Serious about service

Census goes with hosted CRM to better help citizens

Inside the project: Citizen self-service

CHALLENGE: The Census Bureau's Customer Services Center was looking for a way to measure citizen satisfaction and adhere to standards published by the General Services Administration's Citizen Service Levels Interagency Committee.

SOLUTION: The agency deployed hosted customer relationship management software from RightNow Technologies. Applications include e-mail management, online self-service, analytics and automated customer feedback. The software is customized for Census' workflow with the goal of steering people to lower-cost information channels and improving higher-touch interactions.

MISSION BENEFIT: Les Solomon, the agency's customer service chief, said self-service at Census divisions using RightNow is 99.3 percent. Although Census hasn't quantified the benefits of the solution, Solomon said directing contact to low-cost channels has boosted return on investment. According to his internal measures, most Census divisions using RightNow are seeing results. For instance, almost all groups are answering 90 percent or more of electronic inquiries in two business days, per CSLIC standards.

LESSONS LEARNED: Solomon's team came to recognize that automation for automation's sake was not enough to ensure citizen satisfaction, and agencies can't improve what they don't measure. Moreover, Census learned hosted solutions can provide the reliability and security government needs in a cost-effective model.

We want to reduce the kinds of messages we actually respond to so we can provide better information to the customer.'

'Les Solomon, Census

Rick Steele

You might say Les Solomon has benefited from a little inside information. As part of the federal government's ongoing effort to be more citizen-centric, the chief of the Census Bureau's Customer Services Center sat on a committee that drafted comprehensive service delivery guidelines.

So when Solomon shows a writer a color-coded table that details precisely how well divisions of Census have performed in meeting new citizen satisfaction standards, it comes as no surprise. What's not so obvious is the fact that Solomon credits Census' progress, in part, to its outsourcing of several service delivery applications.

'So far,' Solomon said of his agency's metrics, 'I don't know of anyone else who has attempted this.'

Last fall, the General Services Administration's Citizen Service Levels Interagency Committee published a report listing standards and guidelines that agencies should follow in their dealings with the public. These standards range from measuring citizen satisfaction with phone service to ensuring e-mail responses to online queries within two business days. Solomon and representatives from 33 agencies worked on the report.

While CSLIC is heavy on measurement'being able to quantify an agency's service levels'it also recommends technology to support the service mission, such as online FAQs and Web chat. Such tools affect service to the citizen in two ways. First, they provide a dynamic avenue people can use to get information. Second, by adding electronic avenues, agencies can reduce the number of requests coming through traditional channels, such as phone or e-mail, which frees service reps to concentrate on improving overall satisfaction.

'If anything, we want to reduce the kinds of messages we actually respond to so we can provide better information to the customer,' Solomon said.

As of March 1, that effort entailed a hosted customer relationship management suite from RightNow Technologies Inc. of Bozeman, Mont.

The value of self-service

According to RightNow CEO and founder Greg Gianforte, one-third of the federal agencies on the CSLIC committee use his company's software.

'And 70 percent of our government customers overall host their systems with us,' he said, including Census.

RightNow's customer service suite comprises 19 products, from voice self-service to e-mail response management. Census has started modestly, rolling out a few modules including e-mail management, online self-service, analytics and automated customer feedback. Solomon said Census is looking to add call center automation and online chat functionality.

Census began considering a CRM solution in 2003, well before the CSLIC standards came out, and issued a request for proposals based on seeing a competing product. After the CSLIC report, Solomon said, the question became, 'Now, if we want to implement these standards, how do we do it and measure where we are in the process?'

In January and February 2006, having awarded the business to RightNow, Census spent roughly two weeks with one of the company's developers customizing the software to the agency's workflow rules. Then it flipped the switch.

Today, when people visit Census.gov and conduct a search, e-mail a question or check the FAQ list, the RightNow system kicks in. The goal is for users to get their answers through self-service, which is where analytics comes into play, collecting and correlating the topics users explore.

'How can you help people if you don't know what they're asking?' Gianforte said.

The CSLIC report pays particular attention to FAQs'namely that they should be prominent and relevant. Solomon said that since Census started using RightNow, of the 600 questions in the FAQ list, the top 20 account for 27 percent of the queries. Steve Nesenblatt, RightNow's public sector vice president, said other agencies have used the company's self-service and analytics modules to improve performance.

'One federal agency had a top 20 [FAQ] list on their site. After putting in the system, only four of those questions remained on the list,' Nesenblatt said.

The result of this knowledge is better efficiency. 'Our self-service rate is now 99.3 percent,' Solomon said.

For that other 0.7 percent, the system becomes a workflow tool that helps Census meet CSLIC standards for responding to e-mail. The workflow rules route queries to the appropriate division. If it can't find an appropriate representative, the message ends up with Solomon's service team.

When someone asks a question, the system automatically sends a survey question to roughly 5 percent of users to measure satisfaction. If someone is less than satisfied, the system can attach rules to route the issue to a supervisor.

The hosting issue

Although Census runs its CRM applications out of RightNow's data centers, not all agencies do. Nesenblatt said the company recognizes government requirements and makes a version agencies can run themselves. But he said the scales are tipping further toward the hosted model.

'The government customer wants to get in quickly, so they host with us for a time,' he said. 'But it works so well they never move it.'

RightNow operates data centers in Santa Clara, Calif., Secaucus, N.J, and a new center in London. There's also a hot-spare site in Bozeman. Data in Santa Clara is replicated to Secaucus in real time, Gianforte said, and the company does penetration testing daily. In 2005 it boasted 99.98 percent uptime.

RightNow's hosted applications also come with a powerful feature called the Hosting Management System, which puts agencies in charge of software upgrades. When a new version of a program is available, an admin can check the release notes and schedule an upgrade. HMS then makes a copy of the agency's production system, upgrades the copy and provides a URL so the admin can configure the new software. On the scheduled date, HMS converts the existing data and puts the upgrade into production.
Solomon said Census has used HMS only once, but that upgrade went smoothly.

Overall, Census has not quantified the benefits of the RightNow system, but it plans to. The applications are not currently used Census-wide. Solomon said the agency's 75 seat licenses are spread across 13 divisions or offices.

A typical deployment costs around $125,000 Nesenblatt said, although some can range up to $1 million.

inside gcn

  • smart city (jamesteohart/Shutterstock.com)

    Toolkit for building a smart city plan

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group