Striking the right balance for customer service

Federal agencies find high tech frees their call center employees for high-touch service

Many people think automated customer service makes the customer experience less personal and puts customer service representatives out of work. But that perception isn’t always correct, federal program managers say.

Technology frees customer service employees so they can pick up the phone and talk to customers, said Joanne Woytek, program manager for NASA’s Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement (SEWP), a governmentwide acquisition contract that has a reputation for efficient customer assistance.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a meeting and they say, ‘You

guys actually answer the phone,’” Woytek said.

Woytek said such efficient customer service would be nearly impossible without computerized customer relationship management tools, including Web-based forms that allow government employees to get requests for SEWP price quotes online.

The key to delivering excellent customer service is to use information technology only when it saves time and aggravation on the part of customers and service representatives, Woytek said.

“The more time [representatives] have, the more time they can spend on quality assurance and doing the more mundane tasks with more accuracy,” she said. “You have to have time and information. The information comes from the technology. The time comes from the people.”

Woytek said service representatives should be in control of technology, not vice versa. Customer service employees at NASA’s SEWP Business and Operations Workstation Laboratory in Seabrook, Md., are part of a team that conceives, develops and implements computerized call center applications.

Some recent studies, however, point to a decline in public demand for direct contact with call center employees if the information is available on the Internet. A recent survey by the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) shows that customers are happier with government services delivered via the Internet than in person or by phone.

Index statistics show, for example, that the federal government can achieve greater customer service efficiency by spending more resources on Internet service delivery instead of hiring more call center employees, said David Van Amburg, managing director of ACSI.

A reduction in the number of call center employees is a trend at the General Services Administration, which recently cut 14 such positions — from 56 to 32 — at its National Customer Service Center (NCSC) in Kansas City, Mo. It was able to do so through a combination of improved automation, Web-based applications and more employee training, said Larry Schroyer, NCSC’s director. The center is the single point of contact for all of the products and services available from GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service.

An automatic call distribution system at NCSC minimizes call wait times by delegating incoming calls to representatives based on employees’ skill levels. GSA also has a Web-based inquiry tool that lets customers submit a question online and get an answer from a live person over the phone.

“Customers still love the live person,” Schroyer said.

In addition, GSA uses software to track representatives’ performance in handling incoming calls. The software records the length of time between an inquiry and the callback, the duration of each phone call, and the time to complete any follow-up work. The automated phone line and the Web callback application inform service representatives about the nature of the calls.

The final step in an efficient customer service transaction is to check customer satisfaction.

“We have quality assurance teams who follow up with our procurement customers to make sure they got that warm-and-fuzzy,” said GSA Administrator Lurita Doan.

An exception to the rule on automation

Daryl Covey manages a hot line as team leader for field support at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Next-Generation Weather Radar operations center. He said he found that self-service Web tools, such as online answers to frequently asked questions, made his team’s job harder rather than easier.

“Things like FAQs placed online so customers can help themselves sound simple, but in practice, the information is often very perishable and requires significant staffing just to keep it maintained,” said Covey, who is co-chairman of an interagency committee of government contact center managers.

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