"Time to Address the 800# Gorilla in DINARLAND!"
While we ALL continue to do as we are told and BE patiently just WAIT FOR IT! Meanwhile since no one as of yet in all of Dinarland has been very forthcoming to try and explain how these 800 number(s), which we are constantly being informed will soon manifest yesterday, or either later today, or this weekend or at the very latest into early next week, nor how they will be processed or addressed. The logistics of how it is at all to BE.DO.HAVE possible in order to field the up to now totally unknown amount of Dinarland redeemers (lets just work with a round figure say "500,000 Chosen Ones" calling these call center(s) employees) in just a short period of time, as in the short 48 hour window that keeps being reported by our faithful INTEL providers.
Here is some hard facts to digest or what I would like to simply call and share, as we play out this 800# waiting game once again, some "Food 4 Thought" about the extremely complicated operations, staffing and pitfalls of a few of the largest 800# GOVT CALL CENTERS on this planet:
The Social Security Administration
The Social Security Administration has reaped the rewards of technology by using it to link call centers and route calls. In any given year the Social Security answered 68 million calls--ranking it among AT&T's biggest 800-number customers. (Keep in mine there's the keyword word AT&T), which up to now has never been mentioned as a very KEY COMPONENT in this life-long abundant blessing!
Social Security has tied together 36 sites of varied sizes across the country in a "virtual" call center operated by 3,800 full- and part-time employees--with 4,000 more trained and equipped to back them up. Technology links the sites, routing incoming calls across the United States to whichever site has employees available to answer them. For example, someone from Baltimore may call the toll-free number when all 500 Social Security representatives at the Baltimore center are busy. If employees at the Birmingham, Ala., center are free, the call goes there. Routing calls helps even out the workload and improve customer service by reducing busy signals. In a given year, SSA's busy rate was 7 percent, and the average time a caller waited to talk with someone was two minutes. A past study found the average wait time was eight minutes among private sector firms considered top-notch in customer service.
SSA also is using integrated voice response to answer queries more efficiently. IVR permits callers to get information without talking with a person simply by punching numbers on the keypad or speaking in response to an automated list of options. Many banks use the technology to let customers check account balances and transfer funds. SSA uses it for callers requesting publications, Social Security card applications, benefit estimates or the location of the nearest Social Security office. An SSA agent handles as many as 85 calls a day and the average call lasts seven minutes; the automated system can lighten that load. And the IVR is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week; employees answer calls from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time on business days. Nine out of 10 callers get the information they need on the first call, whether from the automated system or an agent, according to the agency's statistics. Again there is another KEYWORD and COMPONENT mentioned (IVR)!
People typically call to change an address, report a death, make an appointment at a local field office, ask about lost payments or sign up for direct deposit of Social Security benefits. The call center employees "concentrate on anything that can be handled in a few minutes, it frees up folks in the field office for lengthier, more complex dealings."
Nonetheless, employees answering the phones still need a lot of information and technology offers a way to provide it. Rather than depending on manuals and other documents they will be using "screen pops" to find information they need. By typing in a key word on their PCs, phone representatives will be able to get a concise screen-full of information. PCs using Windows-based software are replacing the old servers.
In addition to being trained on the new software, call center employees already have had nine to 10 weeks of in-house training, including one week on phone techniques. Ongoing training takes up 5 percent to 7 percent of their time during the year.
Indeed, training of call center agents and managers was cited as a key factor when a consultant doing bench-marking of 800-number service rated the Social Security Administration as offering world-class service. The agency was compared with private-sector companies well known for outstanding service, such as Nordstrom retail stores and Southwest Airlines. Representatives displayed a unique ability to anticipate the caller's every need and provided the caller with appropriate information without having the caller articulate the request.
However, there is another important component that doesn't eliminate stress, which happens to be a common problem among call center workers. SSA, like any other organization running a call center, faces a morale problem. Being tethered to a desk and a headset all day unarguably is a strain. It's a stressful job, no question about it. To help alleviate that stress, the agency breaks up telephone work with other tasks and is hammering out a "more team-oriented way" to ensure quality, he adds. It is estimated that some 250 of the 3,800 call center positions, which range from GS-7 to GS-8, turn over in a year.
