Lessons from your friendly neighborhood public service employees
Much has been said and written about the stressful challenges imposed on commercial contact centers as result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, one class of contact centers that has not gotten a lot of attention and arguably has been more heavily impacted by the pandemic are contact centers that serve state and local governments. Citizens are accustomed to interacting with municipal departments and local utilities in person. When the pandemic hit and personal contact with public service employees all but disappeared, citizens rapidly switched to voice and data communications channels. The public service contact centers were not staffed or equipped for this massive increase in contact volume. Additionally, they had to deal with educating the public about vaccines and conducting contact tracing. Government agencies do not typically have the flexibility of for-profit entities to redeploy employees, alter shifts, accelerate training, expand work hours and implement incentives to reward extra effort. This all sounds like a recipe for disaster and there were many instances of crashed websites and calls that did not get answered. For example, less than 1 percent of Wisconsin residents who called the state Department of Workforce Development’s call centers seeking unemployment insurance between March 15 and June 30 had their phone calls answered.
Taxpayers are customers too
Over time, administrators were able to make needed changes and service levels improved. In fact, the crisis tended to accelerate a movement that had been underway for many years. This is the trend to adopting a customer centric approach to responding to citizen queries. Cincinnati, Philadelphia, San Antonio, and Seattle are among the many metropolitan centers that regularly conduct customer satisfaction surveys. The notion that “Taxpayers are customers too” is definitely gaining momentum. To find out the reasons behind this I spoke with two experts from Verint Systems. David Moody is vice president and general manager of the Engagement Management Professional Group and Iain Daws is director of marketing. Both officials are heavily involved with the company’s municipal markets outreach. Based on direct input from David and Iain, and some independent research, it is clear that three factors are instrumental in driving this trend.
• Rising customer expectations. Social distancing and the closure of thousands of popular businesses forced a sharp acceleration in the trend to ecommerce. The quick and courteous delivery of products, meals and transportation demonstrated even among skeptics that digital models really do work. Simply said, the success of Amazon and other ecommerce companies have raised expectations for the quality of public service, not just among citizens but public service employees as well.
• Consolidation. The FCC has dedicated nine N-1-1 numbers for public service. Examples include travel information, public safety and assistance in contacting specific departments. Cost savings from consolidation provides funding for investments in people and technology.
• Politics. Mayors and county executives who see superior service as essential to their reelection prospects.
Governmental contact centers face special challenges. While customer service representatives (CSR) for commercial businesses can concentrate on a relatively small and discrete set of products or services, the public service CSR may have to respond to a vast variety of queries—everything from stray dogs to property tax disputes. Daws explained, “The public sector has a very broad range of procedures and delivery requirements, which can add considerable complexity compared to the commercial sector.” Long-standing practices and union work rules can also limit managers’ flexibility to create work schedules. And it is a lot easier for taxpayers to “talk to the manager.” You are not likely to call Jeff Bezos if you are unhappy with Amazon, but you may very well call your local councilman if you are unhappy with the way your complaint about property assessment was handled. Public service CSRs understand this, which only adds to the pressure they were already under.
Depending on their size and mission, public service contact centers can benefit from virtually all the applications that make up the modern Workforce Engagement Management suite. However, applications that specifically address processes are particularly valuable to public service contact centers. Just about everything you try to accomplish when you reach a public service contact center deals with processes. The processes take much more time than interaction itself. Case in point—when you last visited your local DMV, how much time did you spend waiting around for work to get done compared to time actually speaking to a customer service representative? Four applications that have proved especially valuable for both public and private contact centers are knowledge management, case management, robotic process automation, and desktop and process analytics.
- Enables staff to quickly and reliably find the answers to a wide range of questions, as well as procedural guidance which is especially useful in relation to little-used processes.
- Can be updated rapidly as new information becomes available, and shared with self-service channels too, ensuring consistency.
- Helps make new recruits productive as soon as possible, since they do not have to learn everything before they start taking calls.
- Allows all steps of both simple and complex processes to be configured, including integration to back-office systems for service fulfilment and updates.
- Enables citizens to conduct many transactions online rather than speaking to an agent, and receive automatic progress updates.
- Representatives can quickly access case histories, speeding problem resolution and improving first contact resolution.
Robotic Process Automation
- Allows routine and common process steps to be automated, relieving agents of the need to carry out these steps, which can reduce handle times and improve process adherence and compliance.
Desktop and process analytics
- Captures the steps followed by an employee to complete a business process, and provides analysis of systems involved, screens that must be accessed, and time taken to complete each action. This information is highly beneficial when re-configuring existing or modelling new processes as it can help reveal why some people perform certain steps more quickly than others. For example, have some employees developed shortcuts that can be adapted by others? Or are there redundant steps that can be eliminated altogether?
As the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, both public and private contact centers can take some pride with the speed and agility they demonstrated in dealing with the crisis. Investments made in automating routine processes will continue to pay off in terms of dollar savings and improved customer satisfaction.
Dick Bucci is principal of Pelorus Associates, where he specializes in contact center technologies. He has authored 19 in-depth market research reports on workforce optimization applications and numerous articles and white papers. Among his publications are several white papers and two co-authored books on public safety contact centers. Bucci is one of a handful of industry analysts that have been elected to the Contact Center Pipeline Wall of Fame.
This article originally appeared in www.smartcustomerservice.com