Pacing Online Customer Service

When Tom Horley returned from vacation in early July, he had 700 email messages waiting for him, all containing questions or requests from users of Pennsylvania's official World Wide Web site. Horley, the chief of multimedia for Pennsylvania, said he would be able to answer the backlogged mail wi

When Tom Horley returned from vacation in early July, he had 700 e-mail messages waiting for him, all containing questions or requests from users of Pennsylvania's official World Wide Web site.

Horley, the chief of multimedia for Pennsylvania, said he would be able to answer the back-logged mail within about two days, but more would be streaming in as he tackled the first batch. Horley said he receives 1,000 to 1,500 e-mail messages per month; the state's 65 Webmasters get 500 to 1,000 per month; and the governor's office logs about 2,000 e-mail messages per month.

While a policy board has been discussing what the state's official required response time to citizens who e-mail inquiries, Horley said most e-mail questions are answered within two days. Still, he has begun to look for an automated tool to help stem the e-mail tide.

Horley's situation is not unique. State and local government agencies across the country have sped to the Internet in droves to provide citizens easy access to government information. In addition, many jurisdictions are providing dynamic electronic-commerce applications geared toward eliminating trips or telephone calls to government agency counters.

But although many of those Internet applications initially were designed to take advantage of the self-service aspects of the Web, government agencies are finding that demand for online customer service is rising. If anything, they say, online customer service is becoming more important than traditional in-person service.

"In general, the growth of electronic customer service has snuck up on state and local governments," said Don Kettl, director of the LaFollette Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Most officials are still sorting out their customer service plans. They raise tough questions of where to invest scarce tax dollars. And they raise even tougher questions about how government should present itself to citizens: quick and speedy through new technology or investment in basic response through more traditional customer service."

Many Webmasters find themselves wading through waves of e-mail and answering as many as feasible while routing others to the most appropriate agency. Although some Webmasters using this method have been successful instilling the importance of prompt replies to the agencies receiving the mail, others have faced challenges.

For instance, Detroit's Web site has been online for a year, and city Webmaster Clayton Closson gets an average of 10 e-mail messages per day. Closson answers those questions that have to do with finding information on the site itself and forwards other questions to the city departments that can best answer them.

Most of the requests, he said, are from citizens seeking information from the city's planning department, such as details on buying city-owned land. In addition to forwarding the questions, Closson also sends a response, advising citizens to send him another e-mail message if the department does not respond within a week or two.

"I have to remind [the agency] people that if they're not going to respond, there's no point in having this stuff on the Web," he said.

Kay Arvidson, director of marketing for IowAccess Network, Iowa's state portal, said the site has three people working part time to answer e-mail requests and inquiries, which are either answered or passed on to other departments. IowAccess (www.iowaccess.org) has a one-business-day response policy for answering e-mail questions from citizens, Arvidson said.

"Customer service is a vital area for the state to embrace," she said. "People expect a quick response when you're working electronically."

During the tax season, the Kansas Department of Revenue receives more than 200 e-mail messages per day from citizens with questions regarding the state's online tax filing form, said Tim Blevins, chief information officer of the department's Information Services Division.

The department has devised a Web page to help direct questions to the right place. When visitors to the KDOR Web site (www.ink.org/public/kdor) click on the "Email Us" icon, the link takes them to a Web page that categorizes common inquiries. Links accompanying those categories will route inquiries to the worker best suited to answer the questions.

Blevins said the department, which uses the same staff for online and counter customer service, tries to respond to e-mail questions the same day they come in, even if it's just acknowledging that the question has been received and informing the citizen how long it will take to get an answer.

"As the personal computer becomes more familiar and accepted as a way to do everyday business, I think the majority of customer service will be through automated methods," Blevins said. "It isn't possible ever to be 100 percent automated, but 90 to 95 percent would not be a surprise."

In San Carlos, Calif., officials have taken online customer service a step further by creating an application that lets citizens file e-mail "field reports" about anything from a pothole that needs fixing to a broken street light. A custom-made routing application sends comments directly to the most appropriate city department without going through a Web middleman, said Brian Moura, San Carlos' assistant city manager. A complaint about speeding goes directly to the police, he said. The city requires that citizens receive a response to their e-mail messages within 48 hours.

"We've sort of deputized all of the people who live and work in town," Moura said. "It's easier for the public because, literally, city hall is open 24 hours a day. We're perceived as being much more responsive and efficient."