Still, things are going so well that the agency is looking for more tasks that can be completed on the phone. A likely candidate is replacing lost or damaged Social Security cards. Four centers are experimenting with handling such calls. Another possibility is taking claims on the 800 number. Once the decade-old phone systems are replaced, agents also may be able to call back people who request help or information on filing claims via the agency's Web site.
National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health
Like SSA, the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health spends a lot of time giving out information. The Cancer Information Service fields 500,000 calls a year, mostly from cancer patients and their families and friends. It, too, is a virtual call center, with 19 sites nationwide and 400 people answering the phones.
The institute plans to expand the service and public access to information. The organization is continually evaluating how we as a program can translate science for the lay public, one of its two top priorities. Other priorities listed are finding ways to introduce people to clinical trials, not promoting them but noting them as a viable option and persuading people to adopt a healthier lifestyle.
The information service has just begun to provide 24-hour-a-day access to automated information on frequently asked questions, in addition to the 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Fridayaccess to information specialists. The automated system should reduce the busy signal rate, now around 10 percent, to about 5 percent by improving the routing of calls.
With more than 200 kinds of cancer to cover, training is detailed and structured. Information specialists must have bachelor's degrees in health-related fields. They spend six weeks training in the classroom and four and a half months working with a mentor on the phone before striking out on their own. Continuing education is required also.
Most calls are from women between the ages of 35 and 50, who have at least a high school education. That profile hasn't changed in about 10 years, Other groups just don't use the phone to get information on cancer.
Knowing that, the institute has refined its outreach program for people who aren't likely to call for information on cancer. They are partnering with other organizations that have access to the communities, especially the medically under served.
While both the National Cancer Institute and the Social Security Administration have won kudos for their call centers, the Internal Revenue Service has not. Reports of slow response and answers that were inaccurate and inconsistent have received wide publicity. That may all change, as the IRS restructures its toll-free service.
The plan is to offer callers access to representatives 24 hours a day, seven days a week, starting this month. Its goal is to have 85 percent of calls to the virtual call center go through on the first try, and to answer them in less than 40 seconds.
To get there from where the IRS is--with 27 regional centers that varied widely in their accessibility to 50 million taxpayer calls last year--the agency will rely on new technology, a new emphasis on training and a different approach to the customer service representative's job. Nine sites are testing the routing and linking necessary for the virtual center, which will have 25 sites. In addition, representatives will use computers that run in a Windows environment, improving their access to information. Plans call for the IRS manual to be computerized.
When a past IRS Commissioner held a video-conference with customer service representatives, they told him that training too often was inadequate. Since then, the IRS has rewritten the curriculum and started to assess representatives' skill levels. The IRS wants to ensure that their technical skills are where they should be and if not, we will identify a training program.
Assessing skill levels also had another purpose: to help classify agents into groups based on their knowledge and skills. Skills-based routing of calls, part of the new setup, depends on knowing which agents have the training and knowledge to answer different types of calls. Establishing those groups will make it easier to route calls appropriately. A front-end automated screener will begin the routing process.
No additional staff will be hired. Instead, vacancies have been assigned to the locations that will provide night hours, and incentives are being offered to employees to work later shifts. The top pay grade for the 11,000 customer service representatives--not all of whom answer phones--was upgraded from GS-7 to GS-8 recently. Some employees also will be answering calls on a new toll-free number for taxpayers with unresolved problems. The new line, launched is only for people who have already gone through the normal channels at the IRS.
U.S. Postal Service
With 28 million calls last year, the U.S. Postal Service may not rank with the Social Security Administration in volume, but its employees still answer 100,000 calls a day on average. Until 1996, all calls were handled at a regional level--some 40 to 50 regional call centers across the country had grown up spontaneously. But calls weren't being answered as quickly as the USPS liked and employees with other duties had to answer the phone, taking them away from [their regular] work. Another problem was lack of standardization, even though most questions were about ZIP codes, postage rates and delivery services.
Research convinced the Postal Service to centralize the job of giving out information on the phone by using a virtual call center. A pilot site was established in Denver, the Postal Board of Governors approved nationwide expansion of the concept. A second call center opened in Kansas City, Kan., and was being run by TeleTech Facilities Management, the same contractor that operates the one in Denver. Plans call for four more centers to open within two years, while the regional ones are phased out. Until all six are up and running, the centers will serve a set area, and eventually they will be linked into a virtual call center.
