IRS reaches first modernization goal

IRS reaches first modernization goal

When its $74 million Customer Communications Project 2001 went live July 27, the IRS achieved the first goal of its modernization blueprint.

The project has improved the efficiency and effectiveness of IRS systems for responding to taxpayer calls on toll-free lines by upgrading the hardware and software through which the agency receives, routes and answers more than 95 million taxpayer calls each year, officials said.

'The system handled up to 68,000 calls in three hours,' said Rick Skorny, director of tax administration modernization.

Among other improvements, the agency has upgraded the system's voice recognition capability, letting callers get information in Spanish and English. 'The IRS can now reach a whole new segment of people,' Skorny said.

The agency has a new automated refund status application for callers to get information about tax refunds, too.

Taxpayers can use either touch-tone or voice recognition capability, which allows users with rotary phones to access the system, Skorny said.

When a user calls the information number, the voice response system addresses the caller in both English and Spanish and asks the user to state a language preference, said Randy Goldberg, project manager at SpeechWorks International Inc. of Boston.

Computer Sciences Corp., the IRS' Prime contractor, awarded the project to Aspect Communications, a San Jose, Calif., provider of customer relationship management systems. Aspect worked with SpeechWorks on the multilingual application.

Talk about it

The voice response app asks the caller to provide a tax identification number, information about the tax return and an anticipated refund amount, Goldberg said.

After a verification process that takes a few seconds, the user can listen to information about the refund's status. If there is a problem with the refund, the system will ask additional questions and take appropriate action. For instance, if a caller's refund is being withheld, the system transfers the caller to a customer service representative.

When developing the app, Aspect and SpeechWorks used millions of utterances in English and Spanish in accents from across the nation, Goldberg said.

'If we find that people are using words and phrases that are not in the [application's] vocabulary, those items will be added,' he said.

The system uses SpeechWorks 6.5 speech recognition software integrated with Aspect's Generations CRM software. The IRS app adapts to accents using a self-modifying tuning engine.

'Another feature is a vastly improved menu system so that callers can be directed to the right customer representatives in a shorter time,' Skorny said. 'We tested at least 1,600 permutations of the menu to make sure that the user is routed accurately.'

Because the system routes calls more accurately, users will have to spend less time speaking with screeners who help transfer calls to the right customer service representative, he said.

CSC also worked with AT&T Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., and Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego on the project, which began in 1999.

Originally, the IRS had planned to deploy the new call management system in January. But agency officials opted to delay the rollout so they could rigorously test the system, Skorny said.

'You cannot test the system with taxpayers,' he said, adding that the IRS tried out the system for about 45 days beginning in June to make sure that it could handle calls at peak capacity.

The IRS upgraded 25 automated call distributors at its major sites, including offices in Atlanta; Dallas; Fresno, Calif.; Martinsburg, W.Va.; and Memphis, Tenn.

The upgrades included installation of 1,949 copies of the Aspect Custom View and Software Management System desktop suite, 117 network printers and PCs, and three servers.

The agency also consolidated its toll-free service from eight to four automated call distributors in the Atlanta, Dallas and Fresno centers.

The consolidation has increased the capacity of each distributor, doubling the number of phone calls that the distributors can handle.

The IRS also upgraded its call database management application, moving from Version 6.2 of Aspect Call Center for Microsoft Windows NT to Version 7.2.

Tapping an Oracle Corp. database, the application lets each call center handle as many as 1,500 calls simultaneously, up from 800.

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