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BenefitLine: fast efficient service for retirement system participants.

The State Universities Retirement System of Illinois (SURS), administrator of a $4.2 billion multi-employer public pension fund, developed the SURS BenefitLine, an interactive voice-response telephone system for benefit information. BenefitLine combines high-tech sophistication with push-button ease, allowing SURS's 85,000 participants and 20,000 former employees to obtain general and personalized information about their SURS benefits, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They also can order forms and brochures, verify their benefit payments and update their beneficiary designations through BenefitLine. Since the system began in April 1990, it has received an average of more than 900 calls a week.

Objectives of SURS BenefitLine

SURS BenefitLine is the successful result of careful planning. SURS could simply have added more phone lines and purchased a toll-free 800 number instead of developing an interactive voice-response system, but system officials were convinced that voice-response technology was a better answer to their many-faceted needs since it could meet the goals outlined below.

Convenience and Cost-effectiveness. SURS handles benefits for participants and benefit recipients of community colleges, state universities, colleges, scientific surveys and other related agencies throughout Illinois, not just in the Champaign-Urbana area. Benefit recipients are scattered across the country; some even live overseas. For most participants and benefit recipients, calling the SURS office in Champaign during business hours could be costly and inconvenient.

Fast, Efficient Service. Before adopting voice-response technology, SURS operators handled more than 50,000 calls each year, an average of 200 each day. If callers requested personal information, they often were placed on hold while the operator searched the records manually. Estimating as little as five minutes per call, SURS benefit representatives spent a minimum of 16 or more hours a day responding to participant requests. Callers often asked routine questions or requested the same information as other callers. Voice-response technology is an excellent way to minimize this type of workflow. By using the caller's Social Security number and a personal identification number (PIN) to automatically access his or her records, BenefitLine can answer 10 calls at once. Busy signals are effectively eliminated.

Accuracy and Consistency. Adopting a technologically advanced system also can resolve some personnel issues. To keep up with employee turnover and the daily flood of calls, SURS has had to hire and train new operators from time to time. Over the long run, it is less expensive to maintain a voice-response system than to hire and train new operators.

The voice-response system ensures consistency and accuracy by providing the same general information to every caller. Personalized messages are accurate because files are updated regularly.

Personal Service. In a survey, conducted before BenefitLine was installed, SURS earned high marks for friendly, personal service: Benefit recipients expressed their preference for speaking with a "live" operator rather than a machine. With BenefitLine, SURS has not had to sacrifice its reputation for friendliness - callers can "dial out" to speak directly with a live SURS operator during business hours at any point in their phone call. Although callers must have a touch-tone telephone to access BenefitLine, those with a rotary-dial telephone can use the toll-free number to speak with a SURS operator. Thus, all SURS participants and benefit recipients have toll-free accessibility to SURS.

Simplicity. The BenefitLine's voice response presents information clearly, concisely and simply. If callers want more detailed information, they may speak to an operator or use the system to order the appropriate brochure.

Creating the System

Having identified its objectives and verified that voice response could meet them, SURS undertook creating a system - from the design phase through development, equipment purchase and testing.

Design. Approximately six months before the system went into effect, SURS began work on its design. The first step was to determine the information callers needed most by pinpointing the most frequent questions asked of its operators. These questions were grouped into categories, then flowcharts and menus were created to determine the system's logical flow. The types of information that the SURS voice-response system was designed to deliver to callers are listed in Exhibit 1.


Development. The voice-response operating systems were programmed and scripts were recorded. Several important design and development considerations were addressed at this point. * A typical call. When a call is made to

the SURS system, the caller hears a

greeting and is given the option to be

connected to a SURS operator, if it is

during business hours; if the office is

closed, the message asks callers who

wish to speak to a SURS operator to call

back during normal business hours.

Next, callers using touch-tone

telephones hear the main benefit menu,

which lists general categories of

information. Callers select the

information they want by pressing the

corresponding keys on their telephone.

The system is simple, and the program

guides callers through it easily. * Protecting callers' privacy. To ensure

callers' privacy regarding personalized

information, the system instructs callers

to enter their Social Security number and

PIN; they need only enter these numbers

once each call, regardless of the amount

of information they request.

The system can help callers keep track

of their PIN; if the PIN is lost, the

system will send a copy to the caller's

home address. * Requesting brocbures and forms. When

callers request a brochure or a form, the

BenefitLine system asks them to enter

their Social Security number. The system

automatically matches this number with

the caller's home address and stores the

request. Each night, the system shuts

down for a short time to transfer usage

report data and requests. * Shortcut keys. SURS built shortcut keys

into its system to help callers move

quickly to the information they need.

These keys allow the caller to 1) repeat

menu choices, 2) return to the previous

menu or 3) switch to another menu. * Equipment purchase. The SURS voice-response

system operates from a PS/2

Model 80 personal computer, which has

access to an IBM mainframe ES9000

through an IBM Token Ring network. It

also uses a Universal Control System

(UCS) and a modem, and both male and

female voices. Every week, the system

shuts down for a short time to transfer

new participant and benefit recipient

data from a PS/2 Model 70 PC, which

processes the data, to the Model 80

voice system. * Testing. SURS conducted off-site testing

before the equipment was installed.

After the installation, testing was

conducted in on-site focus groups.

Costs. The costs of the voice-response system fall into the area of development costs, hardware costs and operating costs. The technical and communication costs to develop the system were $138,453. The purchase and installation of hardware cost $35,000. Costs for ongoing services include $250 per month for maintenance, $200 per month for rental of phones, $.67 per telephone call for use of the 800 number and 6-1/2 hours per week of computer operation time.