The goal is to answer 80 percent of calls within 20 seconds, with the average call lasting between 70 seconds and 118 seconds. Updates to the international and domestic mail manuals are now added to the online system biweekly. Eventually, customers will be able to connect to the call center from the Web if they can't find what they need on the USPS Web site.
The Veterans Benefits Administration is struggling to improve service at its call centers. The VBA was really in their infancy compared with SSA and we're on the threshold of moving ahead. The VBA answers only half of the 20 million calls it receives each year. The agency's 58 call centers have neither a common standard for phone equipment nor any way to balance the overall load of calls. Access can be inconsistent: The percentage of callers getting a busy signal ranges from 1 percent to 85 percent, although the Veterans Affairs strategic plan calls for a busy rate of 1 percent and resolution of 85 percent of calls on the first connection.
Clearly, change is necessary to achieve these goals. The agency is testing new ways of handling claims that affect how calls will be answered. Currently, they are answered by the equivalent of 615 full-time employees, GS-5 through GS-11, with the job of processing cases handled separately. By creating teams of people who can both process claims and work directly with customers and can provide better service and take care of the variations in call volume. Calls spike at the beginning of the month, when people want to know where their checks are, and after long weekends.
VBA is working to break down barriers between its regions as well as between its job descriptions. A couple years ago, a senior field manager in the central area noticed the inconsistent level of blocked calls at regional centers. He arranged for the phone network to be programmed so that when the North Dakota center's phones were all busy, its calls would be routed to the St. Paul center. Customer access in the area improved, proving that calls can be handled across regional boundaries.
A front-end automated response system tested by the St. Paul center will be used in six regional offices by the end of the year. The system gives customers round-the-clock access to information on general benefits, recurring payments and education benefits, as well as directions to the nearest VA office. Five of the offices were picked because of their high blocked-call rate: 73 percent over the past year. Next year, VBA will test a virtual call center.
People call the VBA's five business lines with specific questions concerning compensation and pension, loan guaranty, education, insurance, and vocation rehabilitation and counseling. Their priority is to get those to the case teams without a lot of intervening steps.
The Defense Logistics Agency and the General Services Administration
In addition to doing business with the public, agencies such as the Defense Logistics Agency and the General Services Administration use call centers internally. The DLA learned from a customer service survey that less than 38 percent of its customers were satisfied with their phone contacts. The agency asked the Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus, Ohio, a nonprofit consulting organization, to compare DLA's customer support operation with those of top performers in the private sector, such as General Electric and American Express. The study found that too many people--more than 700--were providing customer support in supply and service centers. The environment was unstructured, accountability was lacking and equipment was inadequate, and the DLA's information service support command, which provides tele-services operations and integrated customer support. Call centers seemed to be the logical answer, an internal working group said.
Five call centers have been established. Agents at each of the five centers handle between 13,000 and 18,000 calls a month, with 65,000 to 80,000 per month going through the automated response system. The average speed for answering a call is between 15 seconds and 40 seconds, with 70 percent to 85 percent of callers getting their questions answered on the first call. Once the centers are fully staffed, they will have about 200 employees. DLA customers have noticed the change. A recent customer service survey found an 81 percent satisfaction rating. Using call centers is part of a move to integrate all customer contacts, so that no matter how someone asks a question--on the phone, in person or online--the answer is the same and comes from the same information, Their goal is better service through communications and data sharing."
The General Services Administration has five call centers serving government customers. The two largest, which handle fleet management and supply distribution, have gone virtual. The fleet call center became virtual, consolidating nine regional call centers into seven sites that could be accessed through one number. The operation became so efficient that three sites were closed. The virtual center routes 7,000 calls a week concerning 160,000 GSA-leased vehicles. The calls go to 26 technicians, GS-9s and GS-11s, at four sites. The average call lasts three minutes, and most are answered within 20 seconds.
GSA's seven supply distribution call centers at the Federal Supply Service became virtual last fall. The virtual center, which routes calls to three sites, permits government buyers to call one central 800 number instead of seven regional ones. Many people think working at a call center is a low-level job, who has worked with call centers for more than 15 years in many capacities. A number of federal agencies see the job the same way. They have realized that they can improve customer service, become more efficient and fulfill their mission more effectively by paying close attention to their call centers.
Well just thinking out loud again folks and may we all be blessed really soon because later is not very favorable at all.
May God Bless us ALL!
~ Drunken Sailor