Agency call centers get good marks for service

There is a certain synergy between meteorology and running a help desk, Daryl L. Covey says: 'Both have a lot of uncertainty.'

Survey shows they are at least as good as private-sector call centers, but hold time and user satisfaction need work

Call centers operated by federal agencies performed as well as'and sometimes better than'their corporate counterparts in most areas of a recent study by Purdue University's Center for Customer-Driven Quality. The study compared 93 federal, state and local government call center operations with business-to-business and business-to-customer centers.

Call centers provide customers and citizens with telephone interfaces to obtain answers and services or to voice complaints.

Compared with commercial call centers, the federal call centers answered faster and public-sector call centers in general had higher caller satisfaction levels.

Talk time for calls to public-sector centers averaged 20 percent shorter and with 12 percent fewer data entry errors than in the private sector.

The federal satisfaction level, however, was 54 percent'lower than the 62 percent scored by local centers and the 67 percent for state centers.

Callers to government centers also spent more time on hold'46 seconds on average'than callers to commercial centers.

Overall, the results reflect agency efforts to make services more efficient, said Daryl L. Covey, who publishes an electronic newsletter for federal help desks and call centers.

'Very often a call center is a citizen's perception of that agency,' he said.

Covey, who started as a meteorologist with the National Weather Service 28 years ago, established the help desk for the Next-Generation Weather Radar system and now is NEXRAD chief of field support.

There is a certain synergy between meteorology and running a help desk, Covey said: 'Both have a lot of uncertainty.'

Covey started the e-letter for 100,000 federal help desk agents two years ago. He added call center personnel to the e-letter because there was no other federal resource to keep them in touch.

Call centers are a fragmented community, Covey said, and it is difficult to apply survey results to any particular agency's center. 'I'm not sure there is much consistency,' he said.

The IRS operates the world's largest customer service operation and the government's largest call center, which has 12,000 agents at 26 locations.

'I would also put us at the top in terms of the challenges we face,' said John Liuzzi, director of the joint operations center that maintains the call-routing technology. 'The IRS works incredibly hard to keep up the service.'

Better grades

The Federal Performance Project, a George Washington University project that makes independent management assessments, acknowledged that effort in May by raising the overall IRS performance grade from a C to a B minus. IT factors, which got a D grade in 1999, rose to a C on the performance project's most recent report card.

Despite long-standing problems with its systems modernization, IRS has successfully advanced electronic tax filing and public outreach through call centers.

The work is seasonal, from January through April, and call center agents must take six to eight weeks' training in tax law before answering a phone.

The Joint Operations Center uses a variety of interactive voice response and call routing products from Aspect Communications Corp. of San Jose, Calif.; InterVoice Brite Inc. of Dallas; Microlog Corp. of Germantown, Md.; and Periphonics Corp. of Bohemia, N.Y.

All 26 call centers operate as a virtual environment, Liuzzi said. Calls from numerous toll-free numbers come into the operations center over an AT&T Corp. network. Callers answer voice prompts to explain their needs, and calls are routed according to agents' skills and availability.

There are separate agents for e-mail requests, but they are not part of the call-in system.

'We are constantly evolving and tweaking,' Liuzzi said. 'The call center of the future is a merger of multiple channels.'

IRS eventually will create a universal queue, he said, combining contact channels such as e-mail, Web chat and Web collaboration with telephone channels.

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