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Switching Channels

Switching Channels

Citizens now have more ways to communicate with government than ever before, but that won’t stop them from walking away frustrated if your agency can’t manage its customer service channels effectively.

It is more than three years since the City of Wodonga set up its first Web site, a static affair that provided information about the council’s activities to the more than 33,000 residents of this quiet town hugging the Murray River along the Victoria-NSW border.

Then, the site was seen more as an informational resource than a critical business function, but times have changed. This year, as the city conducts a formal review of its Web site and customer contact strategy, surveys such as the one showing more than 55 per cent of area residents now have Web access have reshaped the priority areas for a council eager to continually improve its contact with ratepayers.

This commitment has resulted in several strategic changes to the council’s contact centre. Recently, a 10-year-old PABX was retired in favour of Telstra CustomNet, an outsourced contact centre solution that has seen phone services managed from Melbourne. Wodonga has upgraded its Geac Pathways system with modules for managing online communications from ratepayers, and has improved substantially the online information resources available to its out-of-hours enquiries service. Night-time operators now resolve more than half of all enquiries — up from one-third of enquiries before the expanded online presence — and the contact centre’s overall first-call resolution rate is hovering around 91 percent.

It is all part of the City of Wodonga’s customer service strategy, which was formalized last year in an exercise that identified changing customer expectations in an era where alternative communication channels promise more efficient delivery of many types of information.

Just as improved phone support has reduced the need for over-the-counter transactions — of which Wodonga was servicing up to 4500 monthly two years ago and now averages just 1700 — e-mail promises to reduce the volume of phone enquiries councils have to answer. That, in turn, promises both cost savings and better customer service, since customer service representatives (CSRs) can spend more time resolving citizen issues when the call waiting queue is not as long.

Managing these channels, however, presents its own challenges: e-mail volumes, in particular, have a tendency to increase exponentially, something that departments the world over have learned most dramatically after being flooded with so many e-mails that CSRs simply could not keep up.

Such backlogs can affect customers’ perceptions of quality if they are not managed appropriately. And appropriate management, it has become quite clear, requires a rethinking of contact centre technology and staffing strategies to ensure that all communications channels — whether fax, e-mail, SMS, IVR, voice recognition, live Web-based voice and text chat or the humble written letter — can be managed consistently and effectively.

“Our service strategy is to find out what citizens’ moments of truth are, and to make sure we are focusing on areas and addressing any gaps,” says Ross Gliddon, manager of customer and competitive services with the City of Wodonga, where e-mails are still a small proportion of the 6000 calls received monthly.

“Although we only get about 10 e-mails a day at the moment, we are trying more and more to integrate them into our contact centre,” Gliddon continues. “We’re trying to get to that contact centre model where virtually all enquiries come to us, so that all types of contacts will be lodged into our customer request system. The only thing that skips us at the moment is physical mail, which goes to the records area and is diverted to departments.”

Even that will change, however, as Wodonga works to integrate its records management system with its contact centre system. That linkage will allow CSRs to handle paper communications electronically, with a full audit trail ensuring that paper contacts, like e-mails and other forms of communication, are handled with all due respect.

Ignominies of Scale

If government organizations want to be seen as progressive in their customer handling, it is critical for them to develop a more formalized, auditable method for handling e-mail enquiries — a capability that has been lacking in many facilities where e-mail is treated as something that is bolted onto normal call centre duties and is attended to sporadically at best.

The problem with e-mails is not just their volume but their complexity, cautions Brett Whitford, executive director of the Customer Service Institute of Australia (CSIA). Because customers have more time to think about what information they need — and may ask multiple questions in a single e-mail — Whitford points out that a single e-mail can represent a lot more work for a customer service worker than a straightforward phone call.

“On the phone people might be forwarded to another department [to handle multiple enquiries], but you can’t do that with e-mail,” he says. “An e-mail might be passed around to three or four people in an organization before the response can be made. Sometimes e-mails aren’t given priority, and people feel the e-mail has gone off into a blank void.”

Many contact centre systems support integration of e-mail, but departments need to build on that functionality to ensure customers communicating online are not treated like second-class citizens. Ideally, both active and archived records of customer contact will all be available through a single interface that allows quick reconciliation of all steps taken to resolving an issue — and aggregation of customer contacts, via whatever channel, into a single application view.

