Customer Service: A Call Center Away

A private sector, cutting-edge call center provides the model for the federal government

An internal memorandum written in mid-June at Early, Cloud and Co., Providence, R.I., identifies government targets the IBM Corp. division plans to pursue in the coming year, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Health and Human Services. Early, Cloud makes call center software, which is used by NationsBank, Citibank, Prudential and more than 100 other companies for customer service purposes.

The company's software offerings are installed on a server, which assists in the search for data profiles of customers who are calling, packaging data on accounts such as savings, checking and money markets for easy accessibility. The software automates work flow by using messaging to handle requests for compound transactions of data located on multiple, incompatible servers.

"Each agency has a data profile of its customers, but they are used inefficiently," Chris Spaight, marketing manager at Early, Cloud, said in an interview. "Wouldn't it be great for all of them to have access to the data in each of your separate files, at [Health and Human Services] or at the Veteran's Administration?"

With Vice President Al Gore's continued push to improve customer service in the federal government, Early, Cloud is optimistic that the federal government will have to develop real, market-oriented call centers to handle inbound requests from taxpayers requesting services.

Founded in 1981, the company is just assembling its sales strategy but looks likely to employ IBM's own sales force for its initial launch into the government. IBM agency representatives have been meeting with officials at the IRS, Health and Human Services and other federal offices, and shepherding them to IBM's Institute for Electronic Government, a studio featuring leading-edge technology applications. IBM is also chatting with resellers and systems integrators to raise the profile of the Early, Cloud offerings and to determine how outside salespeople and value-added resellers, as well as systems integrators, fit into the company's government sales strategy.

The company already has forged sales and marketing partnerships with Northern Telecom, VISA Interactive, the Message Oriented Middleware Association, the Workflow Coalition industry trade group and the Object Management Group in the U.S. Partnerships overseas include Japanese Information Engineering Co., Tokyo and SPL in Australia and New Zealand.

Early, Cloud's lead offering into the federal government market at this time is MDP, a message-oriented middleware product that enables large organizations with host-based legacy systems to evolve to the next technological level: enterprisewide client/server computers. The tool enables companies to use IBM's Customer Information Control System as their enterprise server for deploying object linking transmission protocol, client/server applications.

MDP acts as a business request broker, receiving simple queries from a client, decomposing them into multiple subordinate requests, forwarding those requests to other servers and legacy applications, and then recomposing the data into simple responses for the requesting client computer. "Messaging differs from other approaches, including remote call procedures or remote data access using [standard query language] in a critical way: It allows for the uncoupling of the client/server during processing," said Spaight. "This enables MDP to support multiple simultaneous parallel or asynchronous processes. When required, it can also support serial or synchronous processing using various techniques."

Early, Cloud also offers call-center automation software that enables companies to automate their telephone-based customer service or sales operations with computer telephony integration, message-based data access and enterprisewide business work flow in a client/server environment. A related technology is Early, Cloud's Teleservicing Control System, or TCS, a call-center automation product for telephone-based customer service and telesales operations.

How does this translate into real-world computing -- something the government could use?

Colonial Penn Life Insurance Co., a $1 billion company employing 1,600 people at 13 offices across the United States, sells insurance products to people 50 and older. The company has more than 900,000 policies.

According to Ron Zoldy, director of application systems at Colonial Penn, the company has been employing Early, Cloud's TCS software for its call-center operations for the last six months. "TCS enables Colonial Penn to present call-center agents with a common front end, integrating back-end operations," said Zoldy. "This enables call-center representatives to stay focused on their telemarketing efforts without having to constantly enter and exit different applications and has led to a 25 percent or better productivity increase."

Colonial Penn has 40 call-center agents who handle 1 million inbound telephone calls per year, most of them are direct mail-generated leads from prospects. The center operates from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., and agents use IBM 3270 terminals connected to mainframe systems running the TCS software, which integrates back-end applications.

TCS also enabled the creation of an Automated Teleservicing System, which acts as a front-end for all administrative systems. "Our ATS system removes the burden of people having to know the nuts and bolts of all our applications," said Zoldy. "The software gives us the ability to grab information from them and bring it to our call-center representatives."

As part of a re-engineering effort, the insurer upgraded to TCS 2.1 -- which can run platforms such as CICS and MVS -- adding some intelligence into its cross-selling operations by automating scripts to match proposed products and a customer's history. "This will make the agent's job even more productive," said Zoldy.

Seven of the nation's top 10 banks already use Early, Cloud software, and large companies overseas such as Royal Bank of Scotland employ it. The Early, Cloud demo at the IBM Institute for Electronic Government employs similar technology to show the functionality required in a government call center, modeled on the path employed by the private sector.

Visitors from federal agencies have witnessed a scenario that takes a caller through the process of obtaining information for jury duty. The data is presented to an agent, who gives the caller directions, the time to report to the courthouse, and then mails fulfillment materials. The agent also gets statistics that gauge customer service effectiveness. The demo shows the software's connectivity to IBM's P/390, a desktop-sized central processing unit that operates host-function call flow, demonstrating that the three-tiered architecture, which is common to most government agencies, is a sound implementation of client/server, said Spaight.

"Among the other demonstrations are public access kiosks for government information about automobile registration, unclaimed property, job applications, unemployment benefits, tax forms and tourism," he added. "There is also a 911 emergency dispatch and police communications demonstration, environmental applications, a digital library and an interactive elementary school classroom."

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