Report: Federal Call Center Modernization Requires Strategy Sea Change

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Call center and customer experience investments aren’t being made in the most efficient manner, according to research from Accenture Federal Services.

Nearly 9 in 10 federal contact center and customer experience decision makers report a strong desire to improve federal customer experience, but federal agencies may not be investing and executing on that intent in the most efficient, modern means possible.

That is according to data from Accenture Federal Services, which surveyed 200 federal contact center personnel and other federal customer experience experts for a report titled, “The Case for Truly Transforming Federal Contact Centers.” The report essentially argues federal agencies are using outdated, old-school approaches to investing in contact centers instead of investing in digital-first technologies that could address federal customer experience challenges at their roots.

For example, 87% of those surveyed reported wanting to improve customer experience, 64% said the focus on customer experience has increased over the past three years, and 81% called reducing the cost to serve customers “strategically important.” However, nearly three in four surveyed are focused on what the report calls “status quo investments,” including expanding contact center capacity (71%) and improving workforce productivity (71%). Digital technologies common in the private sector aren’t prioritized for investment. Modern desktop technologies were a focus for only 12% of those surveyed, and consolidated knowledge bases (6%) and customer-facing virtual service agents (3%) polling even lower among federal customer experience practitioners.

“Self-service and a proactive, omnichannel approach are essential to truly transforming a federal contact center,” the report states. “It’s about anticipating what customers need and getting that information to them on their own terms. The mark of a true contact center transformation and customer experience improvement is when a call is not made because the customer already has the information they need.”

One of the report’s authors, Kathy Conrad, director of Digital Government at Accenture Federal Services, told Nextgov the federal government risks wasting the “tremendous energy and momentum” behind improving federal customer experience. Some of that momentum stems from the Biden administration’s clear policy framework around customer experience, as well the president’s executive order on the subject in December aimed at rebuilding trust in government. Agencies have begun to implement the new guidance amid challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and have done so providing comparable levels of service, according to a July report from Forrester.

“We’ve gone from thinking about customer experience as nice to have, to looking at it as a key to IT modernization and achieving mission outcomes,” Conrad said. “But as agencies have galvanized around customer experience improvement and lowering the cost to serve, the focus is often on the wrong issues—on answering calls—rather than finding ways to solve problems so people don’t need to call at all.”

Ideally, Conrad said agencies’ customer experience channels—phones, online or in-person—are synchronized, so officials can better anticipate and identify emerging customer needs. That approach—one of the strategies outlined in the report—helps to break down silos that tend to isolate service delivery channels, Conrad added. The report also suggests agencies should do what they can to deflect live channel engagement, like phone calls, live chat or email, to lower-cost self-service channels, like company-run websites or mobile apps. Data from Gartner suggests live channel contact costs an average of $8.01 per contact, while self-service channels cost about ten cents per contact. At some agencies, the cost per call is significantly higher, with IRS exceeding $41 per call in 2018.

As one example, Conrad pointed to Aidan, StudentAid.gov’s virtual assistant. The virtual assistant has exchanged more than 13 million messages with parents and students on questions regarding student loan balance, payments and other issues.

“That is a lot of calls that haven’t been made,” Conrad said.

Lastly, Conrad said proactive communications and messaging are important. Just as people might get a text message when their prescriptions are due for a refill, Conrad said some federal agencies could reduce call volumes by employing a similar approach, especially in situations where callers are checking on the status of things like payments received.

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