CDC to consolidate hot lines

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as part of an initiative to play a more proactive role in homeland security, plans to simplify how the public gets information about diseases.

The agency will soon release a request for proposals to merge its three-dozen hot lines into a single contact center.

CDC annually receives about 3 million inquiries through phone calls, e-mail and written mail. The consolidated center will bring consistency to the calls, save money for the agency and provide a single face to the public, officials said.

Much of CDC's organization and funding have followed disease or topic lines, such as HIV/AIDS or cancer. The call centers also are set up by topic and separately managed in-house or by contractors, said James Seligman, CDC's chief information officer.

"Right now, true to our usual organization preferences, we have a highly distributed business model," Seligman said.

With the new hot line (1-800-CDC-INFO), callers can make one call for answers to a variety of questions, he said. The new hot line, in addition to a Web site redesign that is in the works, is another way the agency is increasing its visibility.

The contact center will eventually include centralized e-mail and mail intake, although the cost and goals of the project have not been determined. CDC officials will leave many details to the potential service providers but will evaluate proposals based on industry best practices, Seligman said.

"We don't have any preconceived outcomes, but we will be looking for innovation on [customer relationship management] tools, knowledge management tools and workflow tools," he said.

Callers will receive more responsiveness and consistency through the new service. A single center will allow for better coverage and enhanced services, such as multilingual options and services for callers who have hearing impairments, Seligman said.

A centrally managed contact center will also allow CDC officials to quickly increase the number of call takers during emergencies or disease outbreaks. "We don't have to scramble as hard to get enough people there," said Dottie Knight, project manager for the consolidated consumer services contract. The contractor "has to scale their resources to handle a fluctuation in volume."

"Name the outbreak and you see a surge in activity," Seligman said.

The goal of the consolidated center is to have 80 percent of calls answered by a first-level call taker, Knight said. Second- and third-level call takers will be available if more expertise is needed.

"The knowledge base continues to build," she said. "The response goes into the knowledge base, and perhaps [a call] won't have to be transferred next time."

The biggest challenge to this initiative will be teaching a vendor's employees the vast amount of information that is available at CDC, Seligman said. The call takers must be familiar with the information so they can ask the proper questions and enter the right keywords to get answers. Call takers will need to understand that many topics require special sensitivity, such as HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases, Seligman said.

"In some health condition areas, there is a very high degree of sensitivity in them," he said. "The kinds of sensitivities and counseling the customer service representatives need to have [are] very paramount."

Knight said CDC officials hope to have current call takers participate in training the new contractor. Brian Bingham, manager for customer care research at IDC, said contractors often hire former call takers to assist in training. "It can be tricky, but there are ways around it," he said.

From a technical standpoint, routing hot lines won't be hard, but officials should focus on the business process of creating an easy-to-understand system, Bingham said. Building a clearly delineated path so callers know where to go and what direction they need to be routed will make calls more successful.

He said the consolidated hot line is sure to increase the agency's visibility and the public's understanding of the agency. "By creating a central port, it creates consolidation and conformity, so it's one-stop shopping," Bingham said. "When you call one number, you [will] realize, 'Oh, gee, the CDC does all these things.'"

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Taking all calls

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a request for proposals for a consolidated contact center and is seeking industry ideas on:

* Customer relationship management.

* Performance measures.

* Reliable and confidential call handling.

* Changes in call volume related to health emergencies and news events.

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