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Operator! Operator! Operator! Reimagining the government contact centre experience–serving people with empathetic technology

Government contact centres can deliver empathetic and effective assistance by putting technology in the service of people

People typically reach out to the government because they need help. Maybe they are looking for information about health issues, or want to apply for economic assistance, or maybe they simply need to update some basic information, such as a change of address. They want a problem solved quickly and they want to be treated with compassion.

In many cases, the government has introduced automated systems to help keep costs manageable. Unfortunately, too many people have experienced the frustration of poorly designed automated systems. As a result, they avoid automated solutions and skip right to an agent—which is costly to an agency, often results in long wait times and in most cases, delivers slower service than automation.

In autumn 2021, Deloitte Consulting, LLP worked with the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) to study why many users react so negatively to automated systems. (See sidebar, “The Deloitte and Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) study.”) More importantly, we wanted to know how government contact centres could combine the efficiency of technology with the empathetic assistance of a live person.

The sad truth is that ignoring automated self-help tools and immediately seeking an agent is quite common. Indeed, many users still reach first for the telephone and one survey found that 69% of respondents seeking customer service preferred to talk to a live agent.1 Whether it is a website that doesn’t make it easy to find needed information, a mobile app that isn’t intuitive, or a confusing Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system, poorly designed technology can cause frustration and generate bad feelings.

Indeed, because they are often citizens’ primary point of contact with government agencies, a poor digital experience can negatively influence people’s trust in government services and in government itself.2

Of course, governments simply cannot afford to staff at a level that allows for a personal touch for every transaction. At the same time, it is important that government contact centres—which include call centres, websites, mobile apps and more—make delivering a satisfying experience the goal. The challenge is making agencies’ automated systems responsive enough for people to have a trusted, satisfying experience while limiting expensive human contact.

The good news is that government contact centres can deliver empathetic service by designing digital-first services that put serving people—not technology and efficiency—as the top priority.3

Empathetic technology can provide good service and limit those who need to speak with an agent to those with exceptional needs or particularly complex problems. New technologies make it possible to put together a system that can help people resolve their issues quickly, usually without conversing with an agent.  

A prior article (The future of government contact centres) highlighted how agencies are embracing digital tools to redefine contact-centre experience to better serve customers, support employees and further the overall mission of the agency.4 This follow-up article focusses on how agencies can improve automated systems, including IVR and the broad potential benefits of a contact centre that serves people not just more efficiently but in a more human way.  

The truth about interactive voice response (IVR) systems

The reputation of IVR is not good. This reputation, however, is often based on outdated past experiences, such as interacting with a poorly designed chatbot or getting stuck up a phone tree in an infinite menu loop. 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.

In the fall of 2021, Deloitte worked with Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) to study why many users react so strongly and so negatively, to automated systems. (See sidebar, “The Deloitte and Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) study.”) The results showed many callers are convinced that IVR comes with inherent shortcomings:

  • Slow. Many users believe that IVR is inefficient, requiring more time to resolve an issue than it would to speak directly to an agent.
  • Ineffective. Many users assume that an automated system will be unable to resolve all but basic questions, withholding detailed information and robust support for tricky issues.
  • Impersonal. Many users see IVR as incapable of comprehending stated needs or wishes, accounting for past experiences, adapting as a conversation progresses, or expressing empathy to caller situations.
  • Untrustworthy. Many users are primed to think the worst of automated phone systems after years of poor experiences with robotic voices, dropped calls and unsolved problems.
  • Difficult. Many users find IVR systems overly complex, feeling trapped in please-make-a-selection loops and unable to make the system understand requests or responses.

The Deloitte and Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) study

In the fall of 2021, Deloitte Consulting, LLP worked with the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) on a project looking at how to boost user adoption of IVR by those contacting government agencies. Deloitte professionals and the SCAD team of professors and students, most majoring in user experience design, explored what was behind people’s negative attitudes toward IVR and how to overcome them. After all, it is often people’s lack of trust in automated responses that drives them to insist on speaking with human representatives, overwhelming the system and forcing agencies to hire more employees.

Using a combination of surveys, one-on-one interviews and live experiments, the project team identified and examined users’ specific assumptions about agent-assisted solutions being invariably superior to technology-delivered solutions. And the researchers worked on how to reverse those assumptions and steer users toward trusting IVR systems.

Affective elements—including more and better communication and more empathetic and responsive language—helped measurably. Perhaps more intriguingly, callers appreciated the option to customise an automated voice: voice speed, gender and even vocal inflection.

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Can government contact centres—and agency leaders responsible for public-facing service—counter and even reverse these negative user attitudes? How can they overcome users’ negative assumptions and encourage people to not only tolerate but embrace automated phone responses as part of an integrated system?

What a successful interaction looks and feels like

Government agencies should aim for the kind of contact response that leading corporate centres strive to achieve: quickly and accurately identifying the caller or website visitor, retrieving relevant and up-to-date programme or enrolment information and carrying that information through the whole transaction, all the way to resolution. It’s about solving people’s problems without making them jump through unnecessary hoops.

