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Short-Term Initiatives
to Improve National 800 Number
and Program Service Center
Service to the Public



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SOCIAL SECURITY
Office of the Commissioner
November 1999

Since the National 800 Number Network was implemented in October 1988, the public has shown an increasing preference for dealing with the Social Security Administration (SSA) by telephone. This preference has been confirmed by SSA's customer surveys and parallels the experience of the private sector.

Reflecting the popularity of this service, call volumes have increased steadily over the years to the point where, during Fiscal Year 1999, we handled over 58 million phone calls. As a result, we have had to find ways to deal with this enormous workload. Up until a few years ago, we were able to hire additional teleservice representatives (TSR) and more recently we have added automated options. Further, to supplement teleservice center resources, staff from other SSA components, principally our Program Service Centers (PSC), assist with answering calls on days when very heavy call volumes are expected.

While all of these actions have contributed to high-level 800 number customer service (Our latest results show that 84 percent of our customers rate our service as "good," "very good," or "excellent."), they come at a price. In particular, we have experienced increased processing times at our PSCs where we perform activities such as recomputations of benefits for current beneficiaries with recent earnings, and activities related to the collection of benefits that have been paid incorrectly. When backlogs grow in these areas, beneficiaries entitled to increased payments must wait longer to obtain them.

In its most recent report, the Social Security Advisory Board made a number of important recommendations for service delivery improvements. Our ability to provide high quality service to the public is largely a function of the availability of resources, growth in workloads, and improvements in productivity. Despite automation and other improvements in processing, SSA, in all likelihood, will experience growth in pending workloads (i.e., workloads that are awaiting completion) due to budget resource limitations and expanding service demands.

In order to maintain good public service, I have decided to move forward on a number of short-term initiatives. These initiatives, which are dependent upon enactment of the President's budget, will improve customer service by increasing our national 800 number call answering capacity. They will also provide employees in the PSCs more time to spend on pending workloads to help us reduce expected growth.

While these are important steps, I should reiterate that these improvements are only designed to address today's workloads. They will allow us to maintain current levels of service as demands increase over the next few years. As the Advisory Board has recommended, to deal with service beyond the next few years, we are embarking on a separate planning activity that will prepare us to meet the long-term challenges that lie ahead.


Kenneth S. Apfel
Commissioner
   of Social Security



INTRODUCTION

Providing high-quality service to the public, along with our stewardship of the Social Security trust funds, are arguably the most important functions of the Social Security Administration (SSA). Service provided by the Agency includes issuing Social Security numbers, maintaining wage records, determining eligibility for benefits and maintaining beneficiary (post-entitlement activities) rolls. These and other services are delivered through a variety of modes including telephone, face-to-face meetings, mail, and increasingly popular electronic avenues.

While the Agency has, for years, been considered a leader in high-quality service delivery, increasing demands have made it more and more difficult to maintain that capability. In October 1999, the Social Security Advisory Board issued a report titled "How the Social Security Administration Can Improve Its Service Delivery to the Public." The Board concluded that the Agency needed to improve its service delivery planning process to address some short-term and long-term issues, ensure that it has the human resources to carry out its plan and make improvements in service delivery practices and strategies. The Board was convinced that both external and internal factors would severely tax SSA's service delivery capabilities in the not-too-distant future.

Shortly before issuance of the Board's report, the Commissioner had directed that several initiatives be put in place as quickly as possible to address needs in the areas of 800 number telephone service and post-entitlement activity. These initiatives are designed to address the Agency's ability over the short-term to maintain the following commitments: 1) 95 percent of those who call us over the 800 number will reach us within 5 minutes, and 2) post-entitlement actions, such as recomputations of benefits, will be processed on a timely basis. These commitments are essentially maintenance-of-effort commitments. But in light of increasing workloads, and resource constraints across the Agency, they should still be viewed as representing significant challenges.

Even more challenging, as the Board noted in its report, will be planning and restructuring service delivery for the future. By 2010, workload demands on the Agency will rise dramatically as "baby boomers" age, and methods of service delivery will emerge that few of us could have dreamed of a few years ago. To address this, a separate long-term planning activity has begun that will provide the Agency with a vision for service in 2010 and beyond. But in the meantime, the initiatives described in this report will be pursued as priorities.

