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entitled 'Social Security Administration: Additional Actions Needed in 
Ongoing Efforts to Improve 800-Number Service' which was released on 
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Report to the Committee on Finance,

U. S. Senate: 

United States Government Accountability Office: 

GAO: 

August 2005: 

Social Security Administration: 

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

GAO-05-735: 

GAO Highlights: 

Highlights of GAO-05-735, a report to the Committee on Finance, U.S. 
Senate: 

Why GAO Did This Study: 

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. 

What GAO Found: 

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 mechanisms 
do not do so in a manner that allows SSA to assess complaints and 
identify corrective actions needed. 

What GAO Recommends: 

GAO recommends that SSA take steps to (1) increase callers’ access to 
agent services, (2) determine why agents fail to comply with SSA 
requirements when handling calls, and (3) establish uniform procedures 
for documenting and assessing customers’ agent-related complaints. SSA 
agreed with the first two recommendations, but disagreed with the 
third, saying that its consistently high courtesy rates demonstrates 
that its present approach is working and taking any additional measures 
to improve courtesy would not be cost-effective. GAO maintains that 
routinely documenting and analyzing customer complaints could help SSA 
identify callers’ concerns and reinforce the agency’s commitment to 
quality “citizen-centered” service. 

www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-05-735. 

To view the full product, including the scope and methodology, click on 
the link above. For more information, contact Barbara Bovbjerg at (202) 
512-7215 or bovbjergb@gao.gov. 

[End of section] 

Contents: 

Letter: 

Results in Brief: 

Background: 

SSA Has Improved Overall Access to the 800 Number, but Many Calls 
Seeking Agent Assistance Do Not Get Through: 

SSA Trains and Provides Agents On-the-Job Resources, but Agents Have 
Not Met SSA's Standard for Accuracy of Assistance: 

SSA Conducts Training, Monitoring, and Customer Surveys but Lacks a 
Uniform System for Assessing Agent Courtesy: 

Conclusions: 

Recommendations for Executive Action: 

Agency Comments and Our Evaluation: 

Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and Methodology: 

Appendix II: Comments from the Social Security Administration: 

Appendix III: GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments: 

Tables: 

Table 1: Major Services That Agents Provide to 800-Number Callers: 

Table 2: Services Available through the 800-Number Automated Menus, As 
of June 2005: 

Table 3: Top Five Types of Service Errors Observed in Fiscal Year 2003: 

Figures: 

Figure 1: SSA's 800-Number Call Center Locations: 

Figure 2: Most Frequent Reasons for Calls to the 800 Number, Fiscal 
Year 2003: 

Figure 3: Calls Placed to the 800-Number, Fiscal Years 2002 through 
2004 (in Millions): 

Figure 4: 800-Number Calls Seeking Agent Assistance That Did Not Get 
Through, Fiscal Years 2002 through 2004 (in Millions): 

Figure 5: 800-Number Calls Handled and Abandoned in Automation, Fiscal 
Years 2002 through 2004 (in Millions): 

Figure 6: SSA's Performance in Meeting Payment Accuracy and Service 
Accuracy Targets, Fiscal Years 1998 through 2003: 

Figure 7: Regional Performance for Meeting Service Accuracy Target, 
Fiscal Years 2001 through 2003: 

Abbreviations: 

CHIP: Customer Help Information Program: 

OIG: Office of the Inspector General: 

OQA: Office of Quality Assurance and Performance Assessment: 

OTS: Office of Telephone Services: 

SSA: Social Security Administration: 

SSI: Supplemental Security Income: 

United States Government Accountability Office: 

Washington, DC 20548: 

August 8, 2005: 

The Honorable Charles E. Grassley: 
Chairman: 
The Honorable Max Baucus: 
Ranking Member: 
Committee on Finance: 
United States Senate: 

The Social Security Administration (SSA) at some point touches the life 
of nearly every American. Its services include issuing Social Security 
cards, maintaining earnings records, and administering some of the 
largest federal benefit programs--Old Age and Survivors Insurance and 
Disability Insurance--commonly referred to as Social Security--and 
Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Each day thousands of people 
contact SSA's 1,300 field offices, Web site, and national toll-free 800 
number (1-800-SSA-1213) to file claims, report events to update 
records, and request information about SSA's programs. Since becoming 
available nationwide in 1989, SSA's 800 number has become a principal 
contact point for individuals seeking agency services. Callers to the 
800 number may opt to use a self-service menu of automated services or 
request to speak with an agent. In fiscal year 2004, callers placed 
over 71 million calls to SSA's 800 number. 