If it is an issue for even as relatively small an organization as the city of Wodonga, e-mail handling is a critical concern for larger organizations such as state and Commonwealth agencies, which handle millions of calls annually and have long recognized online channels as essential to keeping up with the demand of increasingly well-educated consumers. Those consumers will walk away frustrated if floods of e-mails from a customer base numbered in the millions compromise the agency’s customer service performance.

ServiceSA, a centralized contact centre established to give residents of South Australia a single point of entry into the full range of government services, has faced just such problems as its contact volumes steadily increase. A multi-channel operation from the start, ServiceSA as initially approved combined six physical outlets, a contact centre and a Web site. It also introduced initiatives such as a common receipting format across all departments, something that reflects the desire for easier and more consistent access to government services.

Three years on, ServiceSA is handling more than 10,000 calls a week through a contact centre that employs 12 full-time equivalent CSRs. Regular call handling for various state agencies is complemented for cost recovery purposes by special projects for organizations such as the Essential Services Commission (ESC) and Primary Industries and Resources SA.

“The call centre has been our most successful channel in that agencies typically have no idea what it costs them to deliver a telephone answering service,” says Greg Parker, director of ServiceSA, which is run by the South Australia Department of Administrative and Information Services. “We can quickly put together a package to understand what it would cost us to deliver, and they find out it’s better for us to do it.”

Those packages typically include both phone answering services and interactions with customers via online channels. For example, on behalf of ESC, ServiceSA manages a phone line and Web-based energy cost calculator that helps answer customer enquiries about how much they might save choosing an alternative provider in South Australia’s newly contestable energy market. ServiceSA’s investment in contact centre technology from Genasys integrates conventional customer call records with Web pages and information about online interactions.

Although the service has been a success, it has not been without its problems. One major issue has been resolving discrepancies between various state agencies’ individual service level agreement goals — and overcoming departments’ conviction that they know their business better than any contact centre outsourcer could ever do.

Also challenging have been implementing the full spectrum of technologies to handle customers with multichannel requirements, and finding appropriate ways to multiskill CSRs so the small ServiceSA contact centre team can handle all types of customer contacts across multiple channels.

“We’re only part way through the process of multitasking our staff to handle all three [phone, Web and e-mail] at the same time,” Parker concedes. “Ultimately, the goal is for people to be multiskilled and to be able to operate within any aspect of our business. But our call centre people possibly think e-mail is a larger distraction than it should be. Unless you inculcate it into the culture of the call centre, it can be seen as an add-on. It’s important to manage staff’s perceptions of what is core business and what is not.”

Getting call centre staff to give e-mail its due regard takes more than just good call centre technology, however. Written forms of communication are inherently complex in different ways from speech: good conversationalists, and people who are good at handling customer abuse, may struggle to respond appropriately to an e-mail query. Furthermore, the inherently casual nature of e-mail means that staff must be trained in the mores of business writing; developing a selection of response templates can be a big help in this regard.

Outwardly Mobile

If customers value e-mail because it lets them ask more complex queries, the channel at the other end of the scale is SMS. Long the venue of thumb-happy teenagers and profit-minded competition operators, SMS is gaining currency as a legitimate means of communicating information that might normally have required a call to a contact centre. It is cheaper, after all, and far more efficient at getting specific information in a minimum of time.

SMS has shown considerable promise at Rideline, a service of Auckland Regional Council that provides information on public transportation for residents of the 1.25 million-strong city. With more than 1.3 million incoming calls annually, the Rideline contact centre remains continually busy, as is a companion Web site where customers can plan routes and get detailed maps and other information.

The introduction of SMS was seen as being “about future-proofing”, says Wayne Funnell, contact centre manager with Rideline, which had seen increases in call volumes reaching as high as 13 per cent to 15 per cent month-on-month. Since implementing a system allowing customers to SMS for route information — particularly popular amongst the secondary and tertiary students that are heavy users of the service — Rideline now handles more than 10,000 SMSes a month, accounting for 5.7 per cent of all customer contacts to the centre.

