(Self) Service and Return

(Self) Service and Return

When the government changed its policy on welfare entitlements, Centrelink was faced with a flood of new customer contacts. The agency's solution? Learn to serve its customers better by encouraging them to serve themselves.

A couple of years ago Centrelink was staring in the face of a dilemma. The government had announced its Working Credit policy, aimed at giving those on income support a chance to earn money from casual or part-time employment without hurting their usual entitlements. Intended to encourage the transition from welfare to work, the scheme would let people "bank" working credits to reduce the amount of income counted under the income test so that they could keep more of their Centrelink income support payments.

A fine idea, to be sure, but as the scheme worked its way through the Parliament Centrelink's e-business team was becoming painfully aware of one of its biggest limitations: the demand that those customers report their income every fortnight.

Could Centrelink realistically expect people struggling in the murky twilight zone that lurks between welfare and work to lodge a form every fortnight without incidentally seriously jeopardizing their very pursuit of work? Could it do it indeed without alienating the very customers it was intending to help? For that matter, could it do it without forcing many of its own staff members to spend the bulk of their time processing forms, rather than more effectively supporting customers?

Well, not if it was expecting customers to lodge that form in the traditional ways, by either dropping in to a Centrelink Customer Service Centre (CSC) or, when that was impossible, telephoning Centrelink and speaking directly to a Customer Service Officer (CSO). And so was born the Student Notification of Employment Income initiative, designed to trial amongst a smaller student subset of Centrelink's population the development and implementation of two new self-service options: the Natural Language Speech Recognition (NLSR) system and a new Internet application. Both products were designed to enable customers to report their employment income rapidly, simply and independently.

"There was a very similar program [to Working Credit], which had a Student Income Bank associated with it, already in place, but the total number of customers that used the student program was substantially smaller than the Working Credit initiative. We saw an opportunity to undertake a trial of the student population that we could subsequently apply into the Working Credit customer base," says national manager of e-business Glen Archer. "I think that was what created a spark within the organization: that we could test this new technology, this new business process internally on a smaller population who were already part of a similar program, before moving onto a program that was part of our core business."

That June 2003 staged implementation for youth and student customers proved so successful that Centrelink completed full implementation across Australia in September 2003.

The range of multi-channel options, which have since been applied across the Working Credit customer base, significantly advance Centrelink's push to create a self-service customer environment while following its e-business principle of "build once - use many". And the options are proving wildly popular. Centrelink estimated 15 percent of the market target group would be using self-service to report their employment income by June 2004. Yet as early as December 2003, the market target group percentage was near 30 percent and climbing. Feedback from customers makes it clear they like self-service and that Centrelink is delivering what they want, where they want it and how they want it.

There's even more good news: Centrelink's customers are changing - at least in the type of enquiries they make. Centrelink staff find themselves spending less time helping customers with simple issues and more time on complex ones. Getting customers back on track and letting them take the lead results in fewer repeat visits or contacts. And Centrelink says staff members who once questioned the value of the self-service options are now looking to the next self-service initiative.

"The uptake I think has been a significant issue in terms of the rapid response that we've had from youth and students in terms of their desire to communicate in this way," acting CIO and general manager Capability Creation and Management Ann Steward says. "My own stepson was one who frequently had to provide details into a CSC and as soon as he was able to do it on either a Web or a phone basis, it was a major, major change."

Steward says Centrelink now completes approximately 300,000 transactions with customers each fortnight via both the Web-based and phone-based offerings. "In relation to the Notification of Employment Income service we currently have over 135,000 customers reporting their income each fortnight via one of these self-service options [this includes both students and Working Credit customers]," Steward says.

Archer says designing the new self-service options also gave Centrelink a chance to streamline Centrelink's business processes, increase the use of electronic record keeping and improve the integrity of data. "It certainly was recognized by a group of us that the success of this would potentially change the nature of both how we deliver the services and the nature of how our staff would deal with customers," Archer says.

"We've long been challenged by a need to get some of the small, day-to-day things off the plate of staff: the things that don't deliver substantial benefit. 'Getting the small stuff out of the office' is what it's normally called here."

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