SSA has made improvements and adjustments to its 800-number service in 
response to customer feedback. However, some problems have persisted. 
For example, SSA reported that millions of calls were encountering busy 
signals or being terminated before being served. An SSA survey of 800- 
number callers in September 2000 found that callers wanted easier and 
faster access to live service--that is, to speak with an agent without 
wading through the lengthy list of automated services. Furthermore, 
callers commented that SSA could improve its 800-number services by 
having agents with expertise provide consistent information and exhibit 
courteous behavior and helpful attitudes. 

In this context, you asked us to review the quality of SSA's 800 number 
in terms of caller access, agent accuracy of response and courtesy. 
This report discusses SSA's efforts to (1) improve caller access to the 
800 number; (2) ensure that SSA agents provide accurate responses and 
follow SSA requirements; and (3) ensure that agents treat callers 
courteously. 

To conduct our work, we reviewed SSA's policies and procedures for 800- 
number agents and interviewed SSA officials to develop information on 
SSA's telephone systems and services, training offerings and 
requirements, and the steps they take to ensure that their agents 
provide acceptable service. Specifically, we interviewed and obtained 
documentation from officials at SSA headquarters in Baltimore, 
Maryland; regional officials in 3 of the 10 regions; and staff working 
in a total of six call centers--two in each location visited-- 
Birmingham, Alabama; Kansas City, Missouri; and Richmond, California. 
The call centers we selected varied in the volume of calls handled and 
included those that handled 800-number calls on a routine basis and 
centers that handled calls as needed. We reviewed SSA performance data 
related to access, accuracy, and courtesy and determined the data to be 
sufficiently reliable for the purposes of this report. We conducted our 
work from September 2004 through July 2005 in accordance with generally 
accepted government auditing standards. Appendix 1 provides a more 
detailed description of our scope and methodology. 

Results in Brief: 

Despite making improvements to its 800-number systems, management, and 
services to improve caller access, 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, 51 million of the more than 71 million callers 
opted to speak with an agent, but 8.7 million, or 17 percent, did not 
get through--a 2 percent increase over the previous year. 

SSA has taken steps to help agents provide callers accurate information 
and to comply with SSA requirements, but still has problems with agents 
not meeting its standards for accurate service. SSA provides agents 
with comprehensive training and equips them with on-the-job resources 
such as a customized computer application to enable them to offer a 
broad range of services and to help ensure that they provide accurate 
and consistent service. SSA also makes experienced staff available to 
assist agents with complex or technical calls. In addition, SSA 
monitors agents' calls agencywide to assess agent accuracy and training 
needs. SSA's own monitoring assessments for 1998 through 2003 found 
that the agency generally met its 95 percent standard for "payment 
accuracy," having agents correctly handle inquiries involving 
eligibility and benefit payment issues. However for this same period, 
SSA did not meet its standard for "service accuracy," having agents 
correctly handle issues that do not have the potential to affect 
eligibility and/or payment according to agency requirements. SSA's 
overall performance for "service accuracy" for fiscal year 2003 was 
85.1 percent; below the agency's 90 percent target. According to SSA's 
assessment, agents' failure to obtain six personal identifying pieces 
of information from callers to verify their identity before accessing 
and disclosing information was the most frequent service error 
committed by agents. This error accounted for 28 percent of all service 
errors identified through SSA's assessment in fiscal year 2003. SSA has 
taken several actions to help agents improve their performance, 
including requiring agents to use the computer application designed to 
help them comply with agency requirements by directing their questions 
and responses to callers. However, the improvement in the service 
accuracy rate that followed these initiatives was short-lived. SSA has 
not determined why agents fail to comply with requirements and thus 
commit service errors. 