BACKGROUND

In October 1988, teleservice became a major way of delivering service to the public with the introduction of the Social Security Administration's (SSA's) National 800 Number Network. This toll-free system allows one of the nearly 3,900 teleservice representatives (TSRs) in our 36 teleservice centers (TSCs) to answer calls from anywhere in the country. Since implementation of the National 800 Number Network, the public has indicated an increasing desire to use the telephone to conduct business with Social Security. As a result, the national 800 number has become the first point of contact for a large percentage of SSA's customers.

Results of studies conducted by the Agency reflect the popularity of the National 800 Number Network service. Recent responses to survey questions indicate that 84 percent of callers rate the service they receive from teleservice employees as good, very good or excellent, and a large majority of callers indicate that when doing business with SSA again, they will call the national 800 number first. Additionally, SSA's customers who use the 800 number consistently report that they receive courteous service.

In connection with the Vice-President's National Performance Review, in 1997, the Agency established an access rate goal that 95 percent of callers will get through to the National 800 Number Network within 5 minutes of their first attempt. The Agency has met the 95 percent goal for all years since it was established. Achieving the goal requires accurate forecasting of National 800 Number Network call volumes and the correct scheduling of call answering resources.

While public demand for telephone service has been increasing, there has not been an increase in TSC call answering resources since the mid-90s. As result, TSC staff alone have not been able to handle the increasing call volumes, and additional resources from other Agency components were needed to assist with answering national 800 number calls on busy days. For example, on days when heavy call volumes are anticipated, Program Service Center (PSC) and Office of Central Operations (OCO) personnel, known as SPIKEs, are brought on the phones to supplement TSC call answering resources. Currently, the national SPIKE cadre is comprised of approximately 3,200 PSC and OCO employees. SPIKE employees handled 24.6 percent of the National 800 Number Network calls in fiscal year (FY) 1999.

When SPIKE employees answer National 800 Number Network calls, it impacts on PSC pending workloads. To reduce this impact, a number of short-term initiatives have been developed to expand the National 800 Number Network call answering capacity in a manner that will provide PSC employees more time to work on pending workloads, without sacrificing the level of service provided to the public.

While this report focuses on the National 800 Number Network, we are also taking steps to improve field office (FO) telephone service. SSA is in the process of installing modern telephone systems with automated attendant and voice mail in FOs to improve service and access for callers to local offices. Installation of the new equipment will be completed in all of the approximately 1,300 FOs by the end of December 1999. The new equipment provides callers with access to automated services and/or employee voice mailboxes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, reducing the need to call during business hours. This will improve customer service by providing recorded information that answers many frequently asked questions regarding office location, directions and hours of service. It also gives callers the capability to direct their calls to the appropriate employee and allows callers to leave voice mail messages. Callers are also advised of the availability of toll-free service on SSA's national 800 number.

ACHIEVING THE AGENCY'S WORLD-CLASS SERVICE GOAL

The public's preference for doing business over the telephone has grown steadily over the years. In FY 1999, for example, over 58 million calls were handled by the National 800 Number Network, an increase of over 4 million calls from FY 1998. This makes SSA's national 800 number operation one of the world's largest 800 number networks. Additionally, the customer's first impression of service is usually profound. SSA's annual customer satisfaction surveys have consistently shown that our customers' perception of all other aspects of service is influenced by their ability to get through to the National 800 Number Network on their first attempt. As a result, meeting the 95 percent access goal has become a cornerstone to achieving world-class service.

Achieving and sustaining the Agency's world-class service goal has been an ongoing process. Below is a brief description of initiatives that have been implemented since 1989 that have had a positive impact on National 800 Number Network service.

  • 1989: Began offering automated services over the National 800 Number Network.

  • 1989: First mega-site TSC opened.

  • 1994-1995: Remissioned the Salinas and Albuquerque Data Operations Centers to TSCs.

  • 1995: Began hiring new part-time TSRs using a "mixed" tour of duty.

  • 1996: Enhanced the automated system to provide automated service options on the National 800 Number Network to 100 percent of the nation.

  • 1996: Completed implementation of "voice recognition" capability to provide automated services to rotary callers.

  • 1996: Added "replacement Medicare Card" automated service option to the network.

  • 1997-1998: For approximately 50 percent of the nation, implemented Spanish automated services and direct routing to Spanish speaking agents for those callers to the National 800 Number Network who wish to speak in Spanish.

