Nov 16 2021

USDA, VA Update Contact Centers to Give Citizens a Better Connection

Mature technologies allow improved communication on multiple platforms, providing faster customer service.

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture needed a better way to connect with its constituents, it pursued a contact center upgrade.

The new AskUSDA “makes it easy to find information from across our organization, all in one place, or connects you with someone who can,” says Simchah Suveyke-Bogin, the agency’s chief customer experience officer.

For instance, callers can ask about crop insurance coverage, getting a farm loan or (a very popular question) how long to cook a Thanksgiving turkey.

“If you can’t find the answer to your question on a self-service platform, you can contact our experts via phone, email or live chat for help,” she adds.

Federal agencies seeking that kind of modernized functionality were already applying technology to enhance their call centers. The pandemic brought new urgency to that effort.

“There was an increase in inbound phone traffic to government agencies, all exacerbated by the pandemic,” says Dan Miller, lead analyst and founder of Opus Research.

As citizens increasingly reach out for government assistance from a distance, more agencies are updating their contact centers to handle the load.

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CDC, VA Upgrade Their Contact Centers

Well before the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention needed a new way to respond to citizen inquiries.

CDC had 23 programs running 40 separate contact centers answering questions taken from over 75 separate toll-free numbers, according to a report from the General Services Administration’s Contact Center of Excellence.

As part of its consolidation effort, the agency integrated its knowledge management system with its Siebel CRM, resulting in what GSA describes as a “one face to the public” solution.

“The advanced call centers can do unified messaging, where you tie together the voice, the text chat, the screen pops — where you associate the person calling in immediately with all the information that you gathered during a previous call,” says IEEE Life Fellow Stuart Lipoff.

“You have the ability to bring experts online at the same time, or to escalate to another level seamlessly without the person having to repeat themselves. You can also maintain a historical record, so when they call again you can preferentially route it to the same person they talked to before,” he says.

Dan Miller
There was some skepticism and a lag in adoption, but the technologies themselves are mature.”

Dan Miller Lead Analyst and Founder, Opus Research

That was just the kind of functionality the Department of Veterans Affairs was looking for when it implemented a new call center in its southern region.

VA’s eighth Veterans Integrated Services Network, or VISN 8, serves 1.5 million veterans in Florida, Georgia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Its phone system couldn’t offer the kind of 24/7 clinical support administrators wanted, and regional officials wanted something better.

The new clinical contact center “was a way to provide that full 24/7 coverage, and it added additional features to ensure that all veterans had the same access to care,” says Tiy Sanchez, chief of the Health Administration Service in the VISN 8 Clinical Contact Center.

“They don’t have to walk into a facility, they can do it from the comfort of their home,” Sanchez says. “It increased that access to care, especially during our COVID-19 response, where we were supplementing support to our sites.”

RELATED: Federal agencies are developing new ways to collaborate with each other.

USDA Uses Collaboration Tools for Customer Service

Key technologies involved in the effort were Cisco Finesse, a next-generation agent and supervisor desktop designed to provide a collaborative customer service experience; and Cisco Jabber, a collaboration solution.

“Cisco Jabber is the software that essentially takes a desktop phone and puts it digitally on your computer, so you no longer have a physical phone -sitting on your desk. You’ve got a digital keypad on your computer, and it syncs up with Cisco Finesse,” says Peter Wills, pharmacy chief at the VISN 8 Clinical Contact Center.

Cisco Finesse, in turn, “allows us to queue our veterans into different categories based on the services they need,” Wills says.

“If they need scheduling, they would go into the scheduling queue. If they need pharmacy services, they go into the pharmacy,” he says. “We’re even able to break it down by language; for example, for our Spanish-speaking caregivers or veterans. That allows us to keep up when our staff are most needed, when queue times are heaviest.”

In a similar effort, the USDA leveraged tools from Verint Systems to upgrade its AskUSDA contact center, along with Salesforce call center CRM capabilities, Cisco telephony tools and Tableau for the dashboard.

“AskUSDA leverages several key enterprise tools, such as customer-relationship management tools, data visualization and dashboarding tools, interactive voice response tools, and feedback and artificial intelligence tools,” says Suveyke-Bogin.

A customer service application also lets AskUSDA combine case management, a knowledge database, surveying tools, insightful analytics and a well-designed website for a seamless experience.

AskUSDA dashboards enable administrators to analyze -interactions, operational metrics and survey data to elevate actionable insights to help program leadership make data-driven decisions.

“The AskUSDA site was launched to deliver a centralized contact center and knowledge management base that offers customer service and consistent -information for the public,” says Suveyke-Bogin. “AskUSDA assures USDA’s many customers — farmers, researchers, travelers, parents and more — have efficient access to the information and resources they need.”

EXPLORE: How does culture need to shift to support hybrid work in the federal government?

The Crucial Role of Timing a Technology Advancement

Analysts say that recent advances in call center technology make this an ideal time to consider upgrading.

“There was some skepticism and a lag in adoption, but the technologies themselves are mature, the accuracy of speech recognition is very high, and it’s married to more accurate recognition of intent,” Miller says.

“Government contact center admins should be evaluating their options right now,” he adds.

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