After Jane lost her job due to the pandemic, she reached out to several government agencies about benefits. She visited an agency website, but as a new applicant, had some questions she needed clarified before she could apply online. When she called the agency, however, she found herself on hold for 90 minutes or more. More than once, she gave up in frustration. When Jane finally did reach an agent, she was understandably upset.
On the other end of the line was an employee who was equally upset—working from home during the pandemic, serving an avalanche of incoming calls, dealing with frustrated callers, and falling behind despite her best efforts.
The pandemic has provided a painful wakeup call for government contact centers, as high volumes exposed the limitations of legacy systems. Phone lines were jammed and customers often faced lengthy delays. If any silver lining has emerged from the chaos, it’s that modernizing government contact centers has finally become a priority.
And dramatic improvement is possible. A number of big shifts are already starting to occur, but for government, perhaps the most important is a change in mindset. The focus used to be on building a better contact center through incremental improvements, with holding down costs as a top priority. That won’t cut it anymore. Today, success might require reimagining the entire customer experience. It’s about solving peoples’ problems as quickly and painlessly as possible. Contact centers play a huge role in customer satisfaction—or dissatisfaction—with an agency.
Government contact centers can and should aim to create the best possible outcomes for their customers, agents, and the agency itself. This will require a deep understanding of user needs and making appropriate use of digital technologies (figure 1).
The contact center of the future entails three components:
The basic building blocks of a contact center--including people, process flows, and technology--should be familiar. But there are seven significant shifts making the future contact center very different than what is happening in government contact centers today:
It’s not about getting people off the phone fast or diverting them to tech; it’s about solving their problems and making them happy. Do it right, and you can see satisfaction go up and costs go down.
For too long, contact centers have been seen as cost centers, and the biggest expense factor has been labor. As a result, management has generally viewed technology as a way to reduce the time spent talking with customers.
But if the purpose of a contact center is to create a great customer experience, in some cases it might make sense to spend extensive time talking with a customer to resolve a difficult issue. On the other hand, a great customer experience may not involve any human interaction, as when you pay a vehicle toll at 60 mph thanks to a transponder on your windshield.
Creating a great experience doesn’t need to be about hiring more people but redesigning the process and technology to create an entirely different experience. Depending on the situation, a great customer experience could be fully automated, on an online self-service tool, or in the form of an extended conversation with a knowledgeable representative.
In the past, contact center managers have too often seen their role as pushing employees to get customers off the phone as quickly as possible. This may seem like it will reduce costs, but does it? After all, unhappy customers are likely to keep calling back until their problem is solved. Ironically, great service can actually end up being less expensive, since most issues get resolved with a single interaction, reducing the chance of costly errors.
This means providing omnichannel service (phone, text, email, website, mobile) and two-way communication, including proactive reminders.
Customers want it all. They desire service for any need at any time, by phone, email, text, social media, paper mail, or at physical “walk-in” locations. Most government agencies offer service through multiple channels, but too often, government has failed to integrate these service experiences, meaning that information shared through one channel isn’t shared with other channels. Moreover, government hasn’t taken full advantage of tools to proactively guide customers to the correct action and the best channel. Imagine, if upon a key life event (your driver’s license expiring, losing a job, the approach of your 65th birthday), you received an email, complete with prefilled forms, from relevant agencies. Not only would it avoid missed deadlines, but it would also likely move routine transactions to digital platforms—which is where they belong.
For such reasons, contact center leaders now are moving toward a principle called “right-channeling”—ushering customers to the most efficient channel for their needs, helping them feel recognized and valued without losing sight of efficiency.1
Some customers usually just want a quick transaction. These customers should be guided toward self-service features on the web. But sometimes, customers are anxious about online transactions, and want a sympathetic listener to help address their problems. And sometimes, they have complex problems that require specialized knowledge to solve.
Modern digital contact center infrastructure can enable these kinds of “omnichannel” interactions, where the citizen can transition seamlessly from a chatbot to voice to text. This is enabled on the back end by a platform that integrates all relevant information and shares it with the agent through an integrated information cockpit.
