Report: Empathetic Tech Can Improve the Government Contact Center Experience

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A little empathy goes a long way.

Employed properly, empathetic, interactive voice response systems can take some load off contact center agents and augment the experiences of those reaching out to government contact centers, according to a Deloitte Center for Government Insights report released this week.

The report, based on work with the Savannah College of Art and Design, studied users’ responses to automated systems in the fall of 2021 and identified several reasons why users tend to react strongly and negatively to automated systems.  

Users tended to feel they were slow, ineffective, impersonal, untrustworthy and overly complex, yet the report suggests that while automated systems’ poor reputation was well earned, it was also outdated when considering modern technology updates.

“Recent improvements to IVR have made it possible to deliver much better service, but the new reality hasn’t overcome this historical bias. In other cases, people simply don’t want to interact with an automated system, and the reasons for the animosity aren’t necessarily simple—or easy to address,” the report states.

Given federal agencies’ increased reliance on automated systems—it’s all but impossible for large organizations to staff enough agents to field all public calls, emails or texts directly—their best bet is to make automation feel a bit more human, said Marc Mancher, a principal at Deloitte Consulting and one of the report’s authors.

“How do we change the behavior of these calls?” Mancher said. “How do we shift from what exists today to get to a more empathetic experience?”

Modern interactive voice response systems allow for more prediction and personalization, the report states, and chatbots are becoming more conversational and anticipatory. The report suggests pairing artificial intelligence with human-centered design principles can improve callers’ experience and attitudes regarding the automated systems and agencies employing them. The report identifies five design features “that can help to boost trust, satisfaction and problem resolution.” They are:

  1. Warmth and tonal variety: create a more welcoming environment by emphasizing natural language and tone in automated vocal responses; if possible, use caller ID to personalize the IVR, using previously selected preferences.
  2. Context-setting: explain the IVR capabilities at the beginning of the caller menu to help set expectations and clarify IVR functionality.
  3. Post-call information: provide written follow-up detail, by email or text, that callers can use for reference after their call.
  4. Predictive support: enable the IVR to use predictive services based on available information and chosen preferences to support callers and speed up transactions.
  5. Queue hold: this may be beyond some agencies’ current technology capabilities, but some systems can incorporate a mechanism in the queue to hold a caller’s virtual place waiting to speak with a live agent even as they try to solve problems within the IVR system. In other words, you can attempt to solve your issue on IVR while waiting for an agent without “losing your place in line.”

Interactive voice response systems can augment the experience of those using government contact centers.

Mancher said in an ideal call with an automated system, the system “sets contexts early.” It should, for example, provide an estimated wait time and set a reasonable parameter for options. Top-notch systems may also provide self-service links during the wait should the situation merit it. Too often, Mancher said, federal agencies employ automated systems to “deflect the call away.” A more empathetic approach turns that thinking on its head.

“That’s the wrong way to think about it,” Mancher said. “It’s not how to deflect, but how to solve the problem.”

Mancher added that empathetic technology can improve equity—an important pillar of the Biden administration as it aims to better and more fairly serve citizens and improve customer experience across the federal government.

“Voice is a non-equity channel,” Mancher said. “If you are an hourly worker and sit on the phone for an hour, you don’t get paid.”

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