The CRM strategy initiated by Australia's Child Support Agency had an unusual aim: to encourage clients to look after themselves and rely on the agency less. Neil Peach works in a growth industry, but he wishes he didn't.
Peach is national projects manager at the Child Support Agency (CSA), the Commonwealth government organisation dedicated to helping Australian parents meet their child support responsibilities. "In some cases, couples are able to split up and manage very successfully," Peach explains. "Others need some help; they can't agree on how much should be paid, how often it should be paid or when some adjustment needs to be made. That's the type of calls we receive."
Part of the Department of Family and Community Services, the CSA provides a variety of services that range from assisting cash-strapped parents to develop a child support plan to mediating between couples that no longer want anything to do with each other. As you can imagine, negotiating such emotionally-fraught terrain requires client officers who embody a rare mix of delicate interpersonal skills. Client officers with the expertise to arbitrate financial matters between recently split couples don't just walk in off the street. And therein lay the crux of the problem the CSA found itself facing in 2000: too many clients and not enough workers to serve them.
Are You Being Served
CSA client officers deal primarily with issues associated with the transfer of child support funds from one partner to the other. Parents contact the agency by calling the CSA's standard 1300 number nationwide. If a caller happens to be in South Australia but their client officer works in Western Australia, then their call is directed to the Perth office.
The problem? The CSA has around a million clients but only 2200 client officers to serve them. As Peach explains, somewhat ruefully, the CSA's old client management system simply couldn't keep up with today's burgeoning divorce rate. Client officers were operating almost as switchboard operators, re-routing calls to other officers and wasting valuable time that could've been spent answering the queries of their own clients.
"This isn't a user pays service, it's a government service," Peach says, "so we have to try and distribute the calls as efficiently as we possibly can. As the caseload keeps increasing we've got to find new efficiencies in order to continue to be able to deliver the service. And unfortunately the caseload is growing."
Peach and the CSA knew exactly what the organisation needed: a sophisticated, nationwide call routing system, one that could work in tandem with existing client management tools to make call transfers more efficient. It was with such efficiency gains in mind that the CSA decided in mid 2000 to proceed down the path to its current CRM system. The selection process was a long one, says Peach, who characterises the event as an "extensive analysis based on detailed specifications". Luckily, the CSA had the advantage of working in concert with the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), which was also looking to upgrade its phone technology at the time. The presence of the ATO made the tender offer more substantial - two for the price of one. "That's how it turned out," Peach agrees. "But that also ensured we got a wide range of submissions, which was useful in finding the right technology fit for the specific business requirements that we had."
The business requirements Peach alludes to centred on the CSA's desire to integrate new call handling technology with its existing computer-based client information system. Under the new system, clients would enter an identifier when they rang the agency. Once their identity was established, the new system would then obtain their client record and deliver it to the desktop of the client service officer taking the call. Before even picking up the phone, client service officers would know who they'd be talking to and have that client's history onscreen.
"Basically we wanted to achieve time savings at the front end, where the client puts their identifier in. We then wanted to achieve savings in terms of the movement and handling of calls. We were also looking to establish a reliable platform," says Peach.
For one thing, the solution had to be able to perform the sort of complex phone call routing the CSA felt it needed to be able to continue to service its clients effectively. The new system also had to have the capacity to cope with the scale and broad deployment of the CSA's nationwide operations.
At the technology level, the CSA was worried about the issue of integration between its internal client management systems and the new telephony system. "It was not easy to get all of the technology resources available in the Australian market," says Peach. "There were people in the market who had a history of working with PABXs or conventional routing, but there was difficulty early on getting access to people who knew how the whole solution should work together."
According to Peach, technology partners NEC, which was responsible for system and network integration, and Genesys, the contact centre solutions provider, were most impacted by such difficulties. They had to work hard to find people with the proper expertise to complete the project, particularly after the full-scale roll-out had begun and people needed to be found in multiple locations around Australia to fulfil the needs of the solution.
