How to make citizens feel good about federal call centers

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Call centers; those invisible nests have operators that purport to help citizens with questions about government services. They are bane to agency after agency. Calls don’t get picked up or people make a pot of coffee while they’re on hold. Questions aren’t answered, callers get bounced from operator to operator, worst of all those badly designed automatic...

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

Call centers; those invisible nests have operators that purport to help citizens with questions about government services. They are bane to agency after agency. Calls don’t get picked up or people make a pot of coffee while they’re on hold. Questions aren’t answered, callers get bounced from operator to operator, worst of all those badly designed automatic call routers that end up with problems not resolved. There’s gotta be a better way. Deloitte Consulting and Savannah College of Art and Design did a deep dive into the matter and came up with ways to make federal call centers empathetic. Here with the details, Deloitte principal Marc Mancher spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript: 

Tom Temin: This idea of empathetic means what exactly and what can call centers do to become empathetic, but not just empathetic, but actually get the problem resolved?

Marc Mancher: Let’s put all the listeners in a mindset here. When you call into a contact center, you always start with a very positive intent in your mind, I got a problem I needed solved, I’m going to go get help. And you first come into the contact center. And it says you know, “Hello”, and your mind’s good. And then it says “push one.” And as soon as it says push one,, push two Tom, what happens? Your mind starts to drift on us. Going how many options are out there right? Now, if you hear push one, push two, push three, push four, by this time you’re already losing your confidence in this context that you’ll be able to help me. So you’ve pushed a number. And then it says to you, “Thank you. Now push one here, push two,” should go into another tree. And you get in this endless loop at about this point. What do we all start doing we all start yelling “Operator! Operator! Operator! Or pushing 00 or pound, pound, pound because we want to get out of this thing that we believe is slow, ineffective, impersonal, and is not going to help me solve my problem.

Tom Temin: And increasingly pushing the zero or asking for an operator doesn’t get you there anyway.

Marc Mancher: It does not get you there anyway, the actual reality is, if call center IVRs or automatic call distributors are designed correctly, they actually can improve your ability to get resolved. And often that’s not actually talking to a human being. It’s using something that’s automated, but we don’t allow it to get there because our IVRs are not designed correctly. What would we expect from the behavioral side of an IVR? When we dial in from the behavioral side, what would be great? First of all, if it comes up and it says to you, “Hello, Tom?” Well, you know, you’ve already been identified. And there’s technology out there that reads your voice that can identify who you are. So you can immediately be identified so that knows who you are.

Tom Temin: Or it knows the number you’re calling from, or knows whom you’re calling from correct.

Marc Mancher: And could then say to you, there’s four options you’re going to listen to, you immediately set your brain on, I’m only going to hear four things. And then it could say to you after you push one, your wait time is going to be eight minutes. what have we done, we’ve immediately set the context that it knows who you are, how much time you’re going to spend here, and enables you to be part of the conversation, not just spoken at?

Tom Temin: And what about the idea of once it identifies you, being able to pull data from other transactions. For example, suppose you had a fail at a website, could the call center know that, and therefore understand what it is you’re trying to do even before you call?

Marc Mancher: So when you use the technology that already exists in the marketplace, the empathetic technology, soon as you’re identified, either through your phone number or your voice footprint or whatever means it is the technology exists today for the agent to get something and the jargon is called a CTI pop. But to get something which is your information, which says Tom filled out an application for XYZ. We sent him a request for his driver’s license, and he never sent it in. So I could say as soon as he comes on the phone, “Welcome, Tom. I see you fill this out your 99% there. Do you have your driver’s license, by the way, we have a way of receiving that if you take a picture of it, we can complete that right now.” We have enabled better service through the technology.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Marc Mancher. He’s a principal at Deloitte Consulting. Tell us more about the study that you did with Savannah College of Art and Design. I mean, there are models, I guess that are out there in the commercial world that exemplify the best in what the government could adopt if it gets to it.

Marc Mancher: Sure, the thesis for the study with the SCAD Savannah College for Art and Design was not about the technology to start with. It was about the behavioral science of the contact center, and how do we promote equity in our contact centers. So if we think  about those parameters of it. We wanted to understand why do people push zero? And why do people yell “Operator!” And I talked about this a little bit, we had the students go out into the community, we worked with the students to listen to multiple commercial and public sector IVRs. What worked and what didn’t work. And what we discovered through the primary research was that if IVRs, first of all, have warmth and tone of variety, just to start with, now, I don’t endorse any companies. But if you happen to call Audible, you know, they probably don’t want me to say this, because  everyone’s gonna call and listen, if you dialed their call center, the very first thing it says is, “Please be nice to our agents”, because it’s setting the tone on we want to help you let’s have a partnership here.