Communication and Promotion

Essential to the success of the SURS voice-response system was a comprehensive communication program. Participants and benefit recipients needed to learn how to use the system and why it was created. Highlights of the communication challenges and the strategy SURS developed to overcome them are discussed in the following section.

The SURS audience itself presented the first major communication challenge. Comprised of participants and benefit recipients from educational institutions across the state - clients who also were stratified by sex, age and profession - the audience was actually several different groups, each with its own reasons for using the voice-response system. Furthermore, each communication needed to appeal to both participants and benefit recipients without alienating the other group.

SURS's communications had to motivate people to call, before educating them about how to use the system. SURS also wanted to ensure that callers would easily remember their PIN; the hotline number had to be easy to remember as well.

The quantity of materials was another challenge. More than 70,000 materials needed to be printed, collated and mailed before the system went into effect. SURS representatives at each agency received special additional mailings.

The goal for the communication campaign was defined to position the SURS voice-response system as an enhancement to existing services, not as a replacement, and to generate a positive response by emphasizing how easy and convenient it is to use. The strategy for attaining this goal relied on a four-part communication campaign.

Research. Participants and benefit recipients were randomly selected and invited to participate in focus-group sessions, where they were asked to discuss * their satisfaction with SURS service; * Whether they would use a toll-free

number if one were available; and * their attitudes toward listening to

recorded information.

Focus-group participants were shown drafts of the communication materials and asked to evaluate them and comment on the design and concept. A survey of focus-group participants indicated a strong, favorable response to the proposed system: 97 percent said they would use the system, all said they had a good understanding of how the system works and 64 percent said the communication materials were helpful.

Based on the survey results and verbal feedback, some design elements of the communications were revised. Many focus-group participants felt that SURS was not emphasized enough in the communications; as a result, the original name, "BenefitLine," became "SURS BenefitLine." The SURS 50th anniversary logo also was added to the larger communication elements.

Announcement. Announcement materials were designed to stimulate interest in and anticipation of the system. They included: * a poster for SURS to be displayed at

each agency; * a letter to all participants and benefit

recipients explaining why SURS BenefitLine

was created and how it could be

used to obtain general and personalized

information; * a postcard to all participants and benefit

recipients emphasizing toll-free, 24-hour

access; and * an information manual for SURS agency


Coinciding with the mailing of the SURS BenefitLine communication materials, SURS sent news releases to SURS agency representatives for publication in the agencies' newsletters. The releases reflected the promotional tone used throughout the communications campaign.

Design. Each communication element reflected a unified design and built on and reinforced SURS's image of friendliness and warmth. Each incorporated the same muted blue and white color scheme, which was selected to evoke a feeling of warmth and serenity. Letterhead and envelopes were created matching the design.

Education. Communication materials for this phase were designed to describe SURS BenefitLine in detail, without overwhelming or confusing readers, and to ensure that callers would remember the hotline number and their PIN. Participants and benefit recipients received a letter, which provided their assigned PIN, and a brochure with easy-to-read headings, charts and typical questions. The upbeat, promotional tone of the brochure emphasized the ease and convenience of using the system, rather than presenting technically detailed information. The brochure included a "Shortcuts Directory" for quick access to any SURS BenefitLine subject. There were also cards for recording the caller's PIN number, along with SURS BenefitLine telephone stickers and a matching refrigerator magnet, all of which were designed to help callers remember those important numbers.


The success of SURS BenefitLine depended on whether participants used the system, whether it effectively decreased calls to SURS offices and whether participants liked it. The system has been operational for two years, a long enough period for evaluating the success of the system.

In the first five days after SURS BenefitLine went into effect, almost 3,500 calls were taken. The system currently receives an average of 900 calls each week; this represents nearly 200 calls per day that previously would have gone to SURS operators. Most callers get the information they need directly from SURS BenefitLine. Callers exit SURS BenefitLine to speak with a SURS operator in about one-half of the calls. The SURS BenefitLine has, therefore, alleviated SURS operators of one-half of the calls previously handled.

Participants and benefit recipients from nearly every SURS agency have used the BenefitLine for personalized information. Only a small number of callers from the 68 SURS agencies have never entered their Social Security number and PIN to receive personalized information. Those callers may still have used SURS BenefitLine to obtain general information, or they may have used the toll-free number to call and speak with a SURS operator.

Response to SURS BenefitLine has been very positive. Both participants and benefit recipients who have used it said they like the system and find it easy to use. The usage statistics described above reflect this enthusiasm.

In the near future, SURS BenefitLine will incorporate a text-to-speech feature that will allow it to actually read callers' beneficiary designations to them. Currently, the system will send a list of those names to the caller's home address. SURS may add other enhancements as technology is updated.

SURS BenefitLine is a representative of the benefits and the future of voice-response technology, a system that more and more hospitals, banks and other businesses have adopted in recent years. SURS's creative application of this technology illustrates how governments and their related organizations can successfully communicate vital information to hard-to-reach audiences, increase efficiency and service and save money, accomplishing these goals with one common instrument - the telephone.

James S. Beedie, association executive director for the State Universities Retirement System of Illinois, is also the vice-president of the National Preretirement Education Association. Bryan S. Bloom is the deputy director in charge of the finance division of SURS, having formerly served as the system's chief accountant. Dennis D. Spice, executive director for SURS, previously served in a variety of executive positions with the system.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Government Finance Officers Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:State Universities Retirement System of Illinois' voice-response system
Author:Beedie, Jim; Bloom, Bryan; Spice, Dennis
Publication:Government Finance Review
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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