"This isn't a criticism, but it was a difficulty that we and the contractors had to manage very comprehensively," says Peach. "As you move into these new technology areas you can't find the qualified resources just at the snap of your fingertips."
To ensure that the deployment went smoothly, the CSA in early 2001 decided to institute a pilot program in its Brisbane and Adelaide offices before committing to a full-scale roll-out of the new system. "We put in a pilot, because the technology had not been put into effect anywhere in Australia," says Peach, who admits it took the CSA, along with NEC and Genesys, "some months" to work through all the issues.
"Some of the issues that we confronted had to do with the fact that we don't work in a call centre, because call centres want everyone on the phone as much as possible all the time. The technology had to solve some different problems for us, which is why we had to go through that pile of testing."
The CSA's slogan is "helping parents manage their responsibility". Not surprisingly, the CRM project undertaken by the CSA was propelled by the same vision: to encourage parents to accept responsibilities and work out their arrangements independently.
"It's an unusual business objective, to get people to get people to do things themselves as opposed to using us," Peach says. As a result, the CSA wasn't in the market for a conventional call centre, the aim of which is often to increase the time customers spend on the phone.
"We didn't want to operate it as a call centre - we wanted to operate it as a contact point," Peach says. "We're not trying to maximise people's time on the phone. We're trying to ensure that when a client calls they're able to talk to the right person and deal with all of the issues associated with their case."
Peach was also wary of the pitfalls that he knew had already trapped many other government agencies operating in this area. "We wanted to try and avoid some of the issues that we've seen with call centres in government, where in fact you start to increase the numbers of calls by adopting a transaction-based approach," Peach says. Indeed such a system goes against the CSA's own vision of itself, of which the principal rule is not to operate as a front and back office, but rather to multi-skill all of its client service officers - a philosophy that created plenty of challenges in the project's early stages.
"The challenge was that we were doing our pilot testing in two live sites and consequently there were operational impacts for people in those sites," he says. "We had to do a lot of active management in regard to the business impact while we were pilot testing. That was quite a strain on the project team, but also the branches in those two locations, because not everything worked when we thought it would and not everything did quite what we wanted it to do."
Nevertheless, Peach insists that the time saved later on, during the nationwide deployment, far outweighed any negative impact the testing might have had on the two offices involved in the pilot. On the contrary, he's a firm believer in the notion of pilot sites, and is convinced they contributed heavily to the overall success of the CRM project.
"It was the best thing we did, even though it was difficult for the sites that we did it in," Peach says. "The pilot testing and getting [problems] worked through early on enabled us to then handle a large number of sites with relatively few problems. So whilst it seemed to take us longer than we wanted in that initial stage, it paid big dividends because we weren't solving problems at every site that we went to.
"We had our business model worked out up front. We then made sure the technology could do what we needed and then the roll-out, whilst it was long, was much simpler."
In addition to the two pilot sites Peach and the project team had 16 other sites to roll out. The CSA installed the new system according to a relentless schedule: a new site was to be made operational every two weeks until the end of the year.
"We had a long roll-out period but it was a very aggressive one," says Peach. "We were putting sites in every two weeks, but going for full functionality virtually over a weekend. We were doing on/off switches over the weekend, so when we finished business on Friday it was the old system and on Monday morning it was the new system." This aggressive roll-out schedule raised two new challenges for the project team: training at the sites being rolled out to and protecting the project team itself from burnout.
Peach and the CSA found just-in-time training was the key to training staff at each branch office. "It's no use training people in these things three weeks before they've got to actually use it," he says, "but you also don't want to leave everything until Monday morning when you're turning on, in some cases, 400-500 new phones at a site."
"We had to have targeted just-in-time training just prior to roll-out for each site. Predominantly, this becomes a logistical, project management issue - to make sure that you're able to brief people in disparate sites around Australia as you go through the roll-out. This means the project manager has to have a trainer in Perth in one week, and then Adelaide, Melbourne, Moonee Ponds, Box Hill, Townsville and so on, at the right points in time.