  • 1997-1998: Increased the number of bi-lingual TSRs to the current level of approximately 700 agents.

  • 1998: Implemented five new automated service options to handle the increased SSA initiated Social Security Statement mailings for FY 1999 and later years.

  • 1998: Began phased-in implementation of "Immediate Claims Taking" Pilot, which allows callers to file their claim immediately over the telephone.

  • 1998: Added a new pamphlet, "Future of Social Security" which provides information on the solvency of Social Security, as an automated service option.

  • 1999: Implemented "next available agent" call routing software, which allows for more efficient routing of calls and utilization of staff resources.

  • 1999: Implemented a computer based "Customer Help and Information Program" that assists agents in handling telephone calls more accurately and completely.

PERFORMANCE TO DATE

Service Statistics

The ongoing improvements to the National 800 Number Network described above have had a positive impact on our ability to serve our customers. A review of the call statistics over the last several years (see Appendix 1) shows that the number of calls received by the National 800 Number Network has steadily increased. The increase in received calls means that more and more people are reaching an SSA teleservice center or one of our automated options instead of encountering a busy signal. Despite these increases, the Agency has been able to meet our 5 minute access rate goal of 95 percent (95 percent of callers will get through and not encounter a busy signal within 5 minutes of their first attempt) in each of the last three years.

Additionally, the number of calls served (i.e., handled by our answering agents or automated services) in FY 1999 increased by 3.3 millions calls compared to FY 1997. About half of the increase in calls served were via our answering agents and half via our automated services. In FY 1999, about 23 percent of the over 58 million calls we handled were through our automated services, and 77 percent with agents. The over 58 million calls we took equates to an average of approximately 236,000 calls each workday.

Customer Survey

The results of our most recent national 800 number customer survey reflect the perceptions and opinions of 1,220 individuals who called SSA's 800 number service during February 1999 (see Appendix 2).

The questionnaire for this survey has been fine-tuned to reflect its role as one aspect of SSA's new Market Measurement Program interaction tracking. Interaction tracking includes brief surveys of customers shortly after an SSA contact via telephone (both 800 number and field office), in-office visit, and Internet to obtain current impressions of service. The results from all the interaction tracking surveys will be aggregated to update the Agency's performance measures on customer satisfaction.

At 84 percent, the overall satisfaction rating (respondents rating service overall as "excellent," "very good" or "good") increased slightly from the August 1998 and February 1998 ratings, both 83 percent, and is only one-percentage point short of the FY 1999 goal. The 33 percent "excellent" rating meets the FY 1999 goal. Ratings for specific aspects of service were all high at 87 to 90 percent, with the exception of access to service, which received a rating of 78 percent.

When asked about their experience reaching SSA, 41 percent of all callers said they had tried to call earlier in the day when the lines were busy. About a third of these callers had tried to call three or more times. Over half (59 percent) of the callers who chose to speak with a representative said they were placed on hold.

Analysis shows that quick access to service correlates with high ratings for all other aspects of service, and that complete call handling has a major effect on satisfaction. For callers who got through right away and whose business was handled completely, the overall satisfaction rating is 98 percent. Ratings fall by 25- to 37-percentage points if the caller's issue is not handled completely. Fifty-nine percent of callers who used an automated service and 77 percent of callers who spoke to a representative said their business was handled completely.

STRATEGIES TO ACHIEVE 800 NUMBER RESOURCE AND PSC WORKLOAD BALANCE

Background

The rate at which calls come into the National 800 Number Network varies by day, week and month. The busiest day is Monday or the day following a holiday, with the number of calls decreasing throughout the week. The first week of the month is the busiest, with the number of calls decreasing weekly throughout the month. While call volumes are heavy throughout the year, the network is generally busier the first three months of the calendar year.

Each teleservice workday is categorized as a level 1, 2, 3 or 4 day for SPIKE involvement. The level of operation for a particular workday is established in advance based on the projected call volume for that day. The more calls that are anticipated, the more SPIKEs need to be available to answer National 800 Number Network calls.

