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By Phil Piemonte

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The news lately is full of stories about how the powers-that-be are aiming to downsize and/or trim funding for some federal agencies that currently have a lot of face-to-face interaction with John and Jane Doe.

Congress is looking to clamp down on IRS funding, for example. That means less help for taxpayers. And then there's the draft plan at the Social Security Administration to shut down hundreds of offices across the country and move a huge share of SSA's interactions with beneficiaries to the web.

A lot of federal agencies these days are looking to save money, become more efficient, shrink real estate footprints and just plain downsize. But as any employee of the agencies cited above can testify, the need to trim budgets doesn't mean that the need for the services those budgets currently underwrite is going to go away. Not by a long shot.

As part of their belt-tightening efforts, many agencies with a lot of face-to-face public contact have been scrambling to automate their customer service operations as much as is humanly (or non-humanly) possible by ramping up their web-based services and phone-based voice response systems.

But—really—just how much can agencies automate the things that federal humans currently do? In an age when IT rules, plenty of people have had bad experiences with the very kinds of solutions that more agencies are looking to expand.

Take "interactive voice response" systems, for example. Most IVR systems have to route a caller with any kind of specific question through a sort of tree-and-branch menu of the potential reasons for the call before—possibly—directing the caller to the correct menu item or person.

Moreover, an IVR system can recognize what a person is saying, but cannot sense the confusion, frustration or anger that often taints the so-called "customer experience" of interacting with such a system.

Online solutions come with their own problems, as well. Tree-and-branch menus apply there, too. One problem: A lot of systems that seem intuitive to their web-savvy designers may seem less so to older folks who—unlike those designers—didn't grow up using computers from the time they could walk. Many critics foresee problems for older citizens.

And both IVR and online systems, when they fail to satisfy callers or web users by delivering them to the correct end point, finally give up and direct them—often angry and frustrated—to that live person known as "the next available customer service representative" who, if and when he or she answers, must try to interact calmly with customers whose heads are about to explode.

I ran into this sort of situation myself recently when—using an online hotel reservation system that is sponsored by one of the nation's largest membership organizations, and which is fulfilled by one of the leading online travel systems—I tried to reserve two rooms, one a king and one a double queen, for the same days in the same hotel.

Turns out the system would reserve two rooms on the same reservation only if they were identical rooms. That meant I would have to go through the process twice, filling out all the forms two times.

Not wanting to do that, I decided to call the booking agent number on the website, which touted the fact that the agent also could provide me with "great advice" (whatever that might be).

I called the number, which was promptly answered by a woman in an overseas call center whose rather heavily accented voice was drowned out at times by bad reception and the voices of other agents.

She was very friendly, very helpful, and purposefully peppered her conversation with so many Americanisms that I almost asked her to put down the pepper shaker. She also was so breathtakingly meticulous in repeating the complete details of the reservations back to me numerous times before pressing "send" buttons that it took her at least 15 minutes to make the reservations (I still had to make two separate ones).

Moral: Sometimes a live person just isn't better.

When I hung up the phone after that call, I let out a huge "aaarrrrgggghhh!" I am not entirely sure why I didn't just slam the phone down at some point during the ordeal. I suppose because when you are dealing with humans, you have to expect this sort of bad experience to occur once in a while.

Of course, looking for help from a hotel reservationist—who in my case went through the exact same bone-headed online booking steps that I would have had to do if I had just caved and made the reservations online myself—is not the same as asking the IRS for help with a complex tax question, or seeking help regarding Social Security benefits, or sitting down with someone at one or the other agency to go through a pile of required documents.

The second moral is: Sometimes nothing but a live person will do.

So here's a question for any feds out there in the path of the automation steamroller: How well do you think any of this stuff is going to work?

Posted by Phil Piemonte on Jul 11, 2014 at 6:59 AM


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