One-stop shops

The Interior Department's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added an option to its hot line this summer: access to people.

The toll-free number, (800) 344-WILD, formerly only offered a recorded message allowing callers to order publications or leave messages, said Karen Malkin, customer service coordinator for the service.

With no option to talk to somebody, more than 80 percent of callers hung up, she said.

Employees at the General Services Administration's National Contact Center (NCC), under the e-government initiative USA Services, are now providing the human touch to Fish and Wildlife.

Launched in July, that initiative has linked NCC's call-center operation with FirstGov, the governmentwide Web portal, to forge a multichannel information center that can field citizen inquiries by telephone and e-mail.

The move means that NCC handles three distinct operations. First, it answers calls from citizens to the (800) FED-INFO line seeking general government information. Second, it fields similar inquiries that are sent by e-mail via the FirstGov Web site. Lastly, it serves on a contract basis as the frontline contact center for agencies such as Fish and Wildlife that are interested in offloading those operations.

NCC officials hope to see the mission of the Indianapolis-based center expand through this last function, provided that they can deliver a satisfactory service to other agencies at the right price.

From walk-ins to Web visits

The contact center was called Federal Information Center when it was established in 1966. Contact center officials answered inquiries at federal building walk-in centers. They eventually added local phone support and, in 1990, launched the center's national toll-free line.

In 2000, it became NCC and was integrated with the Consumer Information Center, the government's publication order fulfillment service, under the newly minted Federal Citizen Information Center (FCIC).

FCIC combined with FirstGov in 2002 in the new Office of Citizen Services and Communications. Then in March, NCC began answering the e-mail generated through FirstGov, setting the stage for its new life within USA Services, GSA's citizen information resource.

To tackle the new tasks, NCC officials are using technologies provided by Aspen Systems Corp., which was hired to manage NCC in 2000 under a $7 million, four-year performance-based contract.

Among other wares, Aspen developed search tools to help call-center workers maneuver through the center's huge database of referral information, said James Gordon, vice president of Aspen's customer management solutions division.

NCC combines an automatic call distributor (ACD) product from Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories Inc., an interactive voice response (IVR) system from Edify Corp., and router technologies from Nortel Networks Ltd., according to Theresa Nasif, director of FCIC.

On the front end, the IVR system offers callers choices from a menu of subjects. Those who do not get their questions answered by the information in the IVR system are routed to live agents by the ACD. A computer telephony integration component presents information about each caller's questions on the agent's desktop computer screen.

On the e-mail side, Aspen provides a feature that sifts through incoming e-mail for key concepts and then delivers suggested responses to agents, Gordon said.

Besides handling inquiries from the Fed-Info toll-free number, the FirstGov portal and contracting agencies such as Fish and Wildlife, NCC can also handle misdirected queries that agencies receive. These are inquiries made to one agency that should have been directed to a different one.

The Small Business Administration, Justice Department, Agriculture Department and GSA are looking into accepting NCC's offer to handle their misdirected inquiries at no charge.

In fact, SBA officials have already established a separate "Not SBA" mailbox on an internal Web site that agency employees can use to forward misdirected inquiries to NCC, which then resolves them, Nasif said.

Since taking on its expanded role this past summer, NCC has not experienced a huge increase in the toll-free and FirstGov service use, Nasif said. "E-mail has been pretty steady at 300 [messages] a day," while phone calls continue on a pace to top 2 million for the year, as expected, Nasif said, adding that NCC has handled about 97 percent of the queries within 48 hours.

Those figures don't include the inquiry traffic specifically directed to Fish and Wildlife, the State Department or govbenefits.gov, an e-government initiative. Those three have hired NCC to field all their inquiries, a service for which USA Services assesses a fee commensurate with the time needed to handle the inquiries.

Fish and Wildlife began using the service in July under a six-month pilot program to boost its customer service and obtain baseline data about who calls its toll-free line and what they want, Malkin said.

By the end of September, NCC had answered more than 25,000 calls and 1,000 emails on behalf of Fish and Wildlife, Malkin said.

Of those, the center has been able to answer all but a bit more than 15 percent, said Anita Noguera, national outreach coordinator at Fish and Wildlife. Unanswered queries are returned to the agency. On the other hand, 58 percent of calls were answered by IVR information, according to Malkin.

After four months of the pilot project, the agency decided to sign up to use the contact center to answer its phone calls through the end of fiscal 2004.

Although it may be too early to gauge the success of the USA Services program, "we are satisfied that we are investing this money wisely, and citizens are getting a good return for their...investment," Nasif said.

"If our price isn't good, [agencies] are not going to use us," she added, stressing that it is probably more efficient to use an existing infrastructure than to build their own.

McKenna is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.

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