SSA gets ready for customer service on the Web

SSA gets ready for customer service on the Web

BY WILLIAM JACKSON | GCN STAFF

The Social Security Administration has completed proof-of-concept tests for Web customer service pilots that could begin as soon as this spring.
Each of the tested prototypes combined off-the-shelf, multivendor technologies to help citizens communicate more effectively with SSA staff. KPMG Consulting LLC of McLean, Va., evaluated the results for SSA.

'The technologies are ready,' said V. Douglas Hines, KPMG managing director. 'The real challenge is to integrate the technologies with SSA's existing customer support applications and databases.'

Hines recommended another round of testing on security and authentication before SSA call centers roll out any Web and voice communications applications.

Tony Trenkle, SSA director of electronic services, said limited use could begin in the next six months, although the applications have not been selected. Nor have senior officials been briefed on the results of the tests, he said, and additional security testing probably is necessary.
SSA operates 14 large call centers around the country that handle more than 60 million calls a year. The workload is expected to double over the next 10 years as baby boomers reach retirement age. That means digital technology must supplement telephone and face-to-face transactions.

SSA last December asked CommerceNet Consortium, an electronic-commerce trade group of which the agency is a member, for help in developing multivendor solutions for integrated contact centers. More than a dozen vendors invested about $2 million in developing four prototype systems.
Mary Mitchell, program executive for electronic-government policy at the General Services Administration, called the tests 'an honest assessment of what is achievable,' although it did not answer all questions.

'We relied on the vendors to come to us with what they thought were the workable technologies,' Trenkle said.

Requirements included real-time text chat between SSA agents and clients, call-back from e-mail requests, e-mail interaction, Web collaboration, agent-led Web browsing, intelligent call routing, and customer relationship management to show a history of a client's dealings with SSA.

Unisys Corp. was the integrator for the project. Each of the test systems ran on servers with Microsoft Windows 2000 and the Microsoft SQL Server database manager.

International endeavor

Unisys partnered with Cosmocom Inc. of Hauppauge, N.Y., Microsoft, Nortel Networks Corp. of Brampton, Ontario, and Setecs Co. of Sweden to produce one system. A second system came from Siebel Systems Inc. of San Mateo, Calif., and Sideware Systems Inc. of North Vancouver, British Columbia. A third system was from Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., Microsoft and Unisys; and a fourth from Microlog Corp. of Germantown, Md., Sybase Inc. of Emeryville, Calif., and Vignette Corp. of Austin, Texas.

Some of the prototypes took as little as a month to put together. They were set up in August at a Unisys facility in Reston, Va., and moved to the SSA Technology Center in Baltimore in September for testing.

The center supplied 12 workstations from various vendors, six for the customer service agents and six for other SSA employees acting as clients. Testing took place over six weeks. KPMG evaluated the results.

Technology for intelligent call routing and Web contact is mature enough that all the systems worked well under laboratory conditions. But scalability and integration with legacy back-end systems could prove difficult, Hines said.
The environment also did not allow thorough authentication testing, Trenkle said.

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