April 18, 2001, 8:57 AM — The IRS, which received 110 million phone calls last year, recently completed a $2 million upgrade of its call center applications, enabling it to handle almost twice as many simultaneous calls as it once did, said Ray Lefebvre, a program director at the agency. The new system is a launching point for an integrated customer relationship management (CRM) phone, fax, e-mail and Web-based system that the IRS plans to phase in during the next several years.
The IRS probably has the most advanced system of any U.S. government agency, said Esteban Kolsky, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.
"The IRS realizes they do have to respond to customers' needs," he said. "They're not the most dynamic organization in the world, and if they can do it, then [private companies] can do the same."
Technology is key in helping the IRS trim some of the $125 billion it costs taxpayers to comply with the tax code, said Patrick Fleenor, chief economist at the Tax Foundation, a Washington-based taxpayer advocacy group.
Since 1992, the IRS has operated 42 taxpayer call centers nationwide that function as if they were connected under one roof. The system, which runs on software from Aspect Communications Corp. in San Jose, identifies callers automatically and then routes them to appropriate agents, depending on their level of need or other variables, said Lefebvre.
Last December, the agency completed an eight-month rollout of Windows NT-based Aspect Call Center 7.2 (an upgrade from Version 6.2) running on an Oracle Corp. database. Each call center can now handle about 1,500 calls at a time, up from 800.
The IRS is also beta-testing an automated voice system based on applications from SpeechWorks International Inc. in Boston, and it plans to go live with the system sometime this quarter.
However, Kolsky said it may be a bit premature for the IRS to use voice technology for anything but simple functions. Tax questions can become very complicated, and users attempting to resolve problems may be frustrated by system limitations, he said.
Such self-service CRM installations are becoming more common in educational institutions and organizations like the U.S. Postal Service, said Elizabeth Herell, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.
"Government organizations are very aware they have to deliver better services but not spend more money," she said.