Clear communications ease the strain on government contact centers

The pressure on our public sector is higher than ever right now. States and local governments are working around the clock to reopen. At the same time, they are dealing with the aftermath created by months of shutdown.
Evelyn Wolf
4 min read

Government contact centers have been hit with a double blow. Fewer staff are able to work, and there has been a huge increase in interactions (calls, emails, and chats).

Gov Exec reported that:

“Public assistance call centers are experiencing exponential increases in volume – a massive surge coming at a time when many centers, already struggling to meet routine needs, are dealing with health challenges affecting their own workforces.”

Relieving pressure on contact centers leads to positive outcomes not only in terms of saving costs but also for employee and customer experience. And the solution is simpler than you might think.

The contact center conundrum

We recently spoke to Martha Dorris, Founder, and CEO of Dorris Consulting International (DCI). Martha has over 30 years of government experience and supports companies with their customer experience. She stressed the importance of managing citizens’ questions across all channels:

“Contact centers are crucial to the effective delivery of information and services during critical times. Citizens depend on them to make decisions in their lives. It’s vital for governments to understand what citizens are inquiring about and the real intent of their inquiry. This helps governments to improve their information channels. And makes online and self-service channels more efficient. The goal is to improve the overall experience citizens have when interacting, engaging, and transacting with their government.”

Previously, we spoke to Jack Nelson (former Executive Vice President of Operations for CVS Caremark). Jack has 25 years of experience leading service teams and large, fast-paced call centers. Like Martha, he also advocates for examining the reasons that people pick up the phone to call an organization. By anticipating callers’ questions, and creating proactive communications, Jack estimates that organizations could see a 10-30% reduction in calls. Which equates to a huge budget-saving.

And right now, government budgets are stretched much further than usual. We’ve seen higher health care expenditures because of COVID-19, and plunging revenues due to the shutdown. According to CNBC, “the last time the public sector faced such steep budget cuts was during the Great Recession a decade ago”. Money-saving initiatives are essential.

Besides saving costs, there are other reasons to lighten the load on contact centers. When call volumes surge, average hold times also rise. When the caller eventually gets through, the customer service representative (CSR) is under pressure to resolve the issue quickly and move on. Customer experience often suffers as a result.

Taking the pressure off the call queue

So how do we direct callers to other channels, and take pressure off the call queue? Here are your first three steps.

1. Think like a citizen 

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently reported on the massive increase in calls to Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation office. The number of claims peaked at 405,000 during one week in March. Management increased staff numbers from 12 to 20 to keep up with the rush, but it wasn’t enough. At the time of writing the article, it typically took 41 days for the office to respond to emails.

The WSJ spoke to Angela Lowe, one of the office’s Call Center Supervisors. Angela mentioned that many citizens were calling to ask when they would get their extra weekly benefit. She took the time to explain to every caller that they would receive it the week after they file. A written communication containing this simple message would have saved hundreds of calls.

So your first step is to examine why citizens are calling.

2. Make answers available

At the moment, people are calling with a number of predictable issues. For example:

  • When, and how, will schools reopen?
  • When will I receive my unemployment benefit?
  • How do I get much-needed care for a loved one?

If citizens are able to find answers easily, then they won’t need to call. If you expect questions around the reopening of schools, create content that covers the headlines. Communications could take the form of letters or emails, or an FAQ section on your website.

3. Keep communications clear

However you decide to communicate, make sure to prioritize clarity. Confusing messages will result in a surge in calls, as citizens try to seek answers.

Susan Scruton is Senior Communications Advisor and Web Writer for the Public Health Agency of Canada. She emphasizes the importance of plain language, especially right now:

“I’m on temporary loan to the Public Health Agency of Canada to help with web writing about COVID-19. This pandemic has underscored the essential nature of plain language during a crisis. When communication is critical, plain language is essential. There’s no room for ambiguity.”

Solutions such as VT Writer and VT Insights score your text for complexity and help clarify your content.

New times call for new measures

Demands on state and local governments are increasing at a rapid pace. Many are warning of layoffs, with Los Angeles and Detroit already taking steps to drop spending. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that “states could be $500 billion in the hole over the next two years”. 

We’re living in new times. They urgently call for new measures. It makes sense for governments to prioritize clear communications. It saves money, and it reduces the pressure on internal teams. Also, it offers a better customer experience for citizens who really need to call. If your self-service content is too complex, you push traffic to your contact center. And that’s clogging up a critical channel. Simplify your self-service content and allow contact centers to focus on the more complex cases. As Martha Dorris says: “Clear communications across all channels is critically important”.


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