SSA gives customers some TLC

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When a senior citizen's monthly Social Security check doesn't arrive on

time, there's a posse of troubleshooters ready to go find it.

But when recipients have other kinds of questions or complaints about

the federal pension system — such as where to send information, when they

are eligible for survivor benefits or how to get an e-mail address — the

system often fails.

The complaint may be as trivial as the temperature in a Social Security

office or how hard it is to read the tiny letters on an application for

assistance, but each and every complaint deserves an answer, according to

the Social Security Administration.

That's why the agency is trying to resolve consumer complaints with

a new pilot project to centralize customer problems and deal with them swiftly.

Known as Talking and Listening to Customers (TLC), the project will

collect information, suggestions, complaints and even compliments in a database

at SSA's Baltimore headquarters.

The purpose of TLC is not just to solve individual complaints but to

identify trends and determine if there is a widespread problem that needs

to be fixed in the system.

For example, a number of SSA representatives might take calls from people

who have had trouble changing the bank where their checks are deposited.

If those complaints occur during the span of several months, the representatives

might not realize there is a systemic problem.

But if the calls have been logged in to a central database, the problem

becomes apparent, and SSA trouble-shooters can attempt to fix it.

The reason is simple: SSA wants to get a better handle on what's going

on in the field. Most people who complain don't contact the correct entity,

and failing to get a response makes them even more hostile to the agency

dedicated to providing them with services, according to Tony Leane, senior

adviser to the SSA commissioner for customer service.

People hot under the collar about the lack of service at an SSA office

may complain to a guard at the door, not the manager running the program,

Leane said. And the complaint, no matter how serious, goes nowhere.

"Complaints come in today in a less formal way: over the phone, passed

up the line by an employee" but not compiled systematically, Leane said.

TLC is not Web-based, and consumers are not able to send in their complaints

by e-mail. SSA decided to develop the program in-house using Oracle Corp.

software and making the data available to its staff on an experimental basis.

Early last month, 75 SSA offices nation-wide began to systematically

gather complaints and forward them to headquarters to pinpoint problems

and deal with them.

"It's a case of SSA trying to be innovative and bring Social Security

to you rather than rely on you to go to Social Security," said Evelyn Morton,

legislative representative for AARP, formerly known as the American Association

of Retired Persons, which has 30 million members.

Eventually, they hope to have TLC operating in all 1,500 Social Security

offices — one of several new initiatives being developed. SSA has come to

view the 45 million retired and disabled citizens who receive Social Security

benefits as a potential audience for government-to-consumer services in

cyberspace.

And it's a good thing, too, Morton said, because the number of Social

Security recipients is expected to top 53 million by 2010.

"The real issue is the changing population [SSA] serves," Morton said.

"Remember that the population that may be experiencing poor service may

be the ones most difficult to talk to."

In Baltimore, SSA employees will evaluate the information and make sure

the problem is solved. The information will be available electronically

and in paper form, which will be locked in cabinets.

"We will survey customers to make sure we got it right, to see whether

it was a useful tool and easy to use — the classic cost-benefit analysis,"

Leane said.

Eventually, there will be follow-up. But Leane said some of the toughest

questions and problems have to be punted back to the administration, which

required SSA to develop the system.

"We need to get more efficient," Leane said.

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