Jan 24 2011

Quick to Answer: How Federal Contact Centers Operate

By revving up their communications tools, federal contact centers can manage call and e-mail queries efficiently.

As the H1N1 flu outbreak spread throughout the country in 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found itself in the eye of an information technology storm.

As the H1N1 flu outbreak spread throughout the country in 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found itself in the eye of an information technology storm.

The Atlanta agency, part of the Health and Human Services Department, was deluged with calls and inquiries from doctors, nurses and the general public. Callers and e-mailers were desperate to learn how the H1N1 bug was transmitted between people, and they wanted to know how to get vaccines.

The CDC National Contact Center, known as CDC-INFO, experienced roughly 5,000 inquiries per day during the height of the H1N1 epidemic — more than three times the calls and e-mail it routinely handles.

CDC-INFO’s telecommunications infrastructure, which took on a 500 percent increase in call volume during the flu outbreak, proved critical in delivering information during the crisis.

Intelligent call routing and interactive voice response technologies kept CDC from being overwhelmed. The result? It handled more inquiries in less time and provided better government service for less money, says Amy Burnett, director of CDC-INFO.

More Control

As agency call centers seek to improve operations, one strategy is to move to unified communications, says Matthias Machowinski, directing analyst for enterprise voice and data at Infonetics Research.

In its purest sense, unified communications combines technology and strategy to allow an organization to integrate its information exchanges efficiently.

UC technologies — available from several manufacturers, including Alcatel, Avaya, Cisco Systems, HP, IBM, Nortel, Polycom and Quest Software — offer a good set of tools for agencies that need to consolidate call center equipment and provide better service to the public, Machowinski says.

“With Voice over IP and unified communications, you tie your site together and you have centralized routing,” he says. “A single call allows you to get anywhere. It makes service better, and it improves the cost equation.”


Overall quality
assurance score for CDC-INFO customer service representatives

SOURCE: CDC user survey, November 2010

Creating an infrastructure that consolidated operations and allowed for a single number certainly enhanced operations at CDC when it came to handling information needs at the height of the H1N1 outbreak, Burnett says.

CDC collapsed more than 40 CDC call centers into a single call center and created one phone number and e-mail address for the public to contact the agency with health and safety questions.

In addition, CDC-INFO became a 24-hour resource, providing phone and e-mail support for all CDC health and safety topics, Burnett says. The consolidated operation also has become a one-stop shop for CDC employees seeking consistent, comprehensive data on inquiries, demographics and other metrics, she adds.

“We focused on a phased approach to unifying and standardizing the handling of calls and e-mail into one program rather than into many disparate operations,” Burnett says. “The focus was on the needs of the customer, and ensuring accurate, credible and consistent information — regardless of the channel.”

Consolidation Tool

The government should be first in line to implement automated call center tools and unified communications technology because agencies often have multiple call centers located across the country, Machowinski says.

Unifying call centers can save money by combining separate facilities into one virtual location. Agencies can also see cost savings at IP-based call centers by including work-at-home agents who get access to service tools from a home broadband connection.

“With unified communications, you have the ability to automatically pull up records that pertain to you instead of going through oral questions,” Machowinski says. “There is no reason that it shouldn’t be extended more throughout government.”

Managers at federal call centers must identify their needs before contemplating a purchase of unified communications or other technology, says Daryl Covey, founder of Government Customer Support Community of Practice, which supports workers who staff government help desks and call centers.

“So often we see people working backwards,” Covey says. “The time to be looking for unified communications technology is not when you are ready to buy. You should be in a continuous shopping mode.”

Covey manages the hotline at the NEXRAD Radar Operations Center run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which he describes as a “low-tech” call center. Even so, he says, the staff “treats every call like it’s priority No. 1.”

For a UC To-Do list, go to fedtechmagazine.com/

That philosophy also applies at CDC-INFO, where Burnett says the central mission is to deliver high-quality health information.

“We must always strive to provide superior customer service and maintain high quality for our customers,” Burnett says. “Our infrastructure must be stable enough to respond to any inquiry, at any time of the day, but it also has to be flexible enough to accommodate changes in technology.”

<p>Photo: Quantrell Colbert</p>