Army makes customers king

In this increasingly connected and competitive economy, where alternative suppliers for products and services are often just a mouse click away, customer service has become a priority at most organizations — even the Army.

The Army's Military Traffic Management Command is spending $3 million to become one of the first government entities to use the same kind of sophisticated, customer management software that is becoming popular in the private sector.

The MTMC, headquartered in Falls Church, Va., is building a new customer service system, scheduled for completion by 2002, using commercial off-the-shelf software from Siebel Systems Inc. that will consolidate the command's existing call centers and improve service levels, — a goal as relevant for the Army as for any profit-driven firm.

A component of the U.S. Transportation Command, the MTMC supports a variety of surface transportation missions, including shipping the personal belongings of military personnel and deploying troops and equipment to the world's hot spots. "Sometimes people think there's no choice in the public sector, but there is a choice," said Dennis Norkus, information system management specialist at the MTMC. "If customers are not satisfied, they can skirt the system or try to go around. That's the choice. And that's not good for them, and it's not good for the government."

Currently, the MTMC uses six separate help desks — one for each mission area — which people call with questions or problems. Unfortunately, according to sources within the command and in industry, customers often are frustrated at being routed from one help desk to another, being kept on the phone too long, having to call back more than once and being offered different solutions by different customer support personnel.

The end result is that people needing help sometimes fall through the cracks, or they avoid using the MTMC's services at all, turning instead directly to commercial movers.

In fact, the possibility of winning customers who might otherwise have skirted the system offers an incentive as great as the profit motive in the commercial sector, according to Patricia Bryant, a consultant with the MTMC.

"There was not a formal cost/benefit analysis done, but there was a general consensus among upper management that some changes had to be made," Bryant said. "Research has shown that successful call centers actually incur higher costs because customers tend to use them more frequently.

"The private sector has a greater incentive to provide quality customer service — profit and business longevity," she said. "Our customers deserve the same type of attention. Instead of marketing products, we're marketing services. The command wants to provide better service so that in the long run the agency runs better and provides a better return on investment for the taxpayer."

By integrating the MTMC's six assorted help desks, a new Consolidated Call Center will give customers single-point access to customer support representatives either by phone or the Internet (see box).

"[MTMC] customers as well as employees will have one place to look for information," Bryant said. "This will reduce confusion and eliminate the dissemination of obsolete information."

The new system, which is being installed by Fairfax, Va.-based American Management Systems Inc., uses Siebel Systems' eBusiness Applications. The command also evaluated software from two other contractors: Applix Inc., Westboro, Mass., and Computer Associates International Inc., Islandia, N.Y.

The new MTMC system will work with another new help desk system that AMS is building for the U.S. Transportation Command, also using Siebel software.

"These two products were intended to work together from inception," said Kevin Fitzgerald, Siebel's vice president for the public sector.

The U.S. Transportation Command system, known as the Single-Entry Response and Verification Enterprise System (SERVES), will make data sharing between the two commands easier. SERVES will use a central database with information from the MTMC and the other Transportation Command components.

In August the MTMC will offer an initial capability for freight management within the continental United States and is expected to have the system operating at full capacity in 2002, putting the Army at the forefront of the government's use of that technology.

Total government spending on customer management software is expected to remain low for the next couple of years, according to Ray Bjorklund, principal consultant with Federal Sources Inc. However, he expects the spending pace to pick up, particularly as the federal government downsizes and loses experienced workers.

"Having a tool like [customer relationship management software] will help the less-experienced government worker — or no person at all if it's a self-serve task — help solve customer, or constituency, problems," he said.

Bjorklund said the strongest demand for customer management software will come from those departments and subagencies with the largest customer contact components, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services.

"Citizens who now enjoy the benefits of relationships with online suppliers will look for the same responsiveness from their government," Bjorklund said.

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