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July 30th, 2020

How State and Local Governments Can Meet Soaring Demand on Shrinking Budgets

The nationwide employment-to-population ratio has plummeted while state and local government (SLG) budgets have shriveled under the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic. This situation could get worse if future COVID-19 outbreaks compel states to delay or reverse the reopening of their economies.

SLGs cannot feasibly raise tax rates enough to mitigate the blow to their budgets. All states face severe budget cuts. The best option, suggests McKinsey, is to improve efficiency. “States have the opportunity to consider a tried-and-tested, though rarely used, recipe to transform government at scale—improving performance and efficiency. Transforming in the face of crisis is not a radical idea, whether in the private or public sector. However, transformation is challenging for large and complex organizations. Indeed, McKinsey research has found that 80 percent of public-sector transformation efforts fail to meet their objectives.”

One area ripe for improvement is state and local governments’ contact centers, the hub of government services. The current methods by which state and local governments identify themselves on outbound calls to customers and authenticate inbound callers sap operational efficiency and waste resources. Left unaddressed, these methods will contribute to state and local governments’ budget problems.

Watch: Government Contact Center Responses to COVID-19

Standard inbound caller authentication is broken

The contact center stands at the front lines of customer service. It’s the means for answering questions, resolving confusion, and correcting mistakes—and ideally does so quickly, efficiently, and personably. As demonstrated by the historic inbound call volumes across industries in the first weeks of the pandemic in the U.S., customers need that high level of service and assurance like never before. SLGs have an unprecedented opportunity to earn trust by meeting those needs, and yet COVID-19 highlights challenges that keep contact centers from providing great customer experiences.

The problem begins before callers hear “Hello.” The current approach to inbound caller authentication—knowledge-based authentication (KBA)—squanders the first 60 seconds of the call with challenge questions. This approach wastes resources, increases risk of fraud, and frustrates customers who are expecting an experience on par with the private sector.

Read: 10 Reasons Knowledge-Based Authentication Threatens Contact Centers

KBA takes an average of 60 seconds to complete—time that is particularly valuable when inbound call volume spikes. Hold times, which have ballooned due to the sheer volume of calls during the COVID-19 pandemic, are further inflated by the time-consuming nature of callers’ needs. Tens of millions of customers have enrolled in states’ unemployment insurance programs since the pandemic began. If a minute of agent time costs one dollar, then every agent-handled call begun with KBA costs the agency one dollar before service can begin. Over the millions of calls coming into government contact centers since the pandemic took hold, KBA has squandered millions of dollars of state budgets. That money could have been spent on payroll and mission fulfillment.

The private sector sets a high bar for convenience and overall citizen experience. Citizens will always compare their government experiences to those they have with the private sector. Government agencies that fall short of those expectations risk losing citizen trust. Use of KBA sends the implicit message, "We don’t know you or trust you.” That's no way to greet callers who are desperate for government services.

Ironically, criminals are better prepared to handle KBA challenge questions than honest callers. They are often armed with the personally identifying information (PII) needed to answer these questions. Fraudsters can easily use a virtualized call service to bypass legacy defenses and call from an anonymous, legitimate, and untraceable phone number. When they reach a contact center agent, criminals combine PII with social engineering tactics to convince agents to grant access to customers’ accounts. Agents’ stress levels, compounded by callers’ anxiety, provides ripe conditions for account takeover (ATO) attacks that lead to inappropriate payments. Once the fraudster gets into the call queue with a virtualized call service, it’s up to the agent to detect a social engineering attack. This is why contact centers were dubbed the fraud enablement channel and why some states’ unemployment departments have suffered large increases in fraudulent phone activity.

At a time when SLGs must conserve resources, serve more customers, and fend off aggressive criminals, the cost of relying on KBA is too high. SLG contact centers contend with an analogous challenge when they are the ones placing the calls.

Standard outbound caller authentication is broken

In a commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of Neustar (Why Consumers Won’t Take Your Call, July 2019), 64 percent of respondents “say that consumers are not picking up because they cannot identify who is calling (the 'unknown caller' problem).” Respondents believe customers do not answer calls from unrecognized numbers for fear of fraud (50 percent), call spoofing (48 percent), and robocalls (35 percent). COVID-19 has stirred up all of these problems, giving customers even less reason to trust calls from unrecognized numbers.

Spam calls increased in the United States by 108 percent year over year in 2019. To combat the years-long rise of unwanted call volume, many carriers have implemented free call-blocking services and developed applications to combat spam. Carriers may activate these initiatives by default on behalf of their customers.

As more aggressive call-blocking tools have been introduced, legitimate callers’ numbers—especially those spoofed by criminals—are being errantly identified as spam. Inaccurate call-blocking and spam-mislabeling happen when call number reputation and calling behavior are mistakenly flagged by call management systems. In many cases, SLGs’ outbound numbers aren’t registered as trustworthy across customers’ telephone carriers. Calls that aren’t blocked outright may appear as “Spam Risk” on contacts’ Smartphones.

