For Joanne Furey, it was the small failures that were most worrisome. The Minnesota Department of Revenue, where Furey works as the voice communications manager, had for years been using an automated call distribution system from Executone to field taxpayer inquiries at various centers throughout the state. But as the years went by, the system—though still handling calls—was definitely showing its age.
For the most part, problems proved to be relatively minor. But Furey suspected that the spontaneous problems were a precursor to a more serious system meltdown to come. “It was expected that a major failure was imminent,” Furey said.
The DOR immediately decided to upgrade to a new call center system, one that would give the agency increased flexibility and control in terms of both ACD (automated call distribution) and IVR (Interactive Voice Response) functionality. It also wouldnt hurt if the new system saved money.
For help, the DOR turned to InterTechnologies Group, Minnesotas centralized IT services provider. ITG, in turn, wanted to tap the expertise of external providers of IP telephony, since the states IP backbone was thus far used only for data, Furey said.
Enter Spanlink Communications Inc., a Minneapolis-based provider of IP communications software and services. According to Furey, Spanlinks proposal was the best fit in terms of providing ITG with the hosted VOIP (voice over IP) solution it was looking for, while also allowing the DOR to have a call center application it could customize. Other vendors that submitted formal proposals included Avaya Inc. and Nortel Networks Ltd., Furey said.
When Spanlink CEO Brett Shockley got a look at the DORs legacy call center applications once the contract was signed, he said he wasnt surprised at what he found. “There was a disparate collection of systems that had evolved over a number of years,” Shockley said. Outbound dialing, ACD, IVR and basic telephony services were all separate, he added.
In June 2003, ITG signed a contract that called for Spanlink to install and test an IP-based call center system and make any changes as needed. The new call center system would include Spanlinks CentralControl software, which allows ITG to host and administer IP-based applications centrally; on the DOR side, the system includes Cisco Systems Inc.s Cisco Agent Desktop, software that integrates voice and data on-site and allows the DOR to customize its call center applications.
In December 2003, the DOR began rolling out the system one floor at a time at its four-story headquarters in St. Paul. By March 2004, the regional site in Ely was up and running. Today, nearly 1,200 DOR employees have IP-based telephony services, and 300 agents use the new call center system to field taxpayer calls at the two sites. Over the next few months, Furey said the DOR plans to expand VOIP phone services throughout the DORs operations by hooking up eight smaller offices.
The department now saves more than $100,000 annually due to reduced long-distance charges and the elimination of individual phone lines for each employee, Furey said. As for control, she said the new system lets supervisors monitor calls in queues and to summon agents to chip in as call volumes warrant. By integrating voice with computer technology, supervisors can “chat” online with agents, offering advice while those agents are on the phone with taxpayers.
As for lessons learned, both Furey and Shockley said there are several that the state can apply as it rolls out VOIP across other agencies. For starters, dont skimp on training, which is a real possibility with VOIP because “IP-based phones look and work a lot like any other phone,” Furey said.
Furey said the IP-based call center has certainly been a success within the DOR. It has improved efficiency, saved money and enabled better service. The technology implementation has also served as a test case for Minnesotas shared services philosophy. Thats where the system may have its greatest payoff, she said.
Megan Santosus is a free-lance writer based in Natick, Mass. She can be reached at [email protected].