Giving users a virtual hand

When visitors log on to the Defense Logistics Information Service Web site, they are greeted by the voice of "Phyllis" offering to answer their questions.

A "virtual representative" with a computer-generated voice, Phyllis represents one of the various Web-based self-service applications — mostly voiceless — cropping up on government Web sites to provide such services as advanced information searches and customized assistance to help users complete online transactions.

Such applications were designed to keep call-center costs down and empower users, but they raise security, political and workplace issues.

With vendors ranging from niche provider NativeMinds Inc., which created Phyllis, to enterprise software vendors such as PeopleSoft Inc., self-service applications tallied $100 million in sales last year, according to Esteban Kolsky, a senior research analyst at Gartner Inc.

The economic downturn has dampened demand, though, and sales are expected to be flat at best this year, Kolsky added.

But vendors are bullish on the federal market.

"We see the federal government as a very large opportunity," said Sanjay Gupta, senior vice president of industry marketing and alliances at BroadVision Inc., a Web portal provider.

There has been a surge of interest in using self-service applications to improve service to constituents and increase organizational productivity and employee satisfaction, according to Matt Malden, vice president and general manager of Siebel Systems Inc.'s public sector division, which sells customer relationship management software.

Organizations cite the need to reduce call-center traffic as the chief reason for deploying the applications. "They want bits, not people," said Eric Schmitt, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc.

The Phyllis program was initiated to "strip away" frequently asked questions from operators, according to Raymond Zingaretti, the system's program manager at the Defense Logistics Information Service, a Defense Logistics Agency command responsible for managing logistics and supply data used by military services, contractors and international agencies.

Phone calls handled by a person can cost $5 to $75, depending on their complexity, Schmitt said.

Much of that amount stems from high call-center staffing costs sparked by employee turnover and workforce training expenses, said Chris Olin, director of products at Kana Inc., a customer relationship management software vendor.

In comparison, after a substantial upfront investment, each Web self-service interaction "literally costs pennies," Olin said.

According to Kolsky, to build such a system, organizations typically spend at least $300,000 for software and hardware. But the cost savings can be compelling, he added. On average, the systems reduce call-center volume by 8 percent to 12 percent in the long run. For government agencies, though, "constituent satisfaction probably...resonates more," he said.

Two Flavors

The two main types of self-service applications are knowledge-based systems and transaction-management systems.

The first type typically permits users to get answers to questions; the second allows them to interact online with agency applications, databases or representatives.

Knowledge-based systems are the most prevalent type in the federal government. They generally operate in a search-and-retrieve mode and include a content-management feature to help information managers create and maintain information or topic areas; a search engine capable of delivering precise answers rather than a list of possible query matches; and an "escalation process" that provides access, often via a data link, to a human being if the system cannot provide an answer, Olin said.

Tools to help fine-tune the applications often augment those core capabilities.

For example, the Defense Logistics Information Service Web site (www.dlis.dla.mil) uses NativeMinds' log-tracking and customer conversation reports to study the system's performance and continually improve Phyllis.

Phyllis has expanded considerably since going live in May 2001, doubling the number of topics it can respond to from 2,000 to 4,000 as it links to more of the organization's databases.

"It has changed the way we operate: Web-based tools are now being built specifically to work with Phyllis," Zingaretti said.

In fact, Defense Logistics Information Service officials plan to add a transactional capability that will enable managers across the military to use the application not only to search product or service information but, when necessary, to change code designations, Zingaretti said.

Conceding that most self-service applications have been static knowledge-based systems, Gupta said that tools such as Phyllis could provide a foundation for transaction-based applications.

"Everybody is grappling with getting content online and accessible," Gupta said. For large organizations such as the Air Force, which uses BroadVision software to power its self-service applications, it is easier to build its knowledge base before introducing transaction capabilities.

In the future, such applications will be used to process "not just documents, but also voice and video," said John Cronin, director of the government sector at Autonomy Corp., a content retrieval vendor.

The National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., could be a bellwether. This summer, the center began using voice over IP, which enables phone communications via standard IP data networks, for its call-center interactions, said Charlie Rabie, vice president of development at Aspect Communications Corp., which provides the software to power the system.

Agents can now manage all of the various media online — voice, e-mail or Web chat — via a Web browser.

However, "a lot of issues need to be dealt with upfront" before these technologies can be rolled out on a bigger scale, said Tony Trenkle, deputy associate commissioner of the Social Security Administration's Electronic Services.

SSA and CommerceNet, a nonprofit consortium of e-commerce companies, conducted a multiyear study of advanced call-center technologies; the results will be released in October, Trenkle said.

He stressed that measures to ensure security, privacy and authentication must be built into the systems and workforce issues must be addressed. For example, employees' unions at SSA are concerned about how such technologies will affect staff workloads and job duties.

Political and turf issues crop up as well, Kolsky said, because it is necessary to "break down the barriers" between databases to deploy such substantial systems.

McKenna is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.

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