Done right, tech-based service can be great. The solution to long lines at toll booths wasn’t to hire more toll collectors—it was to put a transponder on the windshield that allows drivers to pay their toll while cruising at 60 mph. Seamless, no-touch, and low-touch solutions can deliver the best service at low cost.
Technology can solve simple problems quickly with minimal staff intervention.
Moreover, a well-designed self-service can create a very satisfying customer experience, allowing customers to complete tasks quickly and without human intervention. Note the emphasis on “well-designed.” Because tech-based self-service tools can be extremely frustrating if the user can’t navigate them easily. By the third time, when they've been sent back to the main menu, most people start screaming “representative!” or pushing the pound key to escape.
The best contact centers will likely invest in ways to dramatically increase the share of low-touch and no-touch solutions. The key is that these must be designed to meet the needs of customers—not merely frustrate them on the way to reaching a live person. Using HCD principles to create such digital experiences is one way to go about it (see sidebar, “HCD helps GSA assist fraud victims” to know how using HCD principles helped make reporting scams to the website easier for victims).
Behavioral insights or “nudge” thinking tells us that if you want people to use digital self-service, you need to make it easy for them to do so. This usually means investing in technology that makes it easy for customers to interact digitally. This includes prefilled forms, clear instructions on web pages, and the option to use mobile devices.
The General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS) has used HCD to improve the customer experience for those reporting scams to the USA.gov website.
Americans lose more than US$1 billion annually to various scams. The TTS team was charged with improving the USA.gov website to make it easier for these victims to report their situations and obtain assistance. Using HCD principles, the team invited 32 people who had previously contacted USA.gov about scams to a workshop to learn about their experiences.
Based on insights from actual users, TTS created an easy-to-use chatbot to provide personalized experiences. Within a month after launch, the chatbot had handled more than 4,000 inquiries; seventy-eight percent of users had asked a question and received a satisfactory answer. Handling routine inquiries in this way allows contact center staff members to devote more time to more challenging issues.2 The lesson? Getting the input of actual users can help make self-service simple.
Not all tech solutions are created equal. Automated menus with confusing choices can be off-putting and frustrating. And customers who don’t speak a region’s primary language often have been ill-served by automation.
Today, however, multilingual chatbots can overcome language barriers. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ AI chatbot Emma, for instance, offers services in both English and Spanish.3 Dubai Electricity & Water Authority chatbot RAMMAS can converse in both English and Arabic.4 More recently, as the pandemic struck, San Jose quickly trained its English-only bot for Spanish and Vietnamese as well. Officials made a first pass by using free services to translate questions and answers into these languages, then had bilingual staff members review the results for accuracy. In the next phase, they’ll train the chatbot to provide translations in real time as needed through machine learning.5 As technology evolves, the service levels of digital solutions can keep getting better and better.
Government agencies are also working on bridging the gap in accessibility for those with disabilities. In April 2021, Virginia became the first state in the United States to provide real-time American Sign Language (ASL) support for COVID-19 and vaccine information to the deaf and those that are hard of hearing. Virginia’s Vaccine Call Center employs a staff of deaf individuals fluent in ASL and also offers services in English and Spanish.6
The use of artificial intelligence (AI), including natural language processing, is transforming tech-based service, making it possible to deliver great service at low costs. The contact center of the future is expected to use technology as a service tool.
In those exceptional cases where customers need to interact with a real human, the representative should have all the tools they need to do their job at their fingertips. Like pilots in a cockpit, they should be getting critical information from a variety of sources, and have the support they need to deliver a solution.
Too often, once a customer jumps through the hoops needed to reach a live person, they still can’t get the help they need. That’s not the employee’s fault, as they may have little more than a three-ring binder to guide them through difficult cases.
Tech-supported interactions can dramatically increase success rates. In the contact center of the future, instead of feeling isolated, the employee is supported with critical information in an “employee cockpit.”
“Empathetic tech” can combine the efficiency of technology with the empathy of a live person to produce a great customer experience. But with each customer being unique, how can you design a system to serve thousands or even millions of unique users? One way is to use personas—fictitious individuals that represent a portion of a population (see sidebar, “Using personas as an HCD tool”).
