Colorado tax site eases e-mail burden

Technique | Colorado Department of Revenue seizes control of an avalanche of customer e-mails

Smart site learns from feedback

To use Colorado's automated e-mail reply system, visitors have to set up an online account at www.TaxColorado.com, providing some minimal identification information such as phone number and e-mail address. To inquire about a specific tax return, they must enter a Social Security number.

The site takes users who click 'online customer support' to a list of frequently asked questions. Select one of the questions, for example, 'How can I get a copy of my tax return?' and the site comes back with: 'To obtain a copy of your paper or electronic tax return, please complete the form DR 5714 'Request for Copy.' '

The site then offers a link to the state's tax forms Web site and gives a mailing address for the form. Visitors can also click on a button that says, 'Notify me by e-mail if this answer is updated.'

The site then asks, 'How well did this answer your question?' Users can click on a percentage from zero to 100.

The RightNow software uses this feedback to tweak the knowledge base that powers the system. Using artificial intelligence, RightNow 'learns' how customers and contact center staff search for information and applies this insight to make it easier for people to find what they're looking for.

CAN'T REPLY TO ALL: Ro Silva, left, and Kathy Pugliese needed to find a better way to answer thousands of questions they receive at Colorado's Department of Revenue, especially during tax season. A RightNow Technologies software product automates replies to the most common questions.

WPN photo by Marc Piscotty

It began so quietly, so reasonably. Ro Silva started working on the Web site for Colorado's Department of Revenue in 1995. A year later, she began answering e-mail from taxpayers through the site. It was a lot, but it was manageable.

Within three years, Silva was answering 13,000 e-mail questions each tax season through the site at TaxColorado.com. Whoa.

The mailbox that received the e-mail didn't have a filtering mechanism. It took any and all questions, from the obscure ('Are goods purchased on an Indian reservation taxable?') to the mundane ('Where's my tax refund?').

'It was getting out of control,' said Silva, manager of public information and education at the department. She enlisted an additional employee, Kathy Pugliese, to help handle the e-mail load. But the situation was still crazy and was 'only going to get worse.' Silva knew the department needed to find a better way to handle the e-mail deluge.

In the summer of 2000, Silva got an invitation to see a demonstration of RightNow, a software product from RightNow Technologies that automates e-mail replies to common questions. The company hosts the product on a secure server, and it runs on a Web browser. Colorado's Department of Revenue links to the server from its Web sites.

Security is especially important because taxes deal with highly confidential information, such as people's Social Security numbers, income and addresses.
'People are very sensitive about sharing that information over the Internet,' Silva said.

RightNow does not volley a reply right back to the sender in an e-mail message. 'That could possibly be picked up by a hacker,' Silva said. The user has to log in to RightNow's secure server, where the reply will be available.
Using RightNow, Silva built a module that would automate responses to the top 20 questions. She didn't have time to work on developing the application at work, so she put it together at home in about two days. 'And I'm not an [information technology] person,' she said. 'I majored in journalism.'

The system needed a bit of tweaking, Silva said. 'I want to warn people that this is not going to solve all of your contact issues overnight. We learned some lessons the hard way.'

At first, Silva and Pugliese tried to put every possible question and answer into the system, from the most common questions to highly detailed technical information.

Now they only display about 200 questions and answers on the department Web site. The department has more than 1,000 questions and answers stored in a database, but it lists on the site only questions someone has actually asked. RightNow has a knowledge-capture feature that can house expert knowledge from a tax professional or attorney in this database.

Pugliese makes sure the system picks up the right keywords for the top questions and monitors the questions to make sure the site's top 20 questions are the most commonly asked.

'If you don't do that, it won't help much,' Silva said. 'You have to have somebody monitoring the quality and availability of the answers we provide on a daily basis.'

The department has been using RightNow for seven years, so Colorado's taxpayers are well acquainted with it now, Silva said.

'We were early adopters, so we went through a lot of, 'Why are you making me do this?' ' Now these kinds of automated question-and-reply systems are more accepted, Silva said.

Taxes are a seasonal business, and the department fields 90 percent of its workload of constituent questions from early February through mid-March. Colorado has more than 2.1 million individual income tax filers. So even with RightNow, the seasonal peak in workload is massive, and the department adds extra employees during the crunch times.

But using the RightNow service, the department saved about $700,000 in about 18 months. The e-mail volume dropped by 45 percent.

Tax questions require consistent, precisely worded answers. Tax laws don't lend themselves to easy comprehension, which can create problems for Colorado and its taxpayers. People keep asking the same question on the phone, via e-mail or online until they get the answer they like best, Silva said. 'With RightNow, we eliminate that type of treasure hunt by giving the exact same answer across every channel,' she added.

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