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Voice response unit eases taxpayer aid.


The Taxpayers' assistance Unit of the Minnesota Department of Revenue handles a flood of 650,000 calls a year. The unit has always been plagued by complaints of inaccessibility and busy signals. Studies have shown over 8000 blocked calls on many days. Before the installation of an automatic call distributor (ACD) in 1980, blockages occasionally were so high that slow dial tone from the central office was encountered in downtown St. Paul.

We sought to reduce the blocked calls and make the unit more accessible to Minnesota residents without adding staffers.

There were two types of calls a system could affect. About 20% of incoming traffic was from people calling to see when they would get their tax refund check. Another 20% called to have forms mailed to them. The rest was complex in nature and required the assistance of a rep.

We decided a voice response unit (VRU) system would be designed to handle these two types of calls and transfer all others to the ACD.

Technical Issues

The refund information resided on an IBM 3090 mainframe, at the Department of Administration. Since the Department of Revenue was moving to a new building about two miles away, accessibility to the database became a problem.

Two types of access were studied. One was to have the VRU on line with the mainframe, so a caller could enter a Social Security number and receive the refund mailing date. The other was to download the database daily to the voice response unit.

The trouble was, we realized at we looked at the situation, either solution created difficulties.

The database file contained much information and was stored in different locations in the mainframe.

The automatic call distributor has its own incoming trunk group with a widely published number.

Callers reach the ACD by dialing locally or coming in on WATS services provided by ATTCOM.

Since this VRU would "front-end" the ACD and have its own incoming lines, it was necessary, we came to realize, to transfer callers who wanted to speak with a representative to the ACD.

This would require a timed hookflash and the dialing of a phone number by the VRU.

Call-transfer features can not be put on WATS lines.

Therefore, it appeared that there may be difficulty getting WATS callers to the automatic call distribution.

Once on line, all callers could be answered by the VRU.

If there was a processor failure, or power failure, the Taxpayers' Assistance Unit would be inaccessible.

A method was needed to enable callers to reach representatives in case of failure.

Due to the nature of the tax season, messages given to callers would need to be readily changed. The VRU would need to be easily changeable and would not require a programmer to make message and call-flow modifications.

Traffic Stats

The following traffic statistics were used to configure the system:

* Total number of calls per year: 650,000.

* Average time per call: 2.5 minutes.

* Busiest day of year: 9000 calls.

* Busiest hour of day: 1500 calls.

Since both the automatic call distributor and the voice response unit would be operating with separate incoming-trunk groups, the number of lines each system required became an important factor.

If there were too few lines at the voice response unit, then the callers would receive busy signals. Too many lines at the ACD would result in long queue time.

After considering the mainframe-access methods available, it was decided to have the file reside on the VRU. The big reason for this choice was mainframe time of response for this application ran at about seven seconds per call. So incoming lines to the VRU would stay busy longer, during a time when there would be calls waiting to get through.

An average of 300,000 files now are downloading in about three hours nightly. Refund-mailing information is available to callers for 21 days before being removed from the file.

A requirement of the specification was that the VRU be able to transfer callers, via Centrex, to the ACD. When the call has been transferred, the VRU line is free to take another call within two seconds. To put the call-transfer feature on WATS lines, the lines were terminated in the Centrex common block as Centrex stations and assigned a Centrex telephone number with call-transfer features. The VRU can transfer them to the ACD as though they were a local line.

Must Watch Itself

This bid specification also required vendors to have a unique power-failure system. It was mandatory that the system monitor itself and, if it noticed a voltage drop, transfer all lines to the ACD before going into a soft shutdown. This was accomplished through the use of chip technology by the vendor.

The proper balance of lines, both at VRU and ACD, has been a task that requires frequent monitoring. Too many, or too few, lines at either machine can cause busy signals, delays, and caller frustration.

The VRU has the ability to "busy-out" lines as traffic changes. Rotary-break keys stop the "hunting" in the ACD trunk group at various places, controlling the number of lines into the ACD and cutting long queue times. This method has proved to be very effective in controlling traffic. Results of these changes were even more positive than predicted.

There was an increase of 125,000 additional answered calls in 1989, due to the VRU. The week of Feb. 13, 1989, there were 342 blocked calls, compared to 8293 during the same period in 1988.

The average length of calls handled by representatives has risen to about three minutes. This confirms that routine calls are being handled by the VRU, and the representatives are answering the more complicated calls, for which they have been trained.

The manager of the unit has confirmed that many callers have praised the representatives' courteous manner. Once again, by removing the mundane calls, they have freed themselves from answering the same questions over and over.

For the first time, there are a few seconds between calls for the representatives to complete paper work or just "take a deep breath" before the phone rings again.

This has relieved some of the stress that is associated with an incoming-call center.

It has also served to improve the overall attitude of the staff.

Our original goal was to handle 40% of traffic on the VRU, but we do 50%.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Minnesota Department of Revenue Taxpayers Assistance Unit
Author:Parnell, Robert J.
Publication:Communications News
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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