When customers ignore governments’ calls, it takes more time to resolve customers’ matters, prevents agents from serving other customers, squanders budget, and, in the case of contact tracing, delays containment of COVID-19 and mitigation of its impacts.

Read: When Customers Stop Answering Their Phones

The pandemic has introduced enough uncertainty. Anxiety caused by COVID-19 heightens customers’ distrust of calls from unrecognized numbers. It also reduces their tolerance for frustrating experiences, distracts agents from quickly resolving the original purpose of each call received, and empowers criminals to take advantage. Government contact center leaders are stepping up to lead in the face of these challenges and meet the historic demand for services. Adapting to changes in caller behavior and expectations will help government contact centers to improve performance and efficiency at scale. The solutions, proven in many major call centers, are to authenticate inbound callers without agent intervention and restore carriers’ and customers’ trust in legitimate outbound calls.

Authenticate callers before they hear “Hello.”

The faster the person on the other end of the line can be authenticated—even during unprecedented spikes in inbound call volume—the better call centers can deliver safe, speedy experiences without compromising security or operational efficiency. Ownership-based authentication is a proven method of delivering on the promise of authentication without agent intervention. The process completes authentication before the caller hears “Hello,” making it faster and more secure than KBA.

Shaving off the average 60 seconds of call time spent on knowledge-based authentication reduces the costs to service calls, but it also increases the number of customers that a contact center can serve. There's even the possibility for greater caller containment in an interactive voice response (IVR) system. Many common questions can be answered programmatically in a well-architected IVR, leaving more complicated matters to agents. Less-experienced agents serve high-trust callers. Only the smaller remaining pool of unauthenticated callers experience friction. Combined, this approach sends a reassuring message to trusted callers, focuses agents on helping callers, and optimizes expensive fraud-prevention personnel and resources.

Restore customers’ trust in calls

Due to advances in mobile caller ID, dialers can now represent themselves more faithfully by displaying branded information as part of the caller ID, including the organization’s full name, location, and logo. Almost 90 percent of customers say they are more likely to answer a call if they can be certain of who is calling. Increasing customer trust in calls drives up answer rates, making call center agents more effective and customers more satisfied.

To prevent inadvertent call-blocking and spam-mislabeling, agencies should ensure that phone numbers used for outbound calling are included in an authoritative list of registered business numbers. Phone numbers used for inbound calling only—Do-Not-Originate (DNO) numbers—can be added to authoritative blocklists. Organizations that mitigate mistaken call-blocking and spam-mislabeling improve their right-party-contact (RPC) rates and operational efficiency.

When SLG contact centers authenticate inbound callers before answering, address errant call-blocking and spam-mislabeling, and invest in branded caller display, they’re better able to fulfill their missions efficiently. Everyone wins: customer satisfaction and trust increase, operational efficiency and productivity improve, and fraud losses decline.

Effectively connecting with customers during uncertain times

The ownership-based authentication of Neustar Inbound Authentication decreases average handle times by 60 to 90 seconds per call. Agents get to the service portion of each call faster. Callers’ needs are serviced faster. Wait times drop further because more callers have a broader range of higher-value options available in the interactive voice response system. IVR containment increases on average by 10 percent. Ownership-based authentication drives an average $5.50 savings per IVR-contained call and 45¢ to 90¢ in savings per agent-handled call. With the possibility of sustained disruption to government contact centers, every second saved benefits states’ budgets and their ability to serve customers.

Read: Total Economic Impact of Neustar Fraud and Authentication Solutions

Speedier time to resolution improves callers’ experiences and satisfaction. With Neustar Inbound Authentication, powered by TRUSTID® technology, 70 percent of callers are authenticated automatically and routed into the fastest flow with the most self-service options. Those who need to speak with an agent are greeted with “How can I help you?” rather than “Who are you, and can I trust you?” Fewer callers are agitated by long hold times and identity interrogation, so agents endure less frustration from callers and are better able to respond to callers’ unique needs quickly. It’s a positive feedback loop. Of the remaining pool of callers, another 20 percent are moderately trusted and require a simple authentication challenge. This block of callers—90 percent of call volume—experience authentication 60­­ to 80 percent faster than they would with standard KBA. That sends trusted callers a clear message that their government respects their time and values them as constituents.

To restore customers’ trust in calls from unrecognized numbers, Neustar Caller Name Optimization mitigates mistaken call-blocking and spam-mislabeling. With direct relationships to more than 850 voice service providers and caller ID apps, Neustar ensures accurate and consistent caller displays over landline and mobile phones, and registers outbound calls so that they are not errantly blocked or spam-mislabeled. When customers answer their phones, agencies can resolve customers’ matters in less time, increasing agent productivity and saving operational budget. Organizations that use Neustar Caller Name Optimization report improving their RPC rates by as much as 19 percent.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic disruption, effective and efficient contact with customers is essential. Customers receive the services they need. Governments fulfill their missions to their communities. With so much disruption to customers’ lives and government operations, it is critical that state and local government contact centers establish trusted connections for important conversations. Neustar enables these trusted connections.

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