Michigan Department of Treasury Manages Successful Tax Season with Speech-Enabled System
The stereotype is familiar - stodgy, bureaucratic and frugal government agencies are not only unwilling to embrace emerging technology, but they are also woefully inattentive to customer service. According to a recent report by Datamonitor, in its recent Voice Portals and Applications
, government entities are frequently cautious about investing in unproven technologies and are more likely to deploy applications that have already proven successful in the enterprise space.
However, the Michigan Department of Treasury formally announced in January 2002 that its taxpayers would have access to a state-of-the-art Customer Call Center that would provide answers to questions about current state tax law, individual tax issues or Treasury Department rules and regulations. The State of Michigan unveiled its new Customer Call Center as having full integration with the Department's existing tax database to automate self-service for taxpayers and improve efficiency among the Department's customer service representatives (CSRs).
The new system automatically displays taxpayers' records so CSRs can easily and effectively answer questions or address any consumer tax issues. The call center's database also allows program administrators to gather and analyze call center information, including the most frequently asked questions and tax issues that need attention. The system was designed to ensure that taxpayers who access the Customer Call Center get the help they want and need.
The state tax agency serves more than one million taxpayers, and is using speech technology to improve customer service levels while dramatically reducing costs. As demonstrated in the 2002 tax season, 98 percent of calls were handled by the speech-enabled system, and more than $2 million in cost savings were generated while once-cumbersome processes were streamlined and taxpayers' inquiries were addressed.
Situation Prior to implementing a speech-enabled solution, the Department's 22 full-time CSRs were handling more than 500,000 calls from taxpayers with repetitive inquiries often asking about their refund status, estimated payments, or the amount of their return from the previous year. Redundant and expensive calls from eager and often impatient tax-paying citizens, such as "Where is my refund?" especially peaked during tax season, which begins in January and lasts through May. Adding agents during those months often failed to meet the demand of incoming calls, resulting in long hold times and customer dissatisfaction. In addition, callers were unhappy with the existing touch-tone solution, leading them to request a live agent, which was costing the Department, and ultimately the taxpayers, an average of $1.65 per call.
The Michigan Department of Treasury had been using a traditional Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system from InterVoice with combined Brite technology for more than eight years, and it had been a dependable "workhorse" for handling more than 1.3 million calls per year on average. Concluding that speech would become a critical component in effective call management for the high-volume call center, the decision was made by the Department to speech-enable the current system to improve customer service and further reduce costs. The Department began looking for a vendor that could provide a single point of contact for system maintenance as well as have strategic partnerships with key speech technology vendors.
The goals for this initiative were to increase customer service of the existing automated system, reduce call duration, and free-up customer service agents' time to handle more complex questions. With a new focus on customer service and an emphasis on first-contact resolution, the Department sought a speech solution that could provide easy, natural interaction and allow quick information access.
The Treasury Department implemented a speech-enabled system from InterVoice to help meet the demand of abundant incoming calls, off-load redundant inquiries, and provide customer service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The 72-port CRIS system, (computerized return information system), was deployed in January 2002 to help ensure a consistent and unified face of government to Michigan citizens.
Knowing that the Department wanted to go-live with a new voice response system in time for 2002 tax season, InterVoice's team worked closely to identify the required menu structure. Envisioning a quick return-on-investment (ROI), the Department deployed a single speech-enabled system that required no additional servers or network equipment and allowed them to lay the groundwork for future applications.
Four speech-enabled applications were deployed:
- Return-Status - Taxpayers can check on their individual return status.
- Estimated Payments - Taxpayers can verify estimated payments.
- Prior-Year Returns - Taxpayers can inquire about return information from previous years.
- Pre-recorded Tax Tips - Taxpayers can obtain information on tax-related topics or even request to obtain a copy of their filed tax return. The system captures the information and a copy of the return is manually sent.
The automated system uses advanced speech technologies from SpeechWorks International Inc., to provide callers with the ability to speak their requests without having to listen to traditional touch-tone menus or interact with CSRs. Callers' inquiries are thereby expedited while call durations and associated costs are reduced.
More than one million taxpaying citizens can now access financial, tax and administrative services quickly and efficiently. The new system provides an avenue for taxpayers to get the information they need at their convenience, rather than between the Department's hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Incoming calls can now be answered through the speech-enabled technology as callers seek information by speaking their request and quickly receiving an automated answer. Speech-enabled self-service is a key component in helping to move traffic away from the customer call center, allowing taxpaying citizens to help themselves quickly and efficiently without any human interaction. This frees up CSRs to handle more complex transactions or inquiries.
The Department of Treasury was very interested in picking the right "voice" for their speech-enabled application. The organization wanted the voice to be friendly and appear to consumers as if they were talking to a real person when callers would hear, "Thank you for calling the Michigan Department of Treasury." The design of a friendly, competent speech recognition system makes consumers willing and able to continuously use the automated system. Migrating to speech technology from traditional touch-tone systems requires a certain degree of education and period of adjustment so consumers can learn the shortcuts, menus, etc. and so they are motivated to use the system again without pressing zero for a live agent.
In an effort to monitor customer satisfaction with the new system, the Department implemented a survey offered to every 25th caller asking for feedback regarding their experience. Only a small fraction of consumers, who were unfamiliar with speech-enabled systems, appeared to have trouble at first. But after a short learning curve, those who had been used to using touch-tone services adapted to the friendly, new speech-enabled experience. The positive response from consumers led to over 98 percent of calls being handled by the system, just four months after initial deployment. In addition, customers requiring conflict resolution or individual attention from agents were experiencing improved customer service because agents were able to spend time handling their specific needs.
Finally, calls handled by the speech-enabled system cost the Department about 15 cents per call, a fraction of the $1.65 they were spending per call prior to implementation. Overall, the state has saved more than $2 million since it began using the speech-enabled solution to handle the influx of calls, which is very significant for a government agency that is cautiously watching every penny and for taxpayers looking to avoid additional hits.
In the Future
Because of the tremendous success of this solution, the Department is looking at the numerous tasks made possible with speech technology. The Department is getting feedback from agents and considering adding more applications to the system, such as address changes and additional tax services for businesses.
The Department is also focused on getting a "big picture" of the customer through total IVR and computer telephony integration (CTI) to be leveraged across the organization as an efficiency tool. This initiative will eventually be expanded to include customer service capabilities through the Internet, e-mail and correspondence by late 2002. With those features, taxpayers will be able to interact with Treasury Department representatives, view account data, receive consistent answers to complex tax questions, and submit e-mail forms for additional service requests, 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
By implementing technology that reduces costs and empowers its customer service agents to provide better service, the Department is illustrating a change in the way government agencies can work for their constituents.
The Michigan Department of Treasury's CRIS speech-enabled system can be accessed toll-free, by dialing 800-487-7000.
Jeri Sibert is a senior telecom analyst for the State of Michigan Department of Treasury. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[According to the leading analyst firm Gartner Inc., today's self-service is about automation. It's about creating processes whereby the customers can get to the information or product they need by themselves. Gartner predicts more than 70 percent of customer service interactions for information and remote transactions will be automated, and given that most users tend to gravitate toward voice as a basic communication tool, they see an increase in the number of attempts to automate customer service using voice. Gartner, Article Top View, "Is Self-Service the Panacea?", Esteban Kolsky, March 11, 2002.]