Government's Increased Use of CRM
USG Report Cites Expanded Use of CRM Strategies and Software
Government executives looking for experience and insight as to how to improve their agency’s customer service functions recently received some valuable help from a sweeping report released by the General Services Administration (GSA). The 2006-07 Government-Wide Assessment of Citizen Service Activities survey set out to, among other things, gather information from departments and agencies across the federal government on where and how citizen-facing activities are provided, maintained, and measured; and analyze department and agency input to identify opportunities to help federal agencies improve the quality of service provided to citizens. Some of the results are discussed below, particularly as they relate to information technologies and the role of Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) systems, the fastest growing technology in the government sphere and one designed specifically to address agency’s customer service needs.
With regard to information technology, the report states that recent advances have made more sophisticated tools available to customer service providers. These include voice-recognition and FAQ (frequently asked question) systems, e-mail, web-based forms, and interactive web pages. The report also highlights software such as CRM applications that facilitate training, performance evaluation, workflow management, and consolidation and integration of information sources. The report concludes that adoption of these tools imposes some new costs on service providers, but also reduces costs by reducing the number of FTEs (full time equivalents) required to provide a given level of service.
The trend in customer service most frequently identified by interviewees was toward self-service through websites, voice-recognition, FAQ systems, web-based forms and CRM software systems. Applicants for federal student aid, for example, can fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Assistance (FAFSA) on line. While doing so, the applicant can access live help either on line (“web chat’) or at (800) 4FEDAID. This trend is likely to accelerate as new online technologies emerge and customers become more familiar with them, particularly as self-service is cost-efficient and there is evidence that it increases customer satisfaction. The underlying technology promoting this multi-channel approach to constituent service and allowing different agents to work with the same customer to see the necessary information and track developments in “real time” is CRM software.
A major challenge identified by the study was consolidating dispersed data sources and disjointed citizen service activities, known colloquially as the “stovepipe” problem. Nevertheless, some agencies, such as EPA and Commerce Department, are effectively addressing the issue and generating impressive returns. The EPA is attempting to establish an agency-wide knowledge base accessible to all the agency’s offices and regions. Referring back to the student loan process as an interesting example of data consolidation and integration, the study notes the loan application is designed to interact with other federal programs. If a student applies for a federal based loan on estimated income, the application will be updated with the applicant’s actual income once an income tax return is filed with IRS. Turning to technology such as CRM software to facilitate the data sharing makes this both possible and cost effective.
Interviewees also indicated that the barriers to consolidating data sources tend to be organizational rather than technical. One major agency experienced problems with the personal identification numbers (PINs) established to enable student aid applicants to track their applications because the applicant’s social security number is also necessary to access the form. The problem arose over the Social Security Administration’s security procedures that make it difficult to check one number against the other. In this case the problem was not technical, but an issue of policy. However, this all to common stovepipe issue regarding agency data and policy is being addressed elsewhere in innovative ways.
In 2004, for example, seven agencies established a Federal Land Management Agency Head Roundtable, designed to eliminate barriers between each agency’s functions and procedures so citizens feel that they are interacting with a seamless land federal program. This initiative grew out of the view that citizens do not distinguish among agencies, and find the differences between their functions and jurisdictions arbitrary and confusing. Once they overcame policy issues, technologies such as CRM enabled them to establish the seamlessness they desired.
In its conclusions, the study recommended that agencies promote consolidation of data sources. Survey respondents placed giving accurate and consistent information and providing clear instructions and directions among the most important improvement actions to take. Ensuring cross-channel accuracy, consistency, clarity, and availability of information would conserve agency resources and increase customer satisfaction.
The study also concluded that agencies should promote consolidation of citizen service activities as it would contribute to conserving agency resources and likely increase customer satisfaction by improving accuracy, consistency, and completeness of information. It continues that GSA should create a forum focused on eliminating organizational, legal, and jurisdictional barriers to providing timely and effective customer service.
Another theme that emerged in the study is the issue of a lack of customer awareness of services offered by agencies. This lack of information exacts a toll on the government as well as customers in terms of misdirected calls, confusion and delay in resolving issues, as well as increased stress on Customer Service Representatives. Customers that were interviewed said that addressing that unawareness would do more than almost any other action to improve the service they receive. Recognizing this, some agencies such as the International Trade Administration (ITA) have developed their own outreach strategies. Using a “marketing module” within its CRM system, ITA actively promotes its services to constituents who sign up for notifications. In its recommendations, GSA felt that agencies must foster increased awareness of service availability by creating a forum to share information and integrating customer outreach into agency strategic planning.
The Citizen Service Activities Survey makes it clear that there are several areas where government agencies can improve their approach to customer service beyond those discussed here, which included strategy, guidance and “professionalization” of customer service careers. However, the report’s insights surrounding the issues of technology, data consolidation, and customer awareness made up a majority of the report, and at the heart of the revelations and recommendations was the use of technologies like those found in robust CRM systems. But that’s not surprising since many agencies are considering, or have already turned to, this solution to improve their service delivery… just ask around.