IRS Centralizes Call Routing, Call Center Staffing

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The 25 Internal Revenue Service call centers nationwide, which collectively field 55,000 calls an hour at peak periods during tax season, were unified last month into a new system that coordinates staffing and call routing from a single location.


As part of the a massive restructuring implemented on Jan. 4, the agency also began answering calls twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.


The changes mean that for the first time, calls are electronically routed to available agents at geographically dispersed call centers, and staffing nationwide is coordinated in half-hour increments based on the amount and type of calls the agency projects it will receive.


"For example, we expect to receive 55,000 calls between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. on Feb. 22 based on last year's numbers," said Patrick Orbin, acting chief of the IRS Customer Operations Center. "That means we will have 7,500 agents on duty during that hour and we're scheduling percentages of agents specializing in different areas to work depending on the types of calls we expect to get."


The highest call volume comes in the last two weeks in February, the first week in March, and the second week in April, he noted.


Staffing in half-hour increments is a refinement of a last year's test of scheduling in one-hour increments. In addition, agents were not scheduled based on their area of specialization last year and staffing decisions were made at each call center rather than from the main Customer Operations Center.


"By making decisions from the corporate level, we are able to make the best use of our resources because we can draw from a broader resource and skill base," Orbin said.


During last year's tax season, rather than electronically routing calls, the agency allocated percentages of incoming calls to centers across the country each day depending on how many agents were scheduled to work at each center and other factors.


Through the new system, whose primary component is an Intelligent CallRouter from GeoTel, Lowell, MA, routing is assessed each time a call comes in. Calls are diverted to a center with an available agent, or a center with the shortest queue.


To implement the ICR, the agency tapped Lucent Technologies, Murray Hill, NJ, to serve as an integrator. Lucent linked the ICR with automatic call distributors from Aspect Telecommunications, San Jose, CA, at the different centers and with the systems from AT&T, Basking Ridge, NJ. Lucent officials also worked with the IRS's information systems staff on managing the system.


The technology upgrades and staffing changes are the agency's latest moves toward a goal of answering 75 percent of all calls in the first 30 seconds.


"That is a standard for a world-class customer service organization, which is what we want to be. We might not get there this year, and we might not get there next year, but we wanted to set our standards high," Orbin said.


Because last year's data on hold times was collected at each individual center rather than on a nationwide basis, the agency has not been comparing service levels directly to last year. While Orbin did not have figures on the overall hold time in the past, he noted that the amount of calls answered within 30 seconds has varied from 15 percent to 80 percent depending on the topic of the incoming call.


"That just shows us that we will have to go back and rework and restaff certain areas of specialty," Orbin said. "We get over 50 million calls a year, so it will take a while to get everything worked out."


The cost of the system, which includes the software, installation, integration of components, staff training, a vendor support contract and other factors was approximately $20 million. Orbin expects it will save money over time.


"If we are cutting down the length of time it takes to answer calls, we cut down on circuit time, and if we're coordinating everything properly, we will be able to staff our representatives more efficiently, and that will save money," he said. "We did a big report before we began this project and concluded that in fact, over time there would be several cost efficiencies - and we would be providing better service to the public."
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