IRS to upgrade service center phone system

A month after President Clinton approved legislation that requires the Internal Revenue Service to become more taxpayer-friendly, the agency is upgrading its telephone system with software that will make it easier to respond to customer service calls.

The GeoTel Intelligent CallRouter software will allow the IRS to link its 25 geographically dispersed customer service call centers into a virtual call center to pre-route calls to agents nationwide in a matter of seconds.

The call centers are used to answer general tax questions for the 60 million taxpayers who call the agency each year. The new software will enable taxpayers who call the IRS with an inquiry to connect with an agent anywhere in the nation who is free to take the call.

Without the virtual call center, a call is forwarded only to agents in assigned regions, even if the agents in that area are busy. That arrangement causes a lopsided workload and a caller backlog for IRS agents in densely populated regions, while their counterparts in smaller regions are usually free to take more calls, said Robert Hare, the customer service call router project director for the IRS.

The new telephone system will spread the calls and make better use of the IRS' resources by forwarding telephone inquiries to agents nationwide, regardless of where the calls originate, Hare said. "Essentially, the new telephone system is allowing us to find out where the available resource is," he said. "The technology allows us to pre-route calls."

For example, the IRS will have three toll-free numbers under the new telephone system for callers who have questions about their 1040, 8815 or 4262 tax forms, said Ruth Blum, who manages the business consultants and project managers for Lucent Technologies Inc., which is the main integrator of the IRS project.

Under the GeoTel telephone system, a call will be forwarded to an automated call site for initial questions and then to the voice response system, which is another automated system that will ask the caller a second set of questions, Blum said.

Finally, the caller will be transferred to an available agent who will be prepped by the automated systems about the caller's inquiry.

"It all happens in a nanosecond," Blum said. "The response happens in a blink of an eye."

So far nine of the 25 call centers have the new telephone system installed as part of the initial study. Upgrades are being made to the remaining 16 call centers, Hare said, and those upgrades should be completed in time for the tax season beginning in January 1999.

The IRS selected Lucent Technologies and GeoTel Communications Corp. to network the call centers and to bring together at least six vendors, including Microlog Corp., to complete the $20 million project, Blum said.

Microlog is responsible for the voice response system, which will help route calls based on the taxpayer's inquiry, said Greg Dicks, Microlog's manager for North American sales at Microlog.

The new telephone system is the IRS' first attempt to modernize its infrastructure as outlined in the legislation that requires the IRS to become more customer-friendly, Hare said.

The bill focused mainly on revamping the IRS to make it more taxpayer-friendly and to curb abuse by aggressive agents, as described in hearings. Lawmakers want it to be easier for taxpayers to deal with the agency.

Hare said the new telephone system is the first step toward reaching that goal."This is the cornerstone of the modernization," Hare said. "In terms of technology, this is the very first step at modernizing. This is the foundation."

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