Also, instead of providing a generic Webmaster address for citizens to send questions, San Carlos (www.ci.san-carlos.ca.us) provides contact information for the person charged with handling services described on a particular Web page.

"We're here to provide a service," Moura said. "If you don't even know where we're located or who to call, we're not doing our job."

The dilemma of dealing with e-mail inquiries has bolstered the market for e-mail management solutions. Several companies are offering solutions-usually with embedded artificial intelligence-that automatically route an e-mail question to the customer service agent best equipped to provide a response. There also are a growing number of real-time online customer service solutions that often are offered in conjunction with the e-mail products.

Long Island, N.Y.-based eShare Technologies Inc. offers an e-mail management product that scans the content of an e-mail message, suggests a response based on key words in the inquiry and routes it to the expert in the specific area, said Glenn Reyer, the company's vice president of marketing. The product suggests an answer that the agent can review and tweak but does not provide automated responses. Reyer said providing automated responses can be tricky without 100 percent certainty that a product can filter out any words that may skew the scope of the inquiry.

"The last thing you want to do is send an e-mail that answers a question that they didn't ask," Reyer said. To provide better responses, the system categorizes e-mail messages so that an agency can have a history of a customer's requests.

The company also offers a real-time customer service product that enables a Web site user to click a button on the site to request help from a customer service agent. The user's request is routed to an agent at the back end of the Web site who is available to answer questions. The user and the agent then can converse back and forth as if in an online chat room.

"A year ago, a lot of people saw the Internet as a low-cost self-service vehicle," Reyer said. "[But] people sometimes don't want to interact with a machine. There are times when people want to interact with other people."

Govt.com Inc., a Lewisburg, W.Va., company that focuses entirely on state and local government information technology solutions, is rolling out in several municipalities an interactive automated processing system designed to provide better customer service.

Called OurTown 2000, the client/server-based product is being used primarily to handle citizen e-mail requests dealing with public works issues, such as repairing potholes and street lights. The product takes e-mailed requests from citizens and automatically routes them through the public works scheduling system, said Mark Goldstein, chief operating officer of Govt.com.

A citizen reporting a problem is sent an immediate response, noting the time when the problem is scheduled for repair by the city. The citizen also is updated on the status of the work. For example, if rain will delay the work, a citizen will be e-mailed the schedule change.

Several local governments, including Des Plaines, Ill., Lewisville, Texas, and Hampton, Va., are rolling out the product for public works applications. In addition, the product can be used for applications for citizen services for parks and recreation, schools and public libraries.

Sideware Systems Inc., Herndon Va., also offers a real-time online customer service product, which several state government officials have been examining as a way of serving Internet customers, said Michael Peacock, vice president of sales and marketing. The company's Java-based product routes Internet requests generated from a Web page to specific customer service representatives. It also can offer "collaborative browsing" to users by synchronizing the user and the agent's browser so that they can move in tandem to various Web pages that may contain the answer to a question, Peacock said.

Instead of providing a product that offers online customer service isolated from the more traditional forms, Novato, Calif.-based Inference Corp. has integrated a telephone call center and Web, chat and e-mail customer access into one knowledge base that houses all customer service-related data for an entire organization.

"The biggest challenge is figuring out what you know and getting it in one place," said Steven Gao, Inference's vice president of marketing. "You want to be able to give the customer the same answer regardless of who they talk to or how they come at you. The only way to do that is with a single knowledge base that drives all the different interactions."

Although many state and local officials may acknowledge that automated e-mail management and real-time online customer service may be the wave of the future, not all of them have embraced it. Arvidson said Iowa's emphasis on serving citizens would not include an automated response system for e-mail inquiries, at least for now.

"A big part of our work is being there to receive and assist people who have questions about the Web site," Arvidson said. "It's important that we are here to respond directly to citizens."

But whatever technology or policy solution they embrace to meet the demands of online customer service, state and local government officials must begin to address the issue, Kettl said.

"It's clear that this movement is coming fast at governments," Kettl said. "There's no option of not dealing with electronic customer service, but how to do so is a tough puzzle. It's a puzzle of resources, expertise, strategy and how government ought to connect with citizens.

"Public officials who don't begin now to get ready will get bowled over when the future arrives-sooner than they think."

Heather Harreld is a free-lance writer based in Cary, N.C.

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