Historically, the most common measures of contact centre performance have focussed on speed—the time a caller spends on hold, for instance, or the length of time a representative spends on each call. The drive to answer calls quickly or to finish a conversation fast has in many cases ignored the most critical quality measure: Did you satisfactorily solve that person’s problem?

The ultimate gauge should be successfully completed transactions—ideally without requiring a human agent’s intervention. To achieve that often means having robust human-technology intervention.   

Constant collection and use of feedback

A critical aspect of improving the emotional sophistication of automated systems is continuous feedback. As shown in figure 1, there are several sources for this feedback. Call centre representatives, who often speak with callers who have failed to resolve their issue through automation, are one source—but you have to establish routine mechanisms to gather that feedback. In addition, statistics around various operational customer data, such as what percentage successfully transact on the website or through a mobile app, are also great tools to monitor satisfaction and measure the impact of various improvement efforts. Ultimately, you want to gather feedback from “customers”— whether they converse with a live agent, visit a website, or use an app.

Empathetic and trusted technology

Technology can help. AI is making chatbots more conversational and anticipatory.5 Pairing AI with human-centred design principles can markedly improve callers’ IVR experience6—and people’s attitude toward both automated phone systems and the agencies behind them.

Contact centres can be responsive without major overhauls under even extraordinary circumstances. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) struggled to answer a flood of queries from residents about vaccine availability, COVID updates, vaccination appointment scheduling and more. After an initial attempt to manage an internal call centre desk, VDH oversaw the building and implementation of a bilingual chatbot, which could handle frequently asked questions about COVID-19 in English and Spanish.7 Within three months, the VDH chatbot had logged more than 116,000 sessions, satisfying callers, who no longer had to wait to speak to an agent.8

Agencies can learn from the private sector, which has been moving forward with ways to reduce customer frustration and keep people engaged; the major legacy airlines are often considered best in class, giving customers a range of points of entry and ways to solve problems and complete transactions.9 Systems that greet individuals with some familiarity—as in, “Are you calling about your flight to Dallas?” can help people feel known and cared for. Government contact centres should aspire to those at major companies when it comes to technology and innovation,10 even though public agencies have a high bar to clear for capabilities and security, since they often deal with sensitive information as well as disproportionately elderly and vulnerable users. But they can close the gap.

Making automation feel human

New IVR technology, allowing much more personalisation and prediction, could be key to improving the call experience. Conversational bots, with natural language capability, offer callers flexibility in volunteering questions.11 But that’s only part of it. Agency leaders should ensure that a new automated system makes callers feel engaged and listened to while still providing accurate information and directing people where they need to go. As shown in figure 2, technology can not only serve customers directly but can support the call centre agents as they serve customers.

Based on our study with SCAD, there are five design features that contact centre leaders can introduce to IVR and other automated systems that can help to boost trust, satisfaction and problem resolution. Some of these improve the interactions, such as by providing post-call summaries, while others can help improve callers’ feelings about both the system and the agency behind it.

  1. Warmth and tonal variety. Create a more welcoming environment by emphasising natural language and tone in automated vocal responses; if possible, use caller ID to personalise 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.”

Technology and design

How can agencies use human-centred design and intuitive digital technology tools to create a superior user experience, making IVR technology more friendly, trusted, empathetic and personalised?

New technology is constantly becoming available, with superior voice recognition helping to ameliorate the common caller complaint of automated systems misunderstanding their words. Agencies may need to engage or hire trained staffers at first, to set up systems and manually tune them in the initial months of use; fortunately, AI advances mean faster learning and lower ongoing costs.12

For agencies that routinely field calls from repeat users, AI/ML apps are aiding understanding13 and new systems can give callers the option to customise automated voices for speed, gender and other vocal features—and to remember preferences for future calls.14

But arguably, IVR technology is less important than IVR design.15 Setting up a system that clearly, efficiently, and empathetically welcomes users and guides them through a transaction requires careful setup, minimisation of user time and effort, knowledge of who callers are—both individually and in aggregate—and testing. Agency contact centres should study human-centred design and incorporate it into service delivery,16 no matter how citizens choose to initiate contact.

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Problem resolution, done the right way

Some contact centres might seem designed to make visitors feel unwelcome: failing to recognise logins or phone numbers at the beginning, demanding that users repeatedly enter the same account or verification information, failing to understand questions, presenting unclear options, not remembering where a user left off during their last visit and burying solutions beneath convoluted language or endless click-through screens. Government systems, often less sophisticated than most leading corporate contact systems, tend to be frequent offenders.17

The goal for agency contact centres, as with those in the private sector, is as much first-call resolution18 as possible, with users not needing to return later to find or request the same or related information. Making that happen requires a system that not only offers problem resolution without overly high hurdles but empathetically guides users.

Traditionally, state departments of motor vehicles are serious pain points for citizens, who often approach interactions with dread, expecting hours of frustration. DMVs that dramatically streamline routine transactions can help build goodwill. Effective chatbots can be key to this effort.

