Social Security Administration:

Additional Actions Needed in Ongoing Efforts to Improve 800-Number Service

GAO-05-735: Published: Aug 8, 2005. Publicly Released: Aug 18, 2005.

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Barbara D. Bovbjerg
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The Social Security Administration (SSA) at some point touches the life of nearly every American. Each day thousands of people contact SSA to file claims, update records, and request information from its 1,300 field offices, website, and national toll-free 800 number. Implemented nationwide in 1989, SSA's 800-number has become a principal contact point for millions of individuals seeking agency services. Congressional requesters asked GAO to review the quality of SSA's 800 number in terms of caller access and agent accuracy of response and courtesy.

Despite making improvements to its 800-number service, SSA still has difficulty keeping pace with caller demand for agent assistance. In 2001, SSA upgraded its 800-number network so that all callers could either access its automated services or be routed to the next available agent at any site in the network--a feat not possible under the previous system. The new network also enhanced SSA's ability to monitor and manage call traffic, agent availability, and network operations in real-time to ensure the network's integrity and the consistent delivery of services. SSA also expanded its automated and agent-assisted services accessible through the 800-number network. However, SSA's expansion of its automated services to reduce agent call burden has not had its intended effect, as callers continue to show a strong preference for agent assistance. In fiscal year 2004, about 51 million of the more than 71 million callers requested to speak to an agent. However, 8.7 million, or 17 percent, of these calls did not get through to an agent--a 2 percentage point increase over the previous year. SSA has taken steps to help agents provide callers with accurate information and consistent services, but still has problems with agents assisting callers in line with agency policies and procedures. SSA's training curriculum provides agents with a comprehensive overview of SSA programs. Agents are also encouraged to use available on-the-job resources, including a customized computer application that helps agents provide consistent service and accurate responses. Nevertheless, from 2001 through 2003, SSA did not meet its 90 percent target for service accuracy--that is, agents' performance in handling non-payment related issues in accordance with agency requirements. Although SSA has taken several actions to help agents improve their performance, including mandating agent use of the computer application, it has not yet determined why agent compliance with agency policies continues to fall short. SSA trains and monitors agents for courtesy and conducts periodic customer satisfaction surveys, but does not routinely capture all customer complaints about alleged agent discourtesy. Agents receive training on developing their interviewing and interpersonal skills, and SSA monitors agents to determine whether or not they are providing courteous service to callers. SSA monitoring indicates that agent courtesy levels are high. SSA solicits limited customer feedback on agent courtesy in its annual surveys and compiles general ratings, but these surveys do not ask callers for the reasons behind the ratings. Callers to the 800 number do complain of agent discourtesy, but SSA does not routinely document and assess all complaints. Some call center staff told us that when they receive allegations of agent discourtesy, they typically apologize for the discourteous service and may proceed to assist the caller without recording the complaint. SSA has feedback mechanisms in place to capture caller complaints, but these mechanism do not do so in a manner that allows SSA to assess complaints and identify corrective actions needed.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA pursued several initiatives to increase agent productivity. For example, in 2006, SSA implemented a "Screen Pop" feature to decrease the time agents spend handling calls by obtaining and routing caller information to agents with the incoming call. SSA further increased agent call handling capacity by increasing the number of routine calls handled by automated services. Since fiscal year 2004, the number of calls handled by automated services increased from 20.9 percent to 29.2 percent in fiscal year 2007. As a result of SSA's initiatives to increase callers' access to agents, calls seeking and not getting through for agent assistance decreased from 17.2 percent for fiscal year 2004 to 13.3 percent for fiscal year 2007. The is the first decrease since we made our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the quality of the 800-number telephone service, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should identify cost-effective ways that will help ensure that more calls seeking agent assistance get through to agents, such as streamlining the call-handling process, automating some mailings that agents now do by hand, or increasing number of agents available to take calls.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA observed 800-number agents and found that those who routinely used the customized computer application had higher service accuracy levels. Since we issued our report, SSA has taken a number steps to reduce service errors such as requiring agents to view an IVT broadcast that stressed the importance of using the computer application and providing them refresher training in its use. SSA also implemented a "screen pop" feature to collect the required personal identifying information from callers before forwarding them to agents. According to SSA, "service accuracy" increased a statistically significant 2.5 percentage points from fiscal year 2005 to 86.4 percent for fiscal year 2006. SSA's assessment of its service accuracy at 86.5 for fiscal year 2007 shows that the agency has sustained the improvement from the prior year.

    Recommendation: To improve the quality of the 800-number telephone service, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should conduct a comprehensive analysis of the source of service errors. For example, the agency might consider holding agent focus groups to gain insight into why agents tend to fail to comply with certain requirements. The agency could get agent's views on the effectiveness of CHIP in helping them meet agency requirements.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: SSA has not acted on this recommendation. SSA reported that it previously conducted pilots to gather and maintain information on customer complaints but abandoned these initiatives because they were too labor-intensive. SSA concluded that the resources required to implement this recommendation outweighed the benefits. In FY09, SSA reiterated that it had taken no action on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the quality of the 800-number telephone service, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should establish procedures for documenting and assessing customer-reported complaints. In doing so, the agency should determine the types of information it needs to assess customers' concerns and to provide the agency a means to identify and address service issues.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration


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