Our review of the Employment Development Department's (department) introduction of toll-free telephone services for customers of its unemployment insurance and disability insurance programs reveals that:
RESULTS IN BRIEF
In the late 1990s the Employment Development Department (department) introduced toll-free telephone services to enhance customer access to its unemployment insurance (UI) and disability insurance (DI) programs. Our review indicates that the department's efforts have improved customer service and increased the public's access to the programs. However, during peak service periods, callers may encounter busy signals, hear instructions to call back later, or endure lengthy wait times if the customers ask to speak to a customer service representative.
With a mid-1990s shift in its methods for helping customers, the department has improved the claim-filing process for the UI program, which the State established in 1938 to compensate individuals for lost wages. The department no longer requires customers of the UI program to request assistance in person; instead it offers a spectrum of services over the telephone. The toll-free telephone services have also boosted for customers the convenience of obtaining assistance. For example, the department estimated in 1995 that a person could file a claim over the telephone in as little as 15 minutes, which is a significant decrease from the department's estimate that filing a claim in person required an average of 2 hours and 48 minutes of an individual's time. Our review disclosed that from April 2000 through March 2001, the average call length for filing a claim or for acquiring information from a customer service representative was approximately 9 minutes.
The new telephone services also benefit the UI program and its customers in other ways. Callers can obtain some types of information-including the status of their unemployment checks-seven days a week without ever speaking to UI program staff. Moreover, the department's improved telephone services allow it to use program resources more efficiently than it did previously. For example, since the department implemented a process that links its six call centers for the UI program, customer service representatives spend little time idle. Further, with the linking of call centers, customers have access to a larger pool of bilingual service representatives than was available to them at the individual field offices.
Unlike its changes to the UI program, the department's addition of telephone assistance to the DI program simply complements the existing DI claim-filing and information process. Created in 1946, the DI program provides weekly benefits to workers who lose their wages generally due to pregnancies or to illnesses or injuries that are unrelated to work. Callers to the toll-free number that the department recently established for the DI program cannot file claims over the telephone. Instead, the number gives callers access to general information about the program and its services seven days a week for a minimum of 15 hours each day. To assist callers who want to obtain information from customer service representatives, the department established two call centers as well as customer service units in 5 of its 17 field offices.
Customers of both programs are generally satisfied with the customer services they have received over the telephone. In several surveys of customers that the department conducted for the UI program, at least 82 percent of survey participants indicated that the assistance they received was prompt, convenient, and reliable. Nevertheless, the customers also voiced concerns about lengthy wait times and the customers' inability to reach a service representative. Surveys of callers to the DI call centers found that customers were similarly satisfied with the services supplied over the telephone. On the other hand, the customers also identified lengthy waits as their primary concern. The department plans to conduct additional surveys of the DI program this year.
Although the department's efforts have improved customer service and increased customer access to the programs, customers have experienced difficulties when requesting customer assistance. Specifically, callers to the UI program's toll-free telephone numbers have experienced lengthy wait times during certain busy periods. For example, more than 60 percent of the callers during a peak service period in February 2001 waited on hold five or more minutes. This percent represents a sharp increase from the 18 percent who waited five or more minutes during December 2000. Customers of the DI program experienced other problems. For instance, over a 15-month period from January 2000 through March 2001, the telephone system at DI call centers required nearly 687,000 (27 percent) of the 2.5 million callers who asked to speak to a customer service representative to call again. Moreover, nearly 31,000 callers routed to the DI program's call centers in the first 3 months of this year received busy signals, and this figure is considerably higher than the 850 callers who encountered busy signals during the same period last year.
According to the department, the difficulties encountered by customers relate in part to staffing shortages at the call centers for both programs. The department attributes the shortages to various problems, including slow recruiting, a lengthy hiring process, and trouble retaining customer service representatives because they typically move into other, higher-paying positions. In addition to the hiring difficulties, the DI program has faced numerous phone system problems that have hampered callers' ability to receive services when they desire them. Moreover, until March 2001, the department allowed relatively few callers for the DI program to wait on hold, thereby increasing the number of callers who had to call back.
To improve its customer service for the UI and DI programs, the department established goals for its desired response time to customers. For the UI program, the department's goal was to answer within four minutes 90 percent of all calls requesting information and to answer in five minutes 90 percent of all claim-filing calls. However, the department cannot measure whether it has met its goals because one of its system modifications eliminated its ability to distinguish information calls from claim-filing calls. Nevertheless, our review of monthly call data after the department's implementation of the toll-free telephone numbers revealed that in 8 of the 16 months from November 1999 through February 2001, at least 10 percent of callers for the UI program waited five or more minutes on hold to speak to a customer representative. During the 16 months, the percent of callers waiting at least five minutes ranged from 3 percent to 61 percent. UI program management recognizes as a problem its inability to measure fully its performance and is currently evaluating a proposed goal that it can use to measure the response time of its customer service system.
For the DI program, the department set a goal for the call centers and customer service units to answer in four minutes 90 percent of all calls requesting information. However, it evaluates the program's performance from management reports that do not routinely include the customer service units, which receive 42 percent of the program's calls. Additionally, the management reports do not indicate its performance in meeting its stated goal. Nevertheless, our analysis of the calls to the DI program's two call centers for a 15-month period from January 2000 through March 2001 disclosed that 90 percent of the callers who waited to speak to a customer service representative remained on hold for less than five minutes.
To continue enhancing customer service for its UI program, the department should take these steps:
The department generally concurs with our findings and is taking steps to implement our recommendations.