Eye on the future

Many agencies are wrestling with the issue of how to bring the Web into

their call centers, but the Social Security Administration is being particularly

public about it. In early June, the agency announced a partnership with

CommerceNet, a nonprofit consortium of more than 400 companies.

The organization will investigate Internet technologies such as instant

messaging, secure e-mail and voice over IP, and will develop and test an

overall comprehensive solution. SSA plans to share its lessons learned with

other agency call centers. Once the agency decides on a technology and approach,

CommerceNet will help it implement a pilot project and then evaluate it.

Coming up with the right technologies and the right solution is especially

important for SSA, which last year received more than 60 million phone inquiries

about its benefits programs. But, noted Roy Snyder, deputy associate commissioner

for the Office of Telephone Services at SSA, "[the deal with CommerceNet]

is not some dog-and-pony show where everybody shows off their products.

They're going to actually come in here for several months, demonstrate and

test out the technologies and show us specifically how they would work in

SSA's environment."

He added that although the agency is eager to move forward to a Web-enabled

customer support system, the complexity of the system and the potential

pitfalls have encouraged officials to take a slow, methodical approach.

"We're investigating all options," he said, noting that beyond the technology,

several management difficulties had to be faced, such as training staff

and whether to expand call center operations to around-the-clock to accommodate

Web visitors. "There are a lot of issues involved, and we want to do everything



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