How to fix the festering problem of federal contact centers

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Few services to the public can be as troublesome as agency contact centers, just ask the IRS. Yet as long as people have phones, they’re going to want telephone service. Technology consultants at Deloitte studied contact centers and came up with a model for what they call the “contact center of the future.” For more on what...


Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

Few services to the public can be as troublesome as agency contact centers, just ask the IRS. Yet as long as people have phones, they’re going to want telephone service. Technology consultants at Deloitte studied contact centers and came up with a model for what they call the “contact center of the future.” For more on what that might look like, Deloitte Consulting Principal Marc Mancher spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Mancher, good to have you on.

Marc Mancher: Hi, Tom, hope you’re having a great day today.

Tom Temin: Yes, I haven’t had to call anyone for telephone service yet. So that makes a good day in my estimation. But let’s start at the beginning, you make a distinction between call centers and contact centers.

Marc Mancher: Let’s talk about the state of the industry. And I think it’s important to note that when is the last time you or someone you know, say, I had a great interaction today with a federal agency or department? We don’t usually hear that coming from the contact center space. What we usually hear is disappointment, or that service needs were not met. And what we’re seeing in the space overall is that this is really because the infrastructure of our contact centers is crumbling. So when we look at the contact center space, right, there’s been a lot of procurements over the last couple years for shiny new apps and software products. But underneath it, the existing infrastructure is old. So let me give you a quick example here: Today, we have our phones, or iOS, or Android phones, and all kinds of new apps are out there in the marketplace. But if we don’t have a newer version of our phones that are three to five years old, we can’t use the digital experience promised by these. And that digital experience can include things like text, or chat, or voice or moving between channels and giving someone the service where they want it, how they want it, at the time they want it. What we can just give them is the way we’ve always done it. So what we’re really seeing when we talk about the future is that the infrastructure itself is crumbling in our contact centers. And that infrastructure is called telephony.

Tom Temin: Yeah, contact centers are designed, I guess around, originally around telephone service, and information was fed up to people as they were on the phone. But what is the missing piece of infrastructure, then? I mean, anything can go over the same wire. So when you say infrastructure, what do you specifically mean?

Marc Mancher: Sure. So let’s talk about the telephony infrastructure. So when we think about interactions today, our citizens want to be served where, when and how. And that can be in text, that can be in chat, or that can be via voice. And so in order to get that interaction, and to move between the different channels, what you need is an underlying telephony infrastructure that enables that. So let’s say you start on a website, and then you want to go to chat. And then you need to go talk to an agent to resolve something. If the infrastructure can’t move you between the different channels that’s called omni channel, then what you’re stuck with is you’re on a website, let me look up a phone number. And then you try dialing it or maybe you can’t find that phone number. The interaction itself and the underlying telephony infrastructure should enable someone to move between those points seamlessly. And that’s where we’re broken.

Tom Temin: So a contact center then has unified communications, I think is the word for it. Sounds like agencies need to get on to the EIS contract if they’re going to be able to do this.

Marc Mancher: That’s a great point. The EIS contract is part of the vision on how to do that. Part of the problem, though, when you mentioned EIS or other solicitations, is that what we’re seeing is that the solicitations are looking at the past, not the future. Let me give you an example here: They’re saying things like, show me where you did this over the last three to five years, not show me where your design is, and in the future, how you’re going to innovate. Just think about when we buy a car, Tom, do we go into the dealership and say, show me the technology from three to five years ago? No, we say, show me what’s new now and how that is going to manifest itself into what I purchase. Our procurements need to be shifted.

Tom Temin: Alright, and the contact centers are populated by people. And it seems like they have to have a different set of training, different set of skills to be able to be omni channel while they’re working with a given client or constituent.

Marc Mancher: So it’s a mix of people and AI in the contact centers today. A lot of what we can do is via speech, we can do that inside an IVR. There’s often a term that’s misused in the industry, which is called IVR deflection. Let’s lower costs and get people out of the IVR. That way, we don’t talk to them. How about we service people in the IVR so they can receive the service they need? Or how about in the IVR we can text them a link like we do commercially and someone can be service so they never have to receive the voice, which is actually slower and often less service driven then the automated interaction. So yes, training is very important. What we have to understand is how do we use the AI that is available today in an omni channel experience to deliver service to citizens?

Tom Temin: We are speaking with Marc Mancher. He’s a principal at Deloitte Consulting and an expert on the contact center. And you did a pretty detailed study of this. Are there any industrial or commercial examples you can point to that exemplify this?

