient enterprise,” he explained.

A Greater Push

There is a growing trend among government agencies to become more accessible to their constituents. Increasingly, they are leveraging new technology infrastructures to tie back-end information data systems with front-end customer service interaction platforms, according to a newly released study from Accenture.

Unlike the 311 directory-type model, the 211 information service currently being tested in New York City, for instance, can sometimes resemble a social worker’s intake process, Jon Brakebill, global program director of Accenture’s government CRM practice, told CRM Buyer.

Take the example of a senior citizen on a fixed income evicted from an apartment in the middle of winter with nowhere to go, or a single mother suddenly in need of food stamps and other welfare services.

“With the 311 model, yes, the rep has to understand the services — but it is still a transactional call,” David Roberts, leader of Accenture’s government customer service and CRM practice, told CRM Buyer. “211, though, requires an in-depth understanding of both the services available and the person’s need.”

Flexible Approach

Many government agencies have grasped the need to move beyond the first e-government initiatives they deployed, such as self-service or dynamic Web pages. “That is the one channel citizens expect the government to have mastered. Now it is recognized there is a need for the government to be flexible in its technology approach to meet peoples’ needs,” said Roberts.

In the case of the IRS, advanced routing technology could get the right rep to answer a constituent’s question faster. For a different agency, greater responsiveness could mean launching a 211 service.

“It is all about making the right connections — both internally at the agency and with the customer,” said Brakebill. “It is easy enough to put a button on a Web site that allows citizens to request a service, but getting organizations to build on that requires a greater integration of its people, processes and IT.”

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