A frontline measure of how government meets the needs of its customers is how successful it is in answering its telephones promptly, accurately and courteously – so states the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) in its August 2000 report on customer service. The report found that federal agencies need clear goals and committed managers.
There is no finer example of commitment and goals resulting in outstanding success than the Battle Creek Customer Support Center serving the Defense Logistics Information Service (DLIS) and the Defense Realization Marketing Service (DRMS). Nationwide recognition came to the Battle Creek call center when it was awarded the coveted Al Gore Hammer Award for customer service excellence.
But if you were among the people who called this center in 1998, you probably waited so long to speak with someone that you hung up in frustration. Performance levels today exceed world-class standards for call centers. So how did they accomplish the turnaround?
The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) in 1997 conducted a study to determine customer satisfaction with its four centers. The DLIS-DRMS call center was rated higher than most, but its performance still suffered.
Optimizing performance standards had been the focus of an executive order issued by President Clinton in 1993, requiring all agencies dealing with the public to establish customer service standards. As a result, 570 agencies published more than 4,000 performance standards; unfortunately, only 2,800 of them were measurable, and few were tied to customer satisfaction.
DLA had established goals of answering 85 percent of its calls within 45 seconds or less and an abandoned call rate of less than five percent. Actual performance was an abandoned call rate of almost 50 percent. And then the situation got worse – the center’s workload increased by 400 percent.
DLIS is the premier logistics information broker for the Department of Defense (DoD); the Commanders in Chief of the unified military commands; federal, state and local agencies, non-profit agencies, private industry, the general public and international communities. It is the focal point for government cataloging, government entity code management, the Central Contractor Registration program (CCR), military sales, information technology products and electronic purchases through the DoD EMALL- not the type of questions that can be answered in 30 seconds.
Government agents at DLIS were already under a lot of stress trying to keep up with all the calls but, when their workload increased with the new CCR program, it became a crisis situation. The new responsibility added a large volume of incoming calls from private-sector companies trying to register in the contractor database, which would allow them to bid on outsourced work and also to be paid electronically. (CCR involves people who want to bid on any kind of contract with the Defense Department, not just for outsourced work.)
The center’s management recognized it was in an emergency situation and needed to do something quickly. They would have to go through a long process of hiring more government employees and incur more costs, or they could outsource. They chose the cost-avoidance route and outsourced. Duane Henderson, System Support Specialist for Technology, DLIS, believes it was “the more prudent course of action and a good management decision. They should be commended for being visionary in taking this step for the customers.”
In looking at outsourcing options, they considered NISH (National Institute for the Severely Handicapped). Under the Javits-Wagner-O’Day (JWOD) Program, NISH develops and maintains employment and training for disabled people; and government agencies are encouraged to support the JWOD Program. For the Battle Creek call center, the NISH program had a huge added benefit – unlike most government contracting situations, the services could be up and running in 30 days from the contract award.
NISH told DLIS management about a local vendor – Peckham Industries. Some modifications were made to the call center workstations for the Peckham agents in wheelchairs or with other physical challenges while DLIS began training some of the Peckham staff (they, in turn, trained the agents who would transition to the call center). None of the Peckham agents had prior call center experience, but Peckham’s vocational training program taught them the skills they would need for the government call center.
Fifty-seven percent of the call center’s 56 agents now are Peckham employees. Henderson recalls there was some apprehension among the government agents when they were informed of the contract. “They felt their livelihood might be threatened. We had to explain that this is a partnership, that no government jobs were at risk and that it was being done to augment and improve their working environment.”
Both groups now work well together and share information. Peckham participates in the government call center’s weekly staff meeting, and DLIS co-chaired a booth with Peckham at the GSA Expo this month, touting the benefits of this excellent public-private partnership.
Through advice of consultants, benchmarking missions and studying best practices at public and private-sector organizations, they decided on a three-tiered process, with the Peckham agents handling the first level. 80 percent of the 5,000-6,000 calls per week are handled on the first level. They also respond to the 500 emails and 250 faxes per week, as well as after-hours voice mail messages and “talk to a live agent” appointments through the Web site.
The agents record answers to customer calls, and the software uses those answers to build a knowledge database so that other agents can find the information and answer a call faster. A skills-based routing feature is built into the center’s Magic Solutions software (which was being used prior to outsourcing), routing the more complex questions to third-level knowledge experts. Only 10 percent of the incoming calls to the center are routed beyond the second level.
Dramatic Performance Improvement
The increased workload was the prime driver for outsourcing. “That’s what really sunk us. That’s why we needed help,” recalls Henderson. “Even when you work for the government,” he says, “you know what good (or poor) customer service is.” He maintains that they have always been interested in doing a good job and had built a world-class facility with state-of-the-art technology for that purpose. The center’s forward-thinking management is comprised of former military personnel who have remained conscientious about excellence in service and dependability. Still, Henderson says he wishes they had outsourced sooner.
These days, there is a lot of negative press about poor government performance levels compared to the private sector. Henderson agrees that those statements are not unfair about some organizations. But it’s not true of DLIS anymore.
Because of the Peckham partnership, the center’s abandoned call rate dropped from 50 percent to less than .002 percent. The workload keeps increasing, but the contract allows for an increase in Peckham agents when the workload peaks. Even with the current small number of agents and high volume of calls, the average speed to answer is now an astonishing seven seconds. And customer satisfaction has soared. Understandably, they are proud of their accomplishments! “But we are not resting on our laurels,” says Henderson. Like the best private-sector companies, they continually benchmark their performance, are investing in technology and are looking for even better ways to do things.
Lessons from the Outsourcing Primer:
- A three-tiered approach, with the more complex questions being routed to third-level subject experts, is an effective strategy to increase performance levels in a call center.
- The contract should allow an increase in the vendor’s agents to handle periodic peak call volume and increased workloads.
- Performance standards must be measurable and should be tied to customer satisfaction.