We the People

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For the rest of the March 2009 issue of CRM magazine, please click here.

The notion of CRM may not have been specifically top-of-mind among the Founding Fathers as they congregated during the unbearably hot summer of 1776 to hammer out the Declaration of Independence. Even so, relationships between citizens and their representatives were precisely what those early patriots were helping to define, and the traditionally poor service the government has delivered in the two centuries since would have had many of them scratching their wigs.

According to the latest scores from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), the federal government still lags behind the private sector when it comes to keeping people happy. This year, the feds scored a 68.9 out of a possible 100 points, while their commercial counterparts weighed in with a 75. The 68.9 score represented a 1.6 percent increase from last year, but the gap still remains. That turns out to be unsurprising, given rising consumer demands. “Look at most enterprises today and you can [almost always] get 24/7 service,” explains Ben Madgett, an analyst for New York–based research firm Datamonitor. “There’s an expectation there now that you should get the same from government.”

The increasing expectations are also seen by Lisa Sherwin-Wulf, public-sector industry solutions manager for RightNow Technologies, a provider of on-demand customer experience solutions. Working with RightNow’s 155 government-agency customers, there is growing pressure to increase operational efficiencies while at the same time ensuring that citizens can access any necessary information in their preferred channels. “People are expecting things like timely response by chat, interactive voice response, email, and Web forums…something in addition to just walking into an office or calling on the telephone,” she explains. “The bar has definitely been raised.”

Government agencies on all levels, though, may have quite a bit of catching up to do. Ken Landoline, vice president of research for Reno, Nev.–based analyst firm Synergy Research Group, declares the public sector “15 to 20 years behind the customer care contact center world.” There is no doubt that many agencies are trying to improve their service offerings, but with a looming economic recession, less money to invest, and an ever-increasing population, will governments be able to catch up or just continue to run in place in the effort to provide citizen service? CRM takes a look at some agencies making the investment, amid others continuing to languish under the premise of “business as usual.”

Madgett points to the e-government initiative that started approximately a decade ago as the moment when agencies determined they needed to bolster service to match what consumers were increasingly expecting from their retailers and other commercial engagements. “Certainly in the last five years there has been more of an uptake in this initiative,” he says. “Governments are starting to realize what’s out there and take advantage of using the Internet at its most basic level to provide service.”

This can be seen as a win-win situation for many agencies, as technological innovations allow them to not only optimize their own processes but also cater to an increasingly Internet-fluent constituency. “Local government offices started to progress to online payments such as filing taxes,” Madgett says. “As that relationship has evolved, [agencies are] now looking for something to manage that process—hence CRM—and so it’s about providing that level of service and then cracking it as well with analytics to find out how many people are paying online, the issues they’re having, and how agencies can help [provide a resolution].”

When it comes to CRM vendors able to hit the ground running with government outlets, Madgett points to typical big-name players including Oracle and SAP, but says others in the CRM world can cater to specific needs of different agencies on all levels. “You also have RightNow, Consona, and other smaller players who can hit more certain geographical markets, local government, and processes specific to them,” he says.

Since government has been slower to adopt CRM, it has made many organizations loathe to stray from on-premises deployments to the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. Madgett’s research finds there are more on-premises deployments in government than on-demand ones at this point—but that may start to change. “There are some [chief information officers] out there who have encouraged agencies to look more toward SaaS,” he says. “There’s a lot of possibility there. We’re not totally there yet, but there’s certainly a movement [developing]…. We’re cautiously optimistic.”

RightNow’s Sherwin-Wulf says the movement’s already arrived, with most of the 150 government agencies on her company’s client list having already gone with SaaS, thanks to its lower costs, speed of deployment, and scalability. She reports that many of her company’s customers decide to focus on the channel which will have the most significant impact first—generally Web self-service. After that, the customer can scale up as usage grows—similar to how the private sector does it. “Government agencies need to deal with these rising challenges in a timely manner,” she says. “So they are becoming much more comfortable with that.”