Over the past year, the introduction of the Web site and SMS channels has seen a shift in the types of interactions the contact centre is handling: call volumes, as a percentage of all contacts, have dropped by 5 per cent over the past year while Web visits — which reached around 640,000 in June alone — are up more than 2 per cent during the same time. SMS accounts for the rest.

Although these might seem like relatively small proportions, SMS and the Web site together account for approximately 6500 calls that did not have to be handled by the service’s 50 human operators. Continuation of this trend will help Rideline keep up with steadily growing demand for its services, says Funnell. “Our overall objective is to make people more confident about using public transport,” he says, noting surveys that show 26 per cent of customers have increased their use of public transport after using Rideline’s contact channels — presumably because they are better-informed.

Interestingly, although overall call volumes are down slightly, Funnell is quick to point out that 40 percent of customers, according to one recent survey, now use both the Web site and the phone number to get information. The phone queries from such customers tend to be more complicated, and those customers come to the phone better educated than those who had not consulted the Web site first. That can make the calls more complicated for CSRs to handle, since they cannot just convey information the customers have already obtained online.

“People use a variety of methods to get information,” Funnell says. “They’ll rely on what’s most suitable to them at the time. You can’t really say that one channel is going to overtake another, so you really need to be supporting the channels that are most convenient for customers.”

New World, New Channels

Because it is two-way, convenient and immediate, SMS is an excellent channel for delivery of point-in-time information. Not all government services lend themselves to mobile use, of course, and many agencies would need to resolve issues around information privacy and user authentication before providing mobile access to more sensitive types of information.

They also need to address the very significant problem of user education so customers know how to form their SMS queries; Rideline provides an SMS simulator on its Web site so customers can get used to formatting their messages correctly.

Appropriately applied, SMS offers considerable promise as a relevant and useful channel for access to the information resources of the government contact centre. Many developers of information-providing Web applications are already offering or working on SMS extensions, while a little work with contact centre or document delivery systems can produce an integrated system that allows dispatch of SMSes. Government departments do, however, have to ensure that relevant internal controls remain in place across new channels.

Equally promising is voice recognition, which has already been implemented in high-volume call centres such as those at the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), Department of Finance and Administration, and Child Support Agency. On government department hotlines where callers can easily get lost in multi-level, interactive voice response (IVR) systems, voice recognition offers considerable promise as a way of helping customers complete regular transactions more quickly and effectively.

Here again, integration is key. Even though voice recognition systems can guide customers to relevant information, it is still possible for customers to bail out, or be thrown out, of the systems when the recognition engine stumbles. Contact centre officers need to be ready to step in and guide customers through the rest of the transaction, getting a list of the customer’s actions so far from the voice system so customers do not have to repeat themselves.

Technology is not a complete solution in itself, however. At Queensland’s Maroochy Shire Council, a conscious effort to avoid IVR-type systems in favour of human operators has kept customer satisfaction at around 99 per cent, while integration efforts in other parts of the system are delivering better handling of computer-based interaction such as e-mail.

In some cases, having information in digital form facilitates other manual processes within the council. Requests for formal brochures, for example, are stored in a Microsoft Access database that is used to generate mailing labels twice a day. In the past, a brochure request had to be handled manually and individually.

Maroochy, which was recently also recognized by the CSIA for its customer handling, manages around 220,000 calls annually through its 16-seat call centre and receives about 6000 e-mails annually as well. This is a major shift from its position several years ago, when an ageing PABX was replaced with the current contact centre.

As at the City of Wodonga, customers’ shift to phone and e-mail channels has taken its toll on counter traffic. Maroochy, which claims a first-call resolution rate of around 75 per cent, continues to explore new ways of providing self-service information resources for customers.

“We really need to make sure we keep up with the technology,” says John Princehorn, team leader for customer service operations with the Maroochy Shire Council. “We’ve gone from the old style of a government providing a service to the customer, and are now gradually building what I believe is a very efficient and effective service formula for our community.

“The cost of some of this technology is not cheap, but we look at what the customer requires and will require, and keep up with their needs. These days, customers really want it gotten right the first time. They don’t want to have to ring back.”

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