IRS thinks it has the answer

The IRS has upgraded its Telephone Routing Interactive System to prepare 36 customer
service sites for the year 2000 and handle a record number of calls this tax season.

The service installed new hardware and software and ported 18 applications between June
and November last year to avoid interference with its busiest season.

“I’m told we have the largest automated call distributor network in the
world,” said Bill Farrell, IRS project manager for TRIS.

“They have the most complicated interactive voice response applications I’ve
ever seen,” said Aimee Stubbeman, product manager at Microlog Corp. of Germantown,
Md., which supplied the Intela IVR system for TRIS.

TRIS automates taxpayer access to information via Touch-Tone telephone. It speeds up
routine queries such as tracking refunds and learning the amount of taxes owed, and it
relieves the workload on customer service representatives. TRIS handled more than 30
million calls in fiscal 1997 and about 65 million calls last year.

“It’s just not reasonable to think the service can hire enough people to
answer phones in light of the fact that we’re expecting 100 million calls this
year,” Farrell said.

Intela IVR answers the agency’s toll-free 800 numbers and presents a voice menu of
options. An automated call distributor from Aspect Telecommunications Corp. of San Jose,
Calif., directs the calls into the Intela unit, and an Intelligent CallRouter from GeoTel
Communications Corp. of Lowell, Mass., shuttles them to the proper call center application
or human representative.

TRIS initially had nine Intela call router sites and 15 Intela customer service sites,
which have been expanded to do call routing. Six customer service sites and three forms
ordering and distribution sites that had older Microlog systems also got upgrades to the
Intela platform.

Most of the IRS Intela systems were running Version 1.05 of the Intela software from
Voicetek Corp. of Chelmsford, Mass., under the Santa Cruz Operation UnixWare 3.0 operating
system. They received an upgrade to Intela Systems Release 6, a year 2000-ready 233-MHz
Pentium box running Version 4.0 of the software under SCO UnixWare 5.04, Microlog project
manager Donna Desiderio said.

Hardware installation began in June. The sites’ old hard drives continued running
while application conversion was under way. Nine Microlog-developed applications had to be
ready for testing with five IRS-developed applications by Aug. 17 so that installation
could begin a month later.

The IRS also asked Microlog to convert four third-party applications. Mirror backup
drives were made from the master drives in September, and a total of 238 drives were in
place by Oct. 27.

Call router capability arrived at the additional customer service sites in late
September through late October. Finally, the nine original call router sites converted to
a dual voice response unit configuration with an additional bridge between the Aspect call
distributor and the Intela application server.

TRIS not only responds to taxpayer calls, it updates files in real time, Farrell said.
One of the busiest applications is refund tracking, which handled 12 million of more than
35 million refund inquiries last year.

Another busy application lets taxpayers set up payment schedules. In 1997, the app
handled 200,000 payment plans for $288 million worth of taxes. Last year it set up 520,000
plans worth $1.05 billion. The automated system takes about four minutes to complete a
plan compared with 14 minutes by a human representative, officials said.

Although IRS information packages did not publish the special telephone numbers until
last year, taxpayers are using them in growing numbers, Farrell said.

Jim Grasenger, a computer analyst at the TRIS software development site in Cincinnati,
said the percentage of taxpayer calls that TRIS can complete without human intervention
still is small.  

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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