Marc Mancher: Well sure, just think – I don’t want to name companies necessarily. But just think if you buy something online at a major retailer, that’s a web-based presence. If you have an issue with your interaction, a chat pops up on your device. And from that chat, you can then interact and often that’s AI, sometimes that’s the person, you’re then given a link to something that can solve your problem. And then a return or replacement can happen. And that is all within seconds, not minutes, and you get the service where you want it how you want it. And at the time that you need it, whether it’s in the middle of the day, or in the middle of the night.

Tom Temin: So someone could then be on the phone on speaker say, I’m just trying to imagine this on their handset on a smartphone. And with modern phones, as you point out, you can do omni channel. And so the phone call is not broken, they could get a link, they could resolve the issue with that link while the person is on the phone, say, “You all set? Ok, good, you’re done, goodbye.” And everybody’s happy.

Marc Mancher: Well, depending upon how you want to interact with the contact center, you may not ever need that voice. You could start it in a chat on your device. And you could end it on a chat on your device. And you never need to get to an agent because everything has manifested itself for you in that device. If you do need to get to one, this is the important interaction piece, all the data from your prior interactions for the telephony, needs to get to the agents that don’t have to ask you, who are you? What do you want? If they can see the interaction from the past, they can immediately get to what you need and serve you.

Tom Temin: Right? I guess the postulate that it has to start out with a phone call. That’s the thing we got to get past in the first place.

Marc Mancher: Absolutely, it doesn’t have to start with a phone call. And often it’s not the best way to start it. If we can start it in a different channel, we can use the phone as either the last resort, or perhaps someone needs to use voice because of a disability or something else. We can have that available for different populations. But we should be able to have someone again, receive service when they want it, how they want it. And at the time and place they want it.

Tom Temin: By the way, are there any government agencies that are already there, or getting there that are a good model?

Marc Mancher: I haven’t seen one yet, Tom, honestly. What I’ve seen is a lot of great conversation. Let me give you a real example from this morning, we are looking at a solicitation, I’m not going to name the agency, looking at innovation. And I asked my team about innovation. And they said, Marc, have you read question XYZ? And I’m like, well I went through the Q&A. I’m going to read you exactly what the Q&A said. The vendor, it wasn’t my firm, said, “Can we bring an innovative solution?” Answer from the government: “No, just bid the requirement.” Real story from this morning. That to me does not bid innovation into the future, that keeps us trapped in the past.

Tom Temin: Yeah, that’s a classic. And I just want to zero in on the voice function itself for a moment, because it seems like agencies tend to use the brute force method of trying to get better voice phone service by hiring a bunch of people. And then as you point out, it looks like a big growing expense. Because sometimes things take a long time. Is there any way to make just the voice function more efficient, at least so that when you do go to voice? It’s not such a cumbersome, brute force type of process?

Marc Mancher: Absolutely. So there’s a couple tricks or things you can do to help with voice. First of all, in the marketplace, now we have biometric authentication. What does that mean? That means that when you call in, you can be authenticated via your voice. So we don’t have to spend a minute asking you for information. It’s also is a fraud detection mechanism. Because Tom, I may know your information. But if the waves of my voice don’t match it, I know that it’s not you. So we can take time out of the agent, authenticating who you are. The next thing has to do with the training of the agents, if we can get better knowledge systems for agents, where when you call in, the agent has better knowledge at their fingertips. And there’s technology out there that says, the last time you call Tom was about a driver’s license. And by the way, we sent you a form and we don’t have that back yet. The agent could say Tom, have you sent in the form that we sent to you? And you can say yes, here it is. What we can do is we can arm the agent sitting in the cockpit just like Tom Cruise in “Minority Report,” right? All the information is there we can arm the agent sitting in the cockpit with who you are, that you’re authenticated, what was last interaction, and what do we believe through AI is the next question you’re going to ask? And that is how we give better service to citizens.

Tom Temin: And that’s pretty common and commercial. You go airline they knew every flight you’ve taken for 20 years. You go to the big “A” store that we all love and know, and they know everything you’ve bought, and say, “Do you need this again?” type of thing. So these are not exotic technologies, are they?

Marc Mancher: They’re not exotic technologies. And again, this is the marriage between the software that can track these things to help you. And the telephony that can bring the interaction and move between omni channel when you have those two pieces in place, what you can have is magic for citizens trying to receive service from the federal government.

Tom Temin: So instead of putting out requirements for a call center, agencies ought to say, give me a customer experience contact center with great speedy answers and let industry tell you how to do it.

Marc Mancher: You’re absolutely right. We talk a lot about digital experience. But we give requirements from five years ago. Let’s actually ask to demonstrate digital experience and award on digital experience and we will receive much better service.

Tom Temin: Marc Mancher is a principal at Deloitte Consulting. Thanks so much for joining me.

Marc Mancher: Thanks and have a great day.

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