Tom Temin: I guess we often forget, if you get to that person on the other end of the line, and you’re already hot to stab, then that can also wreck their day and your day.

Marc Mancher: Absolutely. And so the agents are always trained in empathy, but I love that they say, “Please be nice to our agents”. And then they say, here’s what you’re going to hear, here’s how we’re going to help you, here’s how long you’re going to wait. And context setting is really important. If at the beginning of a call, like we talked about, you can set context for the call with a person, you immediately get in the right frame of mind. Now let’s talk about equity. Equity is very, very important. There’s a lot of people in the workforce today, who can’t wait an hour on the phone to talk to somebody to receive a public service, because they have a job to do. They have a child to watch, they have a mother or father to watch, they have some other condition in their life, that doesn’t enable them to, they need to receive service where they are, when they need it. And with sometimes the communication mode, like if you’re in Montana, you may not be in a spot that has broadband, or even a spot that has cell coverage. So how do we also enable equity. And when you use empathetic technologies and multiple channels, you enable first of all people to get into the channel. But while they’re in a channel, maybe I can send you a link to something in a way that you can receive it. And that way you can get the service you need when you need it, how you need it, where you need it.

Tom Temin: For then the IVR is the call center automation really needs to be tied in as part of an omni channel approach.

Marc Mancher: Absolutely an omni channel is an overused word in the industry, everything is omni this, omni that. What you really want to do in the contact center space, and we work with SCAD on this, we write about this in the study a little bit, is you want to understand the personas that people that need to use the service, need to understand how they can use the service,when they can use a service, where they can use this service. So that way, as our contact centers are reaching out to these folks or people are coming into the centers, you have that omni channel capability to enable the right service to be delivered to our citizens.

Tom Temin: I mean, there’s really no end of how far this can go. And when you think about it, suppose your Social Security or Medicare, and it’s likely that your callers are older, you know, senior citizens or whatever overused word you want to use, they could maybe design the system of interaction with that in mind. Whereas if someone is trying to get a park license to hike down the Grand Canyon, chances are they’re not 80 or 90 years old. And therefore a different type of system or a different type of persona might be calling. Would that be taking it too far? Or even if they’re calling from a smartphone versus a flip phone? Because there are still people that use flip phones, and that could give the center a clue as to which response to invoke? Was that far fetched?

Marc Mancher: It’s not far fetched at all. The problem, Tom is that our public sector procurement systems don’t allow for that type of interaction to be purchased. We tend to focus on brand names of technology. We tend to focus on what did someone do five years ago and represent it into solicitations. The requirements of the solicitations rarely say equity. Rarely say empathy. They don’t say that I’m you know, my hat’s off to organizations like CMS where I’m starting to see the primary piece of solicitations that come out have things like equity in it. My hat’s off because that way more people get insurance. If we’re gonna provide services, we have to give up buying labels brand names, or asking for what did you do five years ago? Most people don’t want to buy an iPhone three they want to buy the most recent iPhone. Again, I don’t promote Apple products, but you know, they want to buy the most recent technology. So we have to allow the requirements to the bidders to receive rewards for empathy, for equity. For those types of things, as opposed to other items, so you’re absolutely right.

Tom Temin: And there are metrics by which you can measure empathy. For example, if the problem gets resolved in a certain amount of time, that’s faster than before and the resolution rate is higher. That’s a pretty good indicator too.

Marc Mancher: So yes, in addition to that, with an empathetic technology that exists today, you can listen to the call recordings. And you can grade them on the person who made the call, you know, how did the agent do in this interaction? And did they service our citizens with the right amount of empathy, and you can train off of that, that technology exists today. And you can go one step further. The empathetic technology that exists today allows for a supervisor to be alerted if a call starts to go sideways in any way. So we can immediately hop in and help a citizen right there and not have to do it afterwards that exists today in the marketplace. It just has to be part of the way it systems procured.

Tom Temin: Marc Mancher is a principal at Deloitte Consulting.

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