The California DMV’s chatbot, dubbed Miles, handles millions of user interactions, answering queries, providing information and completing transactions. Over three months in autumn 2021, of some 2.3 million interactions during working hours, only 6% of users escalated their sessions to speak with live agents. Key to Miles’ success is a constant process of updating its knowledge base based on trending topics and unresolved queries.19

Again, citizens’ interactions with agency contact centres have a real impact on their trust in government as a whole. As we’ve discussed in earlier articles, Americans view state and local agencies—those with which they interact directly—more positively than the federal government overall.20 And since people increasingly deal with agencies online, contact centres are ever more important in building public trust with secure and user-friendly services.

Digital experience is important: Survey respondents rate state and local agencies high on trust if they see digital services as easy to use, are satisfied that online services help them accomplish what they need and are confident that their data is safeguarded.21


Our studies suggest that markedly improving an agency’s automated contact system can have tangible benefits for future usage as well as broader user attitudes:

More willingness to engage with IVR. Higher initial adoption of IVR, including by those with fewer technical skills, along with increased IVR containment, keeping calls within the automated system rather than demanding to speak with a live agent.

Better caller experiences. Higher user satisfaction due to quicker resolutions, shorter wait times, better information accuracy, lower levels of frustration and more trust in both the contact centre and the agency itself.

Improved results. More likelihood of future self-service usage and, with more user familiarity with and confidence in automation-aided information, increased opportunities for first-call resolution within the IVR system.

All of these outcomes are important to aid agencies’ goals: boosting citizens’ usage of automated contact systems, satisfaction with the results of those calls and, ultimately, shoring up people’s trust in government itself.

The Future of Government Digital Contact Centres

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 centre employees provide quality customer experiences, where contact centre employees work and how digital channels can be used to support the increase in call centre volume. Government and public sector leaders must make swift, insight-informed decisions to support their digital contact centre employees while helping people connect to the critical services and benefits they need.


    BusinessWire, “TCN consumer survey finds Americans overwhelmingly prefer to interact with a live person when dealing with customer service reps,” July 27, 2021.


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    William D. Eggers et al., Rebuilding trust in government: Four signals that can help improve citizen trust and engagement, Deloitte Insights, March 9, 2021.



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    Oracle and Intel, “Modernizing government’s most high-touch, high-visibility programs,” December 16, 2021.



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    John O’Leary et al., The future of government contact centers, Deloitte Insights, January 12, 2022.



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    Steve Lohr, “Ending the chatbot’s ‘spiral of misery,’” New York Times, March 3, 2022; NASCIO, IBM, and Center for Digital Government, AI meets the moment: How a pandemic has shaped AI adoption in state government and what it means for the future, 2021.



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    Cameron Smith, “Using AI-based tools to build empathy in the contact center,” Genesys, February 10, 2022.



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    Virginia Department of Health, "VDH enhances Spanish and other additional language services on the ask-VDH-3 hotline," press release, January 23, 2021.



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    Deloitte analysis of VDH chatbot testing data.



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    Companies can quickly direct resources to, for instance, integrate their platforms and systems, while government agencies often face restrictions in how to allocate funds. Interview with Deloitte senior manager Sam Loewner, June 13, 2022.



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    Interview with Deloitte Consulting specialist master Joe DiValerio, June 14, 2022.



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    Aurosikha Priyadarshini, “Digital customer service: How chatbots will transform traditional IVR,”, accessed September 23, 2022.



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    Interview with Rick Sperry.



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    Jay Sunny Bajaj, “AI’s role in transforming government call centers,” GCN, March 18, 2020.



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    Jennifer Taurel, “The death of traditional IVR technology,” UX Magazine, November 23, 2021.



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    TTEC, “Ten contact center IVR best practices to improve CX,” January 7, 2021.



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    Mukesh Mirchandani, “Four ways you can incorporate human-centric design into customer service,” Diginomica, September 28, 2021.



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    KMOV, “Missouri sued after woman loses SNAP benefits due to long wait times at ‘overloaded’ call center,” February 23, 2022.



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    Kate Vogel, “8 first call resolution best practices: Benefits, challenges, and more,” Ring Central, December 16, 2021.



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    Benjamin Palacio, “Commentary: Speaking of chatbots, how is DMV’s Miles doing?”, GovTech Industry Insider, December 8, 2021; John L. Pulley, “California DMV’s progress during the pandemic,” GovLoop, July 30, 2021.



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    John O’Leary, Angela Welle, and Sushumna Agarwal, Improving trust in state and local government: Insights from data, Deloitte Insights, September 22, 2022.



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The authors would like to thank Glynis Rodrigues from the Deloitte Center for Government Insights for driving the research of this study. The authors would also like to thank William D. Eggers, Elissa Kurtz, Sam Loewner, Joe DiValerio, and Rick Sperry for providing their critical inputs in drafting this report.

Cover image by: Sofia Grace Sergi

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