The other thorny issue to creep across the path of the roll-out? Maintaining the project team under high pressure for an extended period of time - over 12 months including the initial testing phase. "All of the roll-out had to be done on weekends, during offline hours, so there was a lot of managing involved - building up and backfilling skills so you could give people a break instead of asking them to work weekend after weekend," Peach says.
The CSA felt it had to get the bulk of its clients using the new system in a short period of time to be able to justify the time and expense of the project - an aim that Peach says the CSA has now achieved. "We were after 70 per cent uptake," he says, and "we've exceeded that." With more of its clients able to use the automated process to get to the right officer, the CSA also achieved savings in call flow and handling as a result of the new routing strategies - not to mention reduced both unsuccessful transfers and the number of transfers overall.
"The benefit for us is that not only do we improve the speed with which we get the client to speak to the right person, but we also improve our own efficiency," says Peach, who describes the strategy as having a "double dividend".
"The dividend is to the client and the business," he says. "I think that if we didn't make the efficiency gains we couldn't have afforded to do the project. It enables us to continue to provide the service in an area where caseload growth is fairly strong." FSnapshot: Child Support AgencyThe Organisation: Australia's Child Support Agency (CSA), a Commonwealth government organisation established to help parents meet their child support responsibilities.
The Business Case: Struggling to cope with a rapidly growing caseload, CSA needed to develop an intelligent communication solution to improve its capacity to meet the needs of its clients - over a million separated parents around the country.
The Solution: A private voice network which integrates and connects CSA's 16 contact centres, supporting a total of 2200 client service staff and 400 support staff nationally.
The Technology: The solution uses NEC's NEAX 7400 IMX IP-enabled PBXs and handsets, which are integrated with services from NEC partners, including the Genesys G6 Suite, and VeCommerce FirstContact Interactive Voice Response (IVR) platform. The system incorporates intelligent routing on a call-by-call basis, service-automation, and superior desktop and management tools.
The Roll-out: The national installation was carried out between May and December 2001, with a new installation being launched every two weeks. Sites are in Brisbane, Adelaide, Moonee Ponds, Box Hill, Townsville, Perth, Parramatta, Sydney CBD, Newcastle, Hobart, Albury, Penrith, Dandenong, Canberra, Geelong and Wollongong.
Dealing With Vendors
The CSA's Neil Peach has a tip for dealing with vendors on large-scale IT projects: make them pay for their mistakes - literally.
Neil Peach, national projects manager with the Child Support Agency, knows that when it comes to dealing with vendors sometimes the hardest part is getting them to understand what's important to your business. And sometimes, the best way to make them understand is to attach a value to the technology and services that are most crucial. "You've got to say to them, 'The solution is only good to us when its working, and our business case and our return on investment depends on it working all the time. When it's not working it costs us dollars, and so it will cost you'," Peach says.
Link the availability of all of the services within the suite of technology to particular penalties says Peach. If functionality isn't available then the contractor should incur a penalty on pre-agreed rates, depending on how many people are affected.
"For example, our phone system might be working, but if the call routing wasn't working that means we wouldn't be getting our expected savings based on our business case," says Peach. "So we've linked our service contract with the project manager at NEC to those services. And if those services aren't available then they have to give us money."
According to Peach, incorporating specific penalties into the contract lets the vendor know what's important to your business and gives you a common language for communicating. And while crystallising the exact terms in contract form can take time, the effort is worthwhile when you consider the benefit is a closer working relationship with your solution provider.
"[Spelling out the terms in the contract] was a very difficult process but a productive one, because at each site where we have NEC people they know what is important to us. They know that we're measuring it, and they know that if it's not achieved there will be an impact on the contract."
"I can assure you these are not trivial issues," Peach adds. "If there were things that didn't work for a sufficient period of time then it has an enormous risk for NEC."
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