The level 1 schedule of operation is designated for days when the highest call volumes are anticipated. Approximately 80 percent of the PSC SPIKE cadre is required to answer National 800 Number Network calls for 5 1/2 hours on level 1 days. There were 44 level 1 days in FY 1999. Approximately 40 percent are required to answer National 800 Number Network calls for 5 1/2 hours on level 2 days and approximately 20 percent are required to answer National 800 Number Network calls for 5 1/2 hours on level 4 days. No PSC SPIKEs are required on level 3 days.

The Agency recognizes that using PSC personnel as SPIKEs adversely affects PSC pending workloads. These workloads include the processing of claims, mailing out notices, and managing the Agency's debt collection activities. In recent years, helping TSCs answer 800 number calls has become a major workload for the PSCs. As a result, there is a need to properly balance answering national 800 number calls and processing traditional PSC workloads. On an ongoing basis, we look at ways to reduce the amount of time SPIKEs are needed to answer calls so they can devote more time to process their other workloads. The initiatives outlined below will have an important impact on reducing SPIKE telephone time.

Initiatives Overview

The short-term initiatives in this paper reaffirm the Agency's commitment to achieve its world-class service goal and represent proactive steps toward responding to SSA's customer needs and expectations.

These actions will also help SSA:

  • Sustain the access rate goal that 95 percent of callers will get through to SSA's National 800 Number Network within 5 minutes of their first attempt;
  • Mitigate the impact of SPIKING on PSC pending workloads; and
  • Utilize technology to the maximum extent to enhance our service delivery infrastructure.

Call Answering Capacity Initiatives

The following short-term initiatives should have a positive impact on the National 800 Number Network's call answering capacity and will help to absorb the increase in calls generated from special events and normal network growth. Special events include calls that may be generated by concerns over the potential impact of the forthcoming change to the year 2000 (commonly referred to as the Y2K issue) and the Social Security Statement mailings. Starting October 1999 the Agency began mailing 125 million Social Security Statements (500,000 each business day) to all workers age 25 and older who are not receiving benefits. These short-term initiatives are reflective of the Agency's efforts to sustain the access goal that 95 percent of customers will reach SSA within 5 minutes of their first attempt.

  • In addition to replacing the TSRs who retired in 1999, an additional 60 TSRs were recently hired. This will result in a net increase in the number of TSRs available on the network.

  • Mixed-tour TSRs are part-time employees who work full-time in the second quarter of the fiscal year (i.e., January through March). In October 1999, on a voluntary basis, the full-time segment of the mixed-tour TSRs' tour of duty was increased to include both the first and second quarters (October - March). This will effectively add 55 work-years to the TSC network commitment.

  • The Technical Support Technician (TST) position was recently established in the PSCs. It combines the duties of the Check Claims and Recovery Examiner and Contact Specialist positions with the full range of duties for the GS-7 TSR, including calls concerning the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. TSTs will spend at least 50 percent of their time on 800 number telephone work. About 200 positions will be filled by December 1999. The number of positions should increase substantially by FY 2001. This initiative will help to improve customer service by adding staff who can answer the full-range of National 800 Number Network calls. It will also help with traditional PSC workloads by reducing the number of benefit authorizers on the phones in the PSCs. In addition, it will reduce the number of instances where lesser trained SPIKEs must "hand-off" calls to fully trained SPIKEs; e.g., calls involving SSI issues.

  • In OCO, the Division of Earnings Record Operations (DERO) has Benefit Earnings Technicians (BETs) who are trained as SPIKEs. Beginning in fiscal year 2000, approximately 200 of these BETs will be converted to Customer Service Technicians (CSTs). The number of CSTs will increase to about 400 by October 2000. The CSTs will spend 75 percent of their time handling the full range of 800 number calls. The remaining 25 percent of their time will be spent processing a specific earnings workload.

  • A SPIKE cadre will be established in the Wilkes-Barre Data Operations Center (WBDOC) by October 2000 and eventually will increase in size to about 300 CSTs.

Use of Technology Initiatives

These initiatives begin the Agency's focus on the use of technology to expand its service delivery infrastructure. Through technological enhancements, customer service will be further improved and the number of SPIKE employees needed to support the National 800 Number Network will be reduced. In addition, SSA will be able to manage call delivery better and direct calls to the agents with the skills to answer the callers' questions.

  • Accurate call volume projections are crucial to efficient teleservice operations. Although SSA already does an excellent job of predicting call volumes, technology is being procured that will enable SSA to more accurately forecast call demands. It will also help to maximize the efficient utilization of the answering agent resources.

