IRS Call Center Upgrade Aims To Boost Tax-Time Services

By Marc L. Songini, Computerworld |  Software

After years of ribbing about its less-than-friendly service, the Internal Revenue Service is making a major push to improve customer relations, just in time for this year's tax season rush.

The IRS, which received nearly 110 million phone calls last year, has recently completed a $2 million upgrade of its call center applications, allowing it to handle almost twice as many simultaneous calls, 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.

IRS Overhaul

The Challenge

Nearly 110 million citizens contacted the IRS last year by telephone.

The agency processed more than 215 million individual and business returns.

The Response

The IRS upgraded 27 call centers that can handle 1,500 calls to agents or automated response systems simultaneously, up from 800 per call center.

Since 1992, the IRS has operated 42 taxpayer call centers nationwide that can 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.

The agency last December 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 Boston-based SpeechWorks International Inc. and 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.

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