Good call

Help desk delivers for postal service

Project Overview

Project: Voice recognition help desk.

Agency: U.S. Postal System

Partners: AT&T Inc. and Convergys Corp. of Cincinnati

Goal: To improve the call-in help desk that USPS employees use to troubleshoot problems with thousands of pieces of equipment.

Obstacles: The system had to recognize thousands of systems and pieces of equipment, and be able to field calls from hundreds of thousands of employees. The system also had to be able to work in noisy environments like mail processing facilities.

Solution: A voice recognition system that uses the latest XML technology was installed. The system is regularly tuned and updated to keep up with new postal equipment.

Payoff: Misdirected calls have been reduced from thousands a month to just a handful.

Jim Hollar

From stage coaches and steam boats to railroads and Jeeps to today's red, white and blue Postal Service vans, the technology that goes into delivering mail has continually evolved over the past 237 years.

While new technology helps sort and deliver mail more quickly, it also increases complexity for postal workers charged with keeping the equipment running.

Such was the case with USPS' phone-in help desk. By 2003, the system had become too complex for postal workers to easily navigate and calls were being transferred to the wrong experts.

"Primarily the system was very outdated and complex for the large amount of postal employees using it to get service or assistance with their issues," said Jim Hollar, a client business manager with AT&T Government Solutions, the systems integrator that installed a new voice system.

"For employees to get to the proper destination with the old system they had to go through multiple prompts, and it was just a mess," he said.

AT&T and Convergys Corp. of Cincinnati installed a new interactive voice response system for the Postal Service.

Employees who phone into the help desk span the entire Postal Service, from senior managers to employees at the local post offices throughout the country.

The system is needed anywhere a piece of equipment or software is in use and employees might need help correcting a problem with it.

Many calls were being misdirected under the old voice system. More that 21,000 calls were misdirected in June 2004, for example.

"By the time employees got to where they were supposed to get to they were extremely frustrated," Hollar said.

The old system also was costing the Postal Service money. Call center agents were spending time helping with simple tasks that easily could be automated, such as computer lock-out assistance. Such problems were taking time from troubleshooting more complex technical problems.

The solution from Convergys is an interactive, voice response system that uses the latest voice over Extensible Markup Language technology. It lets Postal Service employees call in and interact with the system by voice.

"They actually call in and speak [to describe] the issues they're having, and the system is able to work with them on an automated basis and hopefully resolve any issues prior to sending them to a call center agent," Hollar said.

An employee having trouble with a piece of equipment at a mail processing plant, for example, would call into the system and say aloud the name of the problematic equipment or part. The system uses algorithms to match the words against a vocabulary database and route the call to an appropriate destination.

Alternatively, the system may walk the employee through fixing the problem without ever connecting to a call agent.

"If somebody calls in about 'X part' or 'X piece of equipment,' for example, then you need to make sure that the employee does these three things in the system before transferring out to an agent," Hollar said.

If the voice system is unable to help a caller fix a problem, it uses the speech recognition technology to transfer the call to the correct call center agent, said Mike Groseclose, a Convergys account executive.

Technology advances

Performance of the Postal Service's previous help desk system, which was based on outdated technology that didn't operate well in noisy environments, contributed to the system's problems.

"So AT&T brought us in to redesign and redevelop the system to use the latest voice XML technology," Groseclose said. "Our speech science team took a look at the application and did what we call a tuning analysis to analyze the misdirected calls and understand why those calls were going to the wrong agents."

The combination of that analysis and new technology led to a dramatic reduction in misdirected calls. In 2004, the system had a monthly average of 1,800 anomalies and misdirected calls; in July 2006, there were four, according to AT&T officials.

The size of the Postal Service and the vast amount of equipment makes maintaining the system a challenge. Each new piece of technology or equipment has to be added to the voice-response system.

"Because it could touch any one of their 800,000-plus employees, it really had to be looked at from the bigger overall perspective to understand all of the different systems that the Postal Service has and deals with internally," AT&T's Hollar said. "They have hundreds upon thousands of different internal systems, and this system we developed as a team has to be able to recognize anything that that customer may call into the helpdesk and ask for."

A big part of the project is researching all the different systems that it touches and ensuring that the vocabularies and definitions are in the database to let the system recognize them.

The new system has improved efficiency and brought the Postal Service $11 million in cost savings and cost avoidance since June 2004.

In the third phase of the project, the system resolved more than 52,000 employee calls without personal help desk assistance, resulting in nearly $968,000 in savings.

Staff writer Doug Beizer can be reached at

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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