  • Acquire and install new telephone equipment; i.e., automatic call distributors (ACDs) with Intelligent Network Routing (INR) capability. INR will allow dynamic routing of National 800 Number Network calls to available agents before creating a queue, thus increasing SSA's call answering capability. Therefore, INR will route a call to the next available representative, no matter where that representative is located. This will result in a more efficient network and will balance out the call workloads among the answering sites. The ACD acquisition will be implemented on a phased-in basis beginning June 2000 with completion by December 2001.

  • Increase the use of automation in handling customer services in the National 800 Number Network. Currently, automation is limited to voice mail types of applications. For example, now callers leave a name/address for SSA to mail the appropriate form. Planning is underway to expand our automation technology infrastructure to provide callers additional services.

EXPECTED OUTCOMES

Implementing all of the initiatives described above will have a positive impact on customer service, the Agency, and our employees.

Specifically, these initiatives will allow us to maintain our commitment to provide 95 percent of our callers access to service within 5 minutes (95/5 goal). This has been, and will continue to be, a stretch goal for the Agency as call volumes continue to increase. Maintaining the 95/5 goal means we should handle about 2 million additional calls over the next 2-3 years while at the same time reducing our PSC SPIKE commitment. Over this timeframe, we expect our 800 number customer satisfaction goal to remain at or above 85 percent.

With regard to PSC workloads, over time the initiatives will reduce the number of items awaiting action in the PSCs with commensurate customer service improvements. Unfortunately, the high volume of work arriving at the PSCs, constrained fiscal resources, and the length of time it will take to put all the initiatives into place will mean that pending workloads will still grow substantially in FY 2000, and then begin to decline in FY 2001, returning to present levels in FY 2002. In terms of customer service, this means, for example, that the time it takes for the recomputation of benefits for current beneficiaries, and for making earnings records changes for current workers will be reduced in FY 2002 by up to several weeks.

There will be improvements in customer service because:

  • Additional telephone coverage will be available on all workdays;

  • Having more call answering staff who are fully trained will result in fewer calls being transferred among SPIKEs/TSRs, which will reduce call handle time;

  • More callers will have their calls handled to completion by the agent who initially answers the call;

  • The new technology will result in improved access, which has a significant impact on caller satisfaction; and

  • Reducing SPIKE usage in the PSCs will allow employees more time to devote to processing traditional PSC workloads and reducing backlogs.

There will be a positive impact on the Agency and the employees because:

  • Establishing new positions in the PSCs and OCO (including WBDOC) provides promotional opportunities and broadens skill development for hundreds of employees;

  • Increasing the tour of duty of the mixed tour TSRs will result in financial incentives for those employees; and

  • There will be cost savings when the new technology is installed (calls will be handled more efficiently, so the Agency will not pay as much for callers to wait on hold to speak to an available agent).

These short-term initiatives are an important part of SSA's efforts to improve the National 800 Number Network. They will make it more responsive to the needs of our customers, and will both improve call handling efficiency and have a positive impact on PSC workloads. They are, however, designed only to maintain current levels of customer service for the next few years. In order to address future challenges, longer-term approaches will be needed, and the Agency has begun a planning effort designed to create its vision for service in 2010. The results of this effort will be presented in late FY 2000.


Appendix 1

National 800 Number Service Statistics
Call Volumes
(Millions)
1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
Without
Initiatives
With
Initiatives
Without
Initiatives
With
Initiatives
Without
Initiatives
With
Initiatives
Calls Received 68.4 70.5 71.8 73.9 73.9 73.7 73.7 73.8 73.8
Total Calls Served

by Automation

by Agents
55.5 54.7 58.8 59.9 60.9 59.7 61.5 59.8 62.0
12.2 13.5 13.8 13.9 13.9 14.0 14.0 14.2 14.2
43.3 41.2 45.0 46.0 47.0 45.7 47.5 45.6 47.8
Definitions

Calls Received by: The number of calls that reached a teleservice center or automated site.
Calls Served by: The number of calls handled by an SSA representative or automated service.
Calls Served by Agents: The number of calls handled by SSA representatives.
Calls Served by Automation: The number of calls using automated services.

Appendix 2

National 800 Number Customer Survey
February 1999



     
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