So if government agencies are starting to grow more comfortable with deploying CRM to gain a more comprehensive view of the customer, then why haven’t they all caught on? Madgett says there are several reasons: legal, operational, and cultural. It can start with terminology. “A lot of what we’re talking about here is customer service, and the private sector–driven mentality to things,” he says. “In the government space, there is a [reluctance] to refer to the citizen as a customer, and that mindset has to go away. You have to be comfortable with thinking of your citizens as customers, even if you don’t call them that.”

Madgett also says it gets back to barriers traditionally set up in government agencies sensitive to data they’ve been charged to collect and maintain. He explains that sharing information across agencies—for example, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense—is not necessarily a given. This runs counter to the traditional argument that CRM provides a 360-degree view of the customer (or in government’s case, the constituent). There are also some restrictions on sharing private, sensitive data among different funnels. Add that to the siloed nature of many offices, and even when it’s legal to share information, many will not come together, regardless of whether they’re local, state, or federal. “There’s a challenge there because there is tension between creating a comprehensive view and avoiding ‘Big Brother,’ ” Madgett says.

Madgett says that, generally speaking, the government culture is already a slow adopter of technology. Implementing a CRM system at all can be an issue: At heart, CRM is a strategic solution before a technological one. To Madgett, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a government agency or a retail chain, recklessly adding new capabilities without first thinking about business benefits can lead to a doomed implementation. “You need someone who [understands] to champion this like [New York City Mayor Michael] Bloomberg with the 311 system,” he says, referring to the city’s citizen-information call-in number. “You can’t just implement a call center or throw in a CRM system. You have to know your end goal and take the proper steps to figure out how to best allocate resources based on that.” (See the NYC 311 chart, at right.)

Few cities have a larger constituency than New York City does. Boasting a population of more than 8 million people, the city decided back in 2002 to create a phone line for those living—and visiting—The Big Apple to be able to call for quick information. The service has never looked back since going live in 2003. “This is a great example of a concrete application of CRM,” Madgett proclaims. “At 3 a.m., you can still call up 311 if you have a noise complaint, if something is wrong, there’s a leak in your apartment…you can find out instantaneously. This is the type of service we have come to expect.”

While the system has been deemed a success so far, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t had to make some adjustments, according to Joe Morrisroe, the deputy commissioner and executive director of 311 and www.nyc.gov, the city’s official Web site. There have been many lessons learned during the continual efforts at service improvement, Morrisroe says. One maxim was to prepare ahead of time depending on the particular season. In the winter months, he explains, 311 puts information at the beginning of the interactive voice response (IVR) recording about guidelines concerning heat and hot-water complaints. “It’s a way of educating the populace,” he says.

Morrisroe says that pushing information to the beginning of the IVR allows callers to either ignore the message if it doesn’t apply to them, or avoid having to wait for a representative to take the call. He admits call spikes can put a strain on the 311 system, but insists the city doesn’t blindly rely upon the IVR—there are other safeguards in place to avoid a backlog of calls, he says. “We’re staffed very well to ensure calls are answered quickly,” he says. “We have organic growth in our call center; a lot of people in staff support—be it supervisors or team leaders—are former call-takers or have that skill set. We can mobilize people quickly and put them on the phones if necessary to help with the volume.”

This can come into play as the economic recession threatens to freeze or cut the budgets of many government agencies. While it is not yet clear if the 311 system will be affected, Morrisroe says he’s already taking safeguards to maintain high service quality. “The goal we have is not a lower-cost channel, but more of a self-service channel that can yield lower cost results,” he says.

He explains that after being open for business the past five years, there is plenty of robust content that can be available to the populace via the IVR and Web in order to lessen the barrage of calls for live agents.

“We have answers to virtually any question someone in New York may have, and it is vetted by our organization as well as the requisite city agencies,” Morrisroe says. “That’s one of our main goals—and the economic pressure helps facilitate that a bit more: to push more information into the IVR and Web than we did in the past.”

For Morrisroe, this is all in pursuit of the organization’s mission. “Customer service is public service in action,” he says. “That’s a motto we carry with us.”

