PTO system answers the call

PTO system answers the call

PTO employees handle queries

Automated tools help workers field more than 1 million inquiries a year

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

Not only does the Patent and Trademark Office support itself on revenue it generates, it takes pride in returning money to the government.

'Our customers feel they have a right to demand more services'and rightly so, since they're paying for them,' said Jeanie Oliver, senior program manager for PTO's call center and marketing outreach.

'We respond to about 1 million calls annually,' she said. 'We have a relatively small staff, so we had to leverage technology to handle' the call load.

For a little more than a year, PTO has been answering calls with a Spectrum Automatic Call Distributor from Rockwell Switching Systems of Downers Grove, Ill., a division of Rockwell International Corp., combined with a Voice Processing Series Information Server (VPS/is) interactive voice response system from Periphonics Corp. of Bohemia, N.Y.''

The system handles not only the million calls a year to the General Information Services call center but also the calls to seven smaller PTO customer service centers and help desks.

'We built one infrastructure' to handle it all, Oliver said. 'Some of the centers have only one or two people answering phones. The automated systems help desk has about 40 agents.'

General Information Services, which gets the bulk of the calls, has about 10 people at the phones most of the time. Automation has put them well above the agency's goal of answering 80 percent of calls within 20 seconds. 'We run about 90 percent most of the time,' Oliver said.

By the end of the summer, the centers will begin integrating computer telephony to transfer data about callers to agents along with the phone calls. Agents also will respond by e-mail.

The callers ask about fees, application procedures and other details about PTO services. Things slow down a little during the December holidays, 'then come back with a vengeance in January,' Oliver said.

Along with wrong numbers, 'we get a large number of calls about Small Business Administration topics,' Oliver said. Copyright queries are transferred to the Library of Congress; tax calls go to the IRS.

Until fairly recently, all the switching was done manually.

'We started in 1993 with 20-button sets, blinking lights and ringing phones,' Oliver said. Soon General Information Services got its first automated call distributor, but it rapidly outgrew it. 'We had to move to more industrial strength,' she said.

In 1997, PTO installed the Spectrum ACD along with the VPS/is hardware-software platform. The Spectrum's Motorola 68000-series core processor can handle up to 25 calls per second, allocating other tasks to separate processors on circuit cards. It can scale up to three cabinets to serve 2,400 users at multiple call centers.

Dialing for data

The call distributor sends calls to the appropriate agent, queue or automated system. At General Information Services, the first stop for calls is the Periphonics VPS/is hardware-software system, based on a Sun Microsystems Sparc processor. It takes calls from the ACD through a T1 interface and presents a menu of voice prompts to direct callers.

Recorded information answers many callers' questions. Using call tracking information from the ACD, the interactive voice response server can be updated with more helpful menus and frequently requested recordings. So far this year, the automated system has handled nearly three-quarters of the calls. The rest go to PTO agents.

At present, when an attendant picks up a call, any data already collected from the caller must be accessed through a separate computer system. Computer telephony will integrate the database with the call distribution system so that caller information will pop up on the agent's screen automatically.

'We hope in the next six months to begin responding to e-mail with the same staff,' Oliver said. E-mail requests will go into the same customer database and will be forwarded to agents between phone calls.

'We hope the majority of responses will be automated' so that agents can answer with predefined replies. But first the appropriate responses must be identified. That will require developing a knowledge base of answers to frequently asked questions to minimize the time agents spend on e-mail queries.

The technical nature of the calls hinders PTO's use of speech recognition.

'The technology isn't there yet,' Oliver said. 'I'm not satisfied with the size of the dictionaries to meet our needs.'

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