Companies teach feds phone manners


On one recent day in Spring Hill, Tenn., some eager eavesdroppers from your federal government listened in as operators at the Saturn Corp. car company took phone calls from Saturn owners.

But don't worry; the federal folks weren't snooping. They were only trying to learn how to be nice on the telephone.

The Saturn visit was one of several federal officials have made in recent months to see whether companies can help teach the government how to better use that most basic business machine -- the phone.

You've probably had an experience that proves the effort is needed: Sometimes you call up a federal agency, and if you can get past the busy signal, you're transferred around to a succession of bureaucrats who may or may not handle your question or problem.

One study estimated that 25 percent of those who call the federal government may give up in frustration, compared to a "call dissatisfaction rate" of about 2 percent for private firms.

Now that's supposed to change, according to one slice of the "reinventing government" campaign led by Vice President Al Gore. The federal agencies that get the most calls from the public are dialing up eight companies with world-class phone service to learn new ways to answer or manage calls.

Three government agencies took the lead -- the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration and the Census Bureau -- and they found phone-savvy companies with a snazzy array of high-tech, highly coordinated services. Some firms are so good at phone work, in fact, that they sell advice to other firms. The feds got much of the same information gratis.

One company showed off a phone center that keeps operators happy with outdoor views that let them see either the setting or rising sun, depending on their schedules.

Another firm bragged about a night-shift operator making a wake-up call for a customer at a hotel the next morning.

Some firms demonstrated how their operators have instant computerized records at their fingertips, while others flaunted sophisticated call-switching devices to transfer overloads of calls from one side of the nation to another. And all the companies preached politeness and customer service in a way that might seem foreign to the occasionally grumpy bureaucrat.

"We realized we've got a way to go, but that's where we want to be," said Jack Mannion, chief of telephone services for the Internal Revenue Service.

The Pentagon, Environmental Protection Agency and Immigration and Naturalization Service are also part of the improved phone effort.

The IRS, which gets about half of its 70 million annual calls during tax season, is a classic study in governmental phone operations. While the agency plans to computerize information for operators, many still have to flip through thick manuals to answer taxpayer questions. And sometimes there are not enough operators to handle the rush of tax-season calls.

Mr. Mannion also describes trying to stop the long government tradition of answering only the question that is asked. Sometimes it's clear from a question that a taxpayer is having other problems, Mr. Mannion said, but government operators avoided getting into those problems because of pressure to handle more calls.

Mr. Mannion also believes private firms can teach government how to prevent some calls.

Many of the best companies study customer calls to see how they can avoid them, usually by providing more information with their products or making their products or services easier to use.

For the IRS or the Social Security Administration, for instance, that might mean changing a taxpayer form or document after getting repeated questions.

Yet changing procedures is often harder in government than in the private sector.

"Some of these companies have phone offices designed from scratch," said Cynthia Hopkins, a Social Security team leader on the government's phone gang. "But Social Security has years of institutional memory to change."

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