Ro Silva, public information and education manager in the taxpayer service division of the Colorado Department of Revenue (CODR), could be deemed a visionary for her time. Back in 1995, her agency began accepting email from stressed-out individuals who needed to send questions about tax inquiries without clogging the phone lines. “We were answering these [using] Microsoft Outlook,” she recalls. “In 2000, we were getting and answering 14,000 emails a year, which was a lot for that time. I knew it was going to evolve into asking the same questions over and over again.”

She turned to RightNow Technologies to create a Web self-service channel. Now, Colorado residents with questions come tax season can go to the department’s Web site and look for answers before trying to email or call. In fact, Silva says, the system is set up so that Web-site visitors have to check out the “frequently asked questions” before being able to access the CODR email interface. Of course, that doesn’t prevent residents from calling immediately. “People can make a phone call because those numbers are listed on our homepage, telephone book,” she insists. “You can call us no matter what.”

As a result of utilizing SaaS for its Web self-service, Silva was able to boost CODR’s productivity, satisfaction, and cost-efficiency. The department has realized a return on investment of 8,732 percent, email volume has dropped by 45 percent, and the unit saved $700,000 over an 18-month period. And that doesn’t even account for the peace of mind many residents have now when they can either find an answer quickly online, or be able to get through quickly to an agent with a more-complex question. “Our wait times are pretty good for a government agency…. They are about four minutes,” she says. “Before RightNow, during peak season people waited for 20 minutes to speak with a tax representative.”

While there are no plans to innovate further with RightNow at this time, Silva says that it lays the groundwork for what could be an extra-difficult season, with the recession hitting the state of Colorado particularly hard—a hiring freeze on all state employees started in October 2008. “We’re not able to hire any new [employees], which works against us even though we have all these great services people can self-service through,” she says. “It’s going to hurt because…you still have people who have specific issues that need to be addressed, and it might mean they may not be able to get through as quickly.”
Silva remains thankful that she has RightNow’s system in place. Otherwise, they would have to shut down the email channel just to alleviate the pressure placed on the agents. “We just wouldn’t be able to get to it all,” she says.

The 800-pound gorilla in the room comes in the form of Web 2.0 technologies, including blogs, chat, forums, social networking sites, Twitter, and wikis. Filtering into the CRM world via the private sector, this is the next opportunity for innovation, according to Madgett. But, just as with traditional CRM deployments, strategy must be in place first. “Governments are slow to adopt, and especially with something like Web 2.0—where you get into using utilities like Twitter—they are experimenting with it but haven’t captured what they want to do with it yet,” he says. “It’s good to adopt the technology but without a strategic framework the practical usage of it can be lost.” (See this month’s “CRM on Twitter,” page 16, for a quick snapshot of some government twitterers.)

Karen Trebon, a program analyst with the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services, cites a plethora of examples of agencies at all levels starting to adopt varying forms of Web 2.0 technology to help inform and interact with their respective constituents. The examples run all the way to the top: With President Barack Obama in the White House now, she expects government to delve even deeper. From the Obama campaign’s Web site to the transition team’s efforts with www.change.gov to its revitalized www.whitehouse.gov, community participation clearly ranks high on the national public-policy scene. “One of the things that is driving this and will continue to [do so] is Obama coming into office,” she says. “I think everybody can agree that he outclassed [Senator John] McCain in the use of the Web and technology. For the first time, I think we’ll have a president…who is just as smart as all of us about technology.”

Beyond Obama’s potential, Trebon admits she also feels the heat from constituents demanding equality in the service they receive from both the public and private sectors. “People love Amazon.com and they expect to go on our Web site and love it just as much,” she says. “We don’t get allowances for being the government, so we have to keep up with what people want on the Web.”

By Trebon’s count, there are 37 active, public-facing, federal agency blogs right now, plus an untold number of efforts at the lower levels of government. “[Blogging] seems to be the most adopted form of Web 2.0 at this time,” she says. “But a lot of these technologies are free or low-cost, so there is no worry about ROI or going and asking anyone for money.”

