Virginia puts people behind portal

Since Virginia began offering real-time, live assistance through its portal last August, it has been handling between 500 to 550 chats a month, answering questions that range from obtaining birth certificate copies to filing taxes.

"This is a new direction that is going to become more and more prevalent on state government Web sites because governments are trying to be more customer-oriented," said Tracy Smith, director of eGovernment Solutions for the Virginia Information Providers Network, which manages the My Virginia portal (www.myvirginia.org).

An exit survey found that more than 96 percent of users thought the service was helpful, Smith said. Of those polled, 67 percent were Virginia residents, she said, adding that users from outside the state ask questions about tourism and research, among other things.

The state was receiving hundreds of Webmaster e-mails and telephone calls last year, she said, and that prompted officials to seek an alternative method for responding to constituents in a timely manner. "You can only answer one e-mail at a time. You can only talk to one person on the phone at a time," she said, adding that the live chat service is cheaper than making a long-distance telephone call.

The state settled on software developed by LivePerson, which has offices in New York City and Israel.

When portal users click on the "Live Help" button on the home page, a new screen pops up asking users to wait for a site operator to respond. On the other end, the operator actually hears something akin to a telephone ringing. Almost automatically, a customer service representative types: "Welcome to the Commonwealth of Virginia Online Help. How may I assist you today?" The discussion proceeds much like an instant messaging conversation.

"What we have noticed is our Webmaster e-mails have decreased significantly," Smith said. "People see the Live Help long before the Web master feedback link."

Three customer service representatives staff the operation, which is available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The representatives have other duties in addition to the chat service. Each can carry on three chats simultaneously and can also help one another, but it's unlikely there would ever be nine simultaneous conversations being carried out, Smith said. But in case usage increases, they will re-evaluate the service and possibly add staff, she added.

On average, a chat lasts about six minutes. For repetitive questions, representative prepare "canned" responses, including the greetings and closings.

"The great thing with that stored answer is it can have a URL...a telephone number and a particular contact," Smith said. "The same answer is going out consistently and you don't have to worry about human error."

While the chats are stored for review, user identification is not noted. For statistical purposes, the state tracks questions asked and length of use.

Smith said the state is investigating technology whereby a customer service representative can view the same form as a user and help the user to complete it.

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