February 3rd, 2022

Improve Customer Experience in Government Call Centers with Calling Devices

In 2021, the IRS received over 280 million calls — a 180% increase over 2020 call volume — but IRS customer service representatives (CSRs) could only service 11% of those calls. Lucky callers who did reach an agent waited 23 minutes on average.[1]

Compared with 2010, 19% more taxpayers submitted returns in 2021, while the IRS operated on 20% less budget and with 17% less staff. “The imbalance between the IRS’s workload and its resources has never been greater,” reported the Taxpayer Advocate in her 2021 Annual Report to Congress.[2] “The IRS’s leadership and workforce deserve considerable credit for their accomplishments.”

Other federal agencies also struggle to serve increased inbound call volumes,“not just the IRS,” said Jason Miller, Deputy Director for Management at the United States Office of Management and Budget.[3] “We don’t think people should be waiting on a phone line. They should be able to get through or schedule a call back at their convenience. This is a goal across our services, and the IRS is obviously a key piece of that.”

The December 2021 Presidential Order mandates that multiple federal agencies improve customer experience, including in their respective call centers.[4] Without waiting for additional funding and staffing, federal agency call centers must seek alternative approaches and technologies to improve customer experience efficiently.

Current approach to inbound caller authentication degrades customer experience

Before federal agency call centers can begin serving callers, they must know whom they’re speaking with. The most widespread approach to caller authentication — requesting and verifying identifying information, also known as knowledge-based authentication (KBA) — flies in the face of the Presidential Order to improve customer experience. KBA increases average handle time by 30 to 60 seconds, delaying service and wasting agency resources. Callers may be subjected to even more rigorous authentication protocol when they can’t remember or locate answers to KBA questions. Treating legitimate callers with heightened caution (that is, as false positives) taints the conversation with mistrust and increases the workload for experienced and costly CSRs trained to serve risky callers.

If KBA takes one minute of agent time, and one minute of agent time costs one dollar on average, then the cost of KBA for an organization that fields millions of calls per year rapidly consumes a substantial portion of an agency call center’s budget. In addition, over the course of thousands of calls per day, an extraneous one-minute per call exerts upward pressure on the average hold time for other callers. Hiring additional staff helps to relieve this pressure but at considerable expense and without helping to expedite service.

Enterprising agencies may consider identifying callers via their ANI (that is, phone number), an approach burdened by challenges. Every year, 75 million people change their phone carriers, and 45 million people change their phone numbers. It’s beyond the capabilities of most organizations to keep up with these changes proactively. Also, bad actors know to spoof caller ID as part of a scheme to impersonate citizens and gain illicit access to benefits. The ANI cannot be taken at face value.

The current approach to caller authentication in federal agency call centers conflicts with the December 2021 Presidential Order to improve customer experience and saps operational resources allocated for mission fulfillment. Greeting callers with caution sends the wrong message precisely when citizens seek assurance that their government will support them.

Improve customer experience via faster, more accurate authentication

To authenticate inbound callers efficiently without increasing risk of fraud, waste and abuse, forward-thinking agency call centers assess risk signals about the call and caller before answering. Authentication methods that confirm the calling device’s legitimacy and determine that the call itself follows expected routing from one end of the telephone network to the other are more robust than knowledge-based authentication and can mitigate common phone fraud risks such as caller ID spoofing.

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. Physical, unique phones serve as reliable authentication tokens because they are often attached to their owners, and because phone numbers act as persistent identifiers.

When calling phones are confirmed as authentic and their ANI matches the reference phone numbers on file, then the contact center can determine that it is engaged in authentic calls with citizens’ unique, physical, legitimate phones. Trustworthy callers experience little-to-no KBA and may qualify for more valuable self-serve options. Authenticating more callers within the interactive voice response (IVR) system — as well as maintaining an intuitive and useful IVR call path — can help contain more callers within the IVR system and reduce pressure on CSRs. When a caller needs an agent’s assistance, a shorter authentication process reduces costs, expedites service and sets a positive tone for the rest of the call.

A portion of inbound call volume comes through methods that are not physical and unique: virtual call services, call-spoofing software, PBX switches, burner phones, prepaid phones, or public phones. If these calling devices do not display other risk signals, their callers can be moderately trusted and subjected to fewer KBA challenge questions.

Agencies will likely need to draw on resources beyond their own databases to strengthen the automated authentication process, as citizens may call from different phones than the ones they usually use. Authentication solutions should continuously corroborate citizen and device identity data against other authoritative data sources to ensure that information is accurate and up to date. This approach optimizes expensive fraud-prevention personnel and resources, sends a reassuring message to citizens, and focuses agents on helping callers.

How Neustar helps expedite service in call centers

Neustar Inbound Authentication is a NIST-compliant ownership-based authentication model that establishes an optimal level of trust for each caller, pre-answer, by adapting uniquely to the caller’s device.

For the 75% of callers using physical, unique devices, Neustar Inbound Authentication confirms that the calling phone is engaged in a call with the call center through a real-time inspection of the call and calling device — prior to connection. High trust in authenticated callers reduces the need for KBA questions by up to 80% and enables more relevant and valuable self-service options, . CSRs spend more time on high-value service because citizen records appear on CSRs’ screens at the beginning of calls, even when callers call from unknown numbers. Legitimate callers do not appear in the fraud department by mistake, leaving the fraud department to focus on a smaller pool of risky callers. Bad actors never receive an authentication token.

A live inspection of the calling device is not possible for 25% of calls. Instead, Neustar Inbound Authentication leverages results from its history of processing billions of calls and additional data about calls, carriers, and network routing from its role as a licensed telephone carrier. The results allow for the stratification of callers by trust level for the most appropriate treatment. Only calls showing risk are sent to the fraud department for closer scrutiny, aided by the many signals that drove the decision.

As technology continues to streamline more transactions in the private sector, citizens have less patience when their interactions with government agencies fail to meet the same standards. Whether citizens call in once per year about their taxes or multiple times about a major life event, they expect efficient support. A quick and automated authentication process for inbound calls helps reduce wait times and enables federal agencies to focus on the valuable work of assisting citizens when they need help the most.

[1] National Taxpayer Advocate, Annual Report to Congress (2021)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Federal News Network, Biden executive order seeks ‘seamless’ customer experience across federal services

[4] WhiteHouse.gov, Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government

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