Too often, customers are asked for the same information multiple times. In the contact center of the future, information is kept in one place and those who need it can access it when needed.
Regardless of input type (text, email, phone call) integrated service workflows ensure that all information is captured in the same place, so no customer has to “tell their story” three times to three different people. This omnichannel approach not only allows information to come in through different channels, but also ensures that all this information is integrated on the back end and is available to customer service reps.
Whether no-touch, low-touch, or high-touch, workflows should deliver a positive result for customers requires the appropriate technology as well as strategies to ensure the proper “matchmaking” of task to resolution, connecting each customer with a representative with the right skills for the problem. A contact center may handle a variety of call types; some customers may need a Mandarin speaker, others may require specialized knowledge, and still others may just need a little hand-holding. This “smart routing” is enabled by a set of integrated workflows, meaning information from a text or email from a customer is visible to the person answering the phone and available to all, so if you have filled out a form online and then sent a text, the representative will have that information provided in their “cockpit.” Integrating the multiple types of tech may be the most challenging aspect of building the contact center of the future. It all rests on a secure, cloud-based tech foundation that meets stringent security standards, such as FEDRAMP, to ensure that private information is kept private.
Miserable employees can’t provide great service. The experience of employees in the contact center of the future is expected to be dramatically different than what is typically experienced today, with more training, greater flexibility, and a more satisfying work environment.
Frontline employees can have a huge impact on customer satisfaction. Yet the contact center experience can be stressful for employees.Workers often receive inadequate training and face high workloads punctuated by difficult interactions with angry customers. It’s no surprise that attrition in these jobs tends to be high.7
A great employee experience is more likely to provide a great customer experience. Disengaged employees frequently use negative language with customers, saying “I can’t do that,” rather than positive language such as “Let me look into that.” Even worse, they may provide customers with incorrect information just to rush them off the phone.
Government contact centers may need to rebuild the employee experience, from onboarding through the entire career path.
In the past, contact center jobs could be dead-end jobs. In the future, tech will likely be handling a greater fraction of tasks, meaning the remaining issues will be more complex—in turn, requiring more skilled representatives. While there’d be generalists to fix routine problems, there would also be a group of employees who can develop niche specialties and serve as sophisticated problem-solvers.
As for the generalists, the number of programs they cover could increase. It is common today to have distinct groups of agents working in silos, with groups such as Child Support, Adult Protective Services, and Child Care Services each fully staffing their own contact center. This can be inefficient. In the future, thanks to supportive cockpits and sophisticated scripting assistance, there could be a shared pool of generalized agents covering a broader scope of programs, with specialists to access as needed.
Furthermore, employees increasingly value flexibility in their schedules. Government contact centers too often use blanket shift schedules and manual vacation spreadsheets. Advanced workforce systems can forecast workloads, schedule agent assignments, and track adherence to assigned schedules. Such systems can be designed to accommodate greater employee flexibility.
Employees also value the ability to work remotely, from home or wherever else they choose. The pandemic prompted a rapid shift to remote work, which can have the added benefit of reducing facility costs. According to the Deloitte 2021 Global Contact Centre Survey, eight percent of companies plan to close their physical customer service centers entirely.8 To be effective, managers need to manage differently in the remote environment and will likely need tools to keep employees engaged and connected.
Empathetic tech combines the efficiency of digital with the warmth of human understanding. Thanks to advances to AI and better design, empathetic tech can sense human emotions, and either provide enhanced tech solutions or shift customers to a live representative.
The choice used to be between cold, impersonal tech and the warm but costly service by a live agent. Advances in “empathetic” tech have broken that tradeoff. In effect, smart machines are beginning to successfully navigate quintessentially human territory, sensing emotion cues and addressing what really matters to customers.9
New AI technology can capture critical “bio-signatures”—facial expressions, voice patterns, and more—to interpret human emotions and generate empathetic responses. In a contact center setting, AI can help detect an unsettled emotional state and connect that person to an actual human being before their frustration escalates.
At Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), for instance, AI-enabled cameras analyze the facial expression of customers before and after processing their transactions, providing instant feedback on customer happiness. The system sends text and email follow-up notifications to those who appear dissatisfied, allowing the agency to take steps to improve their service.10 A future update will send callers a “happiness” survey via text.11
AI-based systems use machine learning to better understand the needs of customers, continually learning from past events. In time, these systems will be able to predict, with increasing accuracy, why a particular customer is contacting the agency, and route them to the appropriate service channel, whether it’s a human, a chatbot, or a self-service platform.
Consider, for instance, the chatbot platform jointly created by Finland’s Immigration Service, Tax Administration, and Patent and Registration Office, which can field questions related to immigration, taxation, and company formation. Each agency has its own independent chatbot, but they’re linked to one another through an intelligent layer in the background. When a bot can’t answer a question, it can analyze user keywords, predict the appropriate agency to help, and then redirect the customer to its chatbot.12
Until recently, the only way government leaders could improve their contact center operations was by adding additional components onto their existing structure—perhaps adding a chatbot to a website or an IVR system to the telephony. Today, the notion of “contact center as a service” allows government to rent a suite of services—with the advantage of only paying for what you use.
Many public leaders who oversee contact centers see many opportunities for improvement, but aren’t clear on the best way to move ahead. Their concerns often fall into four categories:
One silver lining of the pandemic is much greater awareness of the need to enhance governments’ ability to provide customer services. Federal COVID-19 funding and surplus state revenues in many states can help agencies upgrade these capacities.
Note that, just as the cloud allows you to pay only for the technology you use, a “pay by the minute” approach to call center services can limit upfront costs and allow charges to be proportional to usage, eliminating the risk of paying for capacity needed only during peak demands.
Public agencies often lack the specialized expertise needed to rebuild their contact centers. From telephony to AI, from cybersecurity to data integration, few public agencies have the depth and breadth of knowledge to go it alone.
A good starting point would be understanding the contact center experience from both a front-end customer perspective and a back-end agent perspective. This can serve as a guidance to incorporate necessary functionalities that meet the user need and hit mission objectives. A deep understanding of what can be fulfilled in-house vis-à-vis what can be brought in from outside can help enable the development of solutions that are grounded in user needs as well as provide value.
The government contact center of the future needs a strong, secure, and adaptable platform. The pandemic has shown that infrastructure designed strictly for on-premises work isn’t easily shifted to distributed work models, particularly for workers lacking reliable high-speed internet. The pandemic’s challenges have prompted many contact center leaders to double down on digital transformation.
The cloud is the most likely platform for the contact center of the future. Agencies that had invested in cloud technology reaped benefits during the pandemic. In California, for instance, 90% of some 200,000 state employees were able to switch to telework smoothly due to previous cloud-based projects.13 While cloud computing often has been seen simply as a way to cut costs, its real value for contact centers lies in its resilience, rapid scaling, and ability to deliver a seamless experience.14 And thanks to standardized security certifications such as FEDRAMP, cloud environments are trusted by some of the most security-conscious government agencies to ensure private information is kept private.
The biggest challenge in creating the contact center of the future could be the integration of its technology, including interactive voice response (IVR) and AI. There’s a large, complex ecosystem of providers (figure 2), but the real trick is getting all the right pieces to work together in harmony.
In home and commercial construction, a general contractor’s primary job is assembling and managing multiple subcontractors with different skills, such as plumbers, electricians, and carpenters. In the same way, using a single vendor to help design and manage a contact center upgrade can reduce the risks involved in trying to integrate a multitude of technologies in-house. It can also eliminate finger-pointing among various providers, placing accountability with a single entity.
Building the contact center of the future is a big task, but it is achievable. When contact centers truly go digital, they will use technologies such as AI and cloud computing to elevate the human experience and radically transform their own operations. The end result is happier customers, more satisfied employees, and “mission accomplished” for government agencies.
In the face of the current crisis, government leaders have had to reevaluate how they connect with their stakeholders, customers, and the people they serve. They are faced with the critical issues of how government digital contact center employees provide quality customer experiences, where contact center employees work, and how digital channels can be used to support the increase in call center volume. Government and public sector leaders must make swift, insight-informed decisions to support their digital contact center employees while helping people connect to the critical services and benefits they need.