Consistent customer service still an elusive goal

Managers say the best contact centers have service-oriented workers and automation

Agencies increasingly rely on contact centers to communicate with the public via Web sites, e-mail messages, telephone calls and postal mail. A new report criticizes many of those centers for lacking guidelines to manage federal customer service and ensure accuracy.

The Government Accountability Office found that customer service centers, most of which contractors operate, sometimes fail to include accuracy as a performance metric. GAO’s auditors reported that one of the biggest customer service operations — the federal government — does not provide consistent service. Some agencies have tried to address the problem by installing customer relationship management (CRM) software at contact centers.

From November 2005 to February, congressional auditors studied six centers that handle more than 1 million inquiries annually for information that affects people’s finances, health and safety. They found that only four of the six agencies that they evaluated included accuracy as a performance metric in their contact center contracts.

But a number of agencies, including the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Social Security Administration and the Agriculture Department, use CRM technologies to manage their customer service center operations. Customer service statistics and analytics generated by CRM software help show how well agencies’ contact centers meet customer expectations.

Last fall, an interagency committee of government contact service managers proposed customer service guidelines to resolve some of the problems that GAO cited in its report. The Citizen Service Levels Interagency Committee submitted to the Office of Management and Budget 37 proposed standards for operating contact centers, including four standards specific to ensuring accuracy.

CSLIC is an interagency committee formed as part of the General Services Administration’s USA Services initiative. Its purpose is to develop guidelines to ensure that citizens receive accurate, timely and consistent service from federal agencies.

OMB reviewed the committee’s proposed standards but decided not to issue formal guidance. Alex Conant, an OMB spokesman, said agencies should encourage use of the CSLIC standards.

GSA officials said they, too, might not push for formal standards because some agencies lack the funds to adhere to the CSLIC guidelines and recommendations. In March, GSA sent an e-mail message containing a link to the CSLIC report to 290 deputy secretaries, chief information officers and other leaders.

Greg Gianforte, chief executive officer and founder of Right Now Technologies, which makes CRM software for contact centers, said the Internet has opened alternative channels for communication with the public, and new standards are necessary. With the Bush administration’s focus on citizen-centric e-government, Gianforte said, “it’s reasonable to expect that e-mails don’t go into a black hole.”

Some agencies have installed technology to monitor the performance of their customer service employees and information systems. USDA’s Farm Service Agency, for example, tracks the most frequent queries from Web site visitors. The agency uses that information to adapt its knowledge database to customers’ changing needs. When the agency discontinued the tobacco allotment program, it avoided an expected deluge of e-mail messages and phone calls from regional farmers by updating its database.

Les Solomon, manager of the Census Bureau’s largest contact center and a CSLIC member, said the committee’s report has done little to make agencies aware of CRM technologies. “I don’t think [the report] has quite the impact it could have if it had a little more backing from government,” he said. But he also said he recognizes current budget constraints.

Daryl Covey, co-chairman of CSLIC, said information technology, such as CRM software, works best when it complements a positive attitude toward customers. “You don’t start with the technology,” he said. “You start with the service-oriented culture.”

Technology can be useful in sharing lessons learned, said Covey, who manages a hot line as team leader for field support at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Next-Generation Weather Radar operations center. “There is no structured mechanism for the top performers to be exchanging practices or to bootstrap the ones who aren’t doing so well,” he said.

He added that “there’s probably little to no consistency in the platforms or applications that they are using.”

Covey said consistent customer service should come from the heart. “Government’s big, and change is slow,” he said. “The challenge is for [consistent service] to be adopted on its merits.”

GAO gives Tricare pointers on customer serviceCongressional auditors found that the Defense Department has problems ensuring that military employees receive accurate information about medical benefits coverage, enrollment and claims processing.

For example, auditors found that the Tricare Management Activity’s (TMA) North region does not conduct annual reviews of the knowledge database that its customer service representatives use to respond to inquiries.

Although it provided benefits information to a call-center contractor, TMA did not review the materials the contractor developed to respond to inquiries. DOD officials told Government Accountability Office auditors that TMA relies on its contractor’s expertise and skills to provide appropriate services.

Most of the agencies GAO reviewed in a recent audit of federal contact centers said they monitor contractors’ e-mail messages and calls on a weekly basis to assess the accuracy of the information they provide to the public. But GAO found that TMA monitors calls only when DOD officials visit a contact center.

— Aliya Sternstein

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