Rockwell system slashes PTO call waiting times

About a year after installing an automatic call distribution (ACD) system from Rockwell International Corp.'s electronic commerce division, the Patent and Trademark Office has drastically reduced the length of time callers have to wait for patent information.

PTO installed Rockwell's Spectrum Integrated Call Center System 15 months ago after determining that its previous system was not sophisticated enough.

Jeanne Oliver, senior program manager for the call center and marketing services at PTO, said the agency knew it had a serious problem in 1993 when it realized callers had to wait an average of 20 minutes to get through to employees who could fulfill their requests for information.

At that point, the center had 20 employees answering multiline phones with little more than a hold button and blinking lights indicating that someone was waiting.

PTO switched to an automated system in 1994, which was replaced by Spectrum last year. Now the wait time for a large majority of calls is 20 seconds from the time a call enters a queue, Oliver said.

"We had to leverage technology in order to improve our information service because we didn't have the resources we needed to throw more bodies at it," Oliver said.

The new platform, which cost PTO about $1.2 million, has made it possible for the agency to field a growing number of calls, which typically are people seeking information about how to get a patent or trademark or people inquiring about the status of a pending application.

The PTO's general information services group, which Oliver oversees, has seen the annual number of calls it fields rise from about 60,000 in 1993 to nearly 1 million today, with only 12 employees, Oliver said. Since Oct. 1, 500,000 callers out of a total 700,000 used the automated messaging system.

"What I see in those numbers is the fact that we are providing a great deal of information in our automated systems, and people are able to get it on a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week basis," she said.

Spectrum serves as the core of the ACD infrastructure. The system serves all telephone customer service centers throughout PTO, including the primary call center, which answers PTO's toll-free number. It also serves six other PTO call centers integrated into the infrastructure, Oliver said.

Spectrum serves as the master switch that receives the phone calls, takes initial information from the caller through a menu-selection process and hands the call off to the proper queue. Two other components integrated into Spectrum are a voice-response system made by Periphonics Corp. and a PC-based system that makes labels and keeps inventory.

Spectrum can handle a call center with up to 2,400 customer service representatives and costs about $2,500 per representative, Smith said.

The system's reporting capability has been enhanced to provide information to help managers make sure enough employees are on hand during peak calling times. It provides other useful data as well, such as how many callers hang up.

"It is extremely extensive [in] reporting and management, so we can recognize problems and correct them quickly and see where we have opportunities to make things better," Oliver said.

Rockwell ACD systems are used in the customer service centers of many commercial organizations and most telephone companies, as well as elsewhere in the federal government, said Rick Smith, director of business development for Rockwell Electronic Commerce.

The Federal Communications Commission and the Office of Personnel Management use Spectrum in their call centers, Smith said. The Social Security Administration uses Spectrum's predecessor, Galaxy, but recently issued a request for comments on newer technologies. It appears that the agency will put out a formal request for proposals soon, Smith added. He said the move by several agencies to install Spectrum is an example of the government acting like business to take advantage of leading-edge technology.

"People have increased expectations from all organizations," Smith said. "They want that same level of service they are growing accustomed to in the commercial world, and the Patent and Trademark Office is able to offer that."

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