So if that’s the case, why aren’t more agencies picking up on Web 2.0? She believes it has to do with bandwidth concerns, potential viruses, and actionable strategy. “I spoke with representatives from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and they deal with very serious information including the [number] of people who are incarcerated and on death row…and they’re not sure how to take this information and use it on something like Facebook,” she says. “To them, [that context] seems very lighthearted.”

While that may be an extreme case, Trebon points to several instances in which using Web 2.0 can serve the people well. The bloggers at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) determined through blog comments that passengers were experiencing different rules at different airports, making unclear what rules were optional and which were absolutely mandatory, such as removing shoes before going through security. “[The TSA] actually used that information to tighten up the mandate across the country,” she says. “That’s an example of how Web 2.0 can actually achieve results. The TSA didn’t just take comments from people on the Web, but actually made a process improvement.”

Like blogs, Trebon says Twitter can also provide an opportunity to continue a dialogue with constituents, particularly during times of crisis. “We used it here in our office during the Mumbai incident,” she says, referring to the December 2008 terrorist attacks. “People can follow our tweets to keep up to date on what’s going on, where and how to call if you have family or friends in an area that’s being affected by some form of calamity.”

While still in its nascent stages, Government 2.0 has the potential to not only increase citizen satisfaction, but to offer a sense of transparency and, as a consequence, trust—a trait that’s sometimes lacking but always essential to the democratic process. “The Obama team has been talking to us a lot about transparency and just putting more information out there,” Trebon says. “The interactive nature of these technologies increases trust in government and makes people feel like they’re being listened to because we’re responding back to them.” 


SIDEBAR: 2 Tips to Contact Center Implementation Bliss
Gary Peckham, director of the contact center for the Government of Alberta’s Ministry of Service, knows a thing or two about quickly revamping a contact center to adjust to a quick mandate. Back in 2000, his department was charged with providing landlord and tenant issues to an additional 800,000 Calgary citizens when the city decided to cease offering the services on its own. Peckham had four months to make it happen, and he says he turned to Avaya to “bring us into the new century.”
Looking back at the pain of the initial implementation, he has a couple of tips for government agencies now looking to revamp their contact centers:

  • Make sure you listen to your employees. “We spent a lot of time dealing with Avaya’s staff and making sure that we were understanding of them,” he recalls. “However, we didn’t spend enough time explaining to our workers why things had to happen in a certain sequence.”
  • Weigh all the purchasing options, even if you don’t want to “reinvent the wheel.” “Government’s mindset isn’t necessarily the same as private business where you’re always upgrading on an ongoing basis,” he explains. “When we purchase a product we anticipate that it will last a certain period of time. Consistent upgrades are not built into the budget process. Had we leased the product, we could have had an easier time when we had to keep up with the changing times. We needed to look at other options and how that would have been beneficial to the taxpayer in the long haul.”


SIDEBAR: NYC 311: Call Volumes, Performance Levels, and Resolutions

  • Agency Transfer or Referral: Caller is transferred to the appropriate agency or is referred to and provided with the appropriate agency’s telephone number.
  • Information Provided: Caller has been provided with all of the requested information for their specific inquiry and no further action is required.
  • Service Request: Caller’s request is entered into the City’s Citizen Service Center tracking system and the request is forwarded to the appropriate agency for completion.
  • Transfer to 911: Call is deemed an emergency, a crime in progress, or a Police Department 911 matter and is immediately transferred to 911.
  • Other: Calls to follow-up on an existing service request or those that are not completed prior to the caller disconnection are classified as other.

Source: www.nyc.gov; Mayor’s Office of Operations


Performance MeasurePerformance GoalFiscal 2009 Year-to-DateNovember 2008
Total Incoming Calls*6,837,4421,465,016
Average Weekday Call Volume*53,04960,816
Average Wait Time30 seconds7 seconds6 seconds
% of Calls Answered within 30 seconds90%94%95%
% of Language-Assisted Calls*2.1%


* No performance goal available
Source: www.nyc.gov; Mayor’s Office of Operations

Assistant Editor Christopher Musico can be reached at cmusico@destinationCRM.com.

Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationcrm.com/subscribe/.

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