SSA trains and monitors agents for courtesy and conducts periodic 
customer satisfaction surveys, but does not routinely document or 
analyze all incidents of discourtesy or caller complaints. As part of 
the basic training curriculum, agents are taught interviewing and 
interpersonal skills. In addition to monitoring for accuracy, SSA also 
monitors agents to determine whether or not they were courteous to 
callers. Based on 4,384 monitored calls in 2003, SSA reported an agent 
courtesy rate of 99.9 percent. Although this would mean discourtesy was 
highly infrequent, it would still mean that agents may have handled as 
many as 60,000 calls placed during fiscal year 2003 discourteously. SSA 
solicits direct customer feedback about agent courtesy by surveying 
callers annually. In 2004, 91 percent of the respondents rated the 
agent level of courtesy as good, very good, or excellent while 5 
percent rated it as fair and 4 percent rated it as poor or very poor. 
However, the survey does not ask callers their reasons for the ratings. 
Also, while callers also contact SSA to complain of agent discourtesy, 
SSA does not routinely document all complaints. We were told that when 
callers report allegations of agent discourtesy, call center staff 
typically apologize for the discourteous service and may proceed to 
assist the caller without making a record of the complaint. In 
addition, callers sometimes make complaints about agent discourtesy 
through SSA's Web site. However, the Web site does not give guidance to 
complainants about the specific information they should provide. As a 
result, customers do not typically provide information that would help 
SSA assess the overall nature of complaints and identify any needed 
action. According to experts on customer service, a good management 
complaint system is key to building customer relations and identifying 
recurring problems and solutions to prevent future problems. Without 
such a system, SSA may be missing opportunities to address customer 
concerns and improve 800-number services. 

This report contains recommendations to the SSA Commissioner that are 
intended to improve the quality of the 800-number service related to 
access, accuracy, and courtesy. In its comments on a draft of this 
report, SSA agreed with our recommendations to identify cost-effective 
ways to increase agent availability to handle 800-number calls and 
conduct a comprehensive analysis of the source of agent service errors. 
SSA disagreed with our recommendation to establish procedures for 
documenting and assessing customer complaints. SSA believes a formal 
complaint system is not necessary or cost-effective given the 
consistently high level of courteous service indicated by SSA's service 
monitoring and customer satisfaction surveys. In our report, we 
acknowledge the high level of agent courtesy indicated through these 
sources. Yet, SSA's high call volume means that even with low rates of 
discourtesy, agents may be treating potentially tens of thousands of 
callers discourteously. Good customer service stresses the importance 
of paying attention to customers' complaints, however minor, and 
establishing a simple user-friendly and comprehensive complaint 
management system. We do not anticipate a need for SSA to expend 
extensive resources in meeting our recommendation, but rather suggest 
that SSA modify and uniformly apply the mechanisms already in place to 
obtain information about callers' concerns or complaints that could 
help the agency further improve customer service. 

Background: 

Before implementing the nationwide 800-number service, SSA delivered 
most of its services to the public face-to-face in an SSA field office. 
In 1989, SSA implemented a national, toll-free 800 number to better 
enable individuals to request information on SSA programs or report 
events that affect their own or someone else's SSA records or 
payments.[Footnote 1] SSA set up the 800-number service with the 
expectation that callers would ask basic questions and conduct simple 
business transactions, such as reporting address changes and scheduling 
field office appointments. When a call came into the 800 number, it 
would be routed to a local SSA call center. This strategy resulted in a 
high busy rate. Troubled by high busy-signal rates, SSA in 1996 added a 
nationwide automated menu to the 800 number that allowed callers to 
conduct a limited number of transactions without speaking to an agent. 

In 1997, we identified a number of conditions that limited the 
effectiveness of SSA's 800-number service.[Footnote 2] For one, callers 
often reached a busy signal instead of the automated menu or an agent. 
In addition, the automated menu offered only a limited number of 
services. To reach an agent, callers were required to select a specific 
topic about which they wished to speak to an agent so that the system 
could direct their call to an agent in a call center with the requisite 
subject matter expertise. This routing strategy led to some call 
centers being overwhelmed with calls. Also, because agents could not 
transfer calls, callers sometimes were inconvenienced by having to 
redial the 800 number to complete their business. 

Since the introduction of its nationwide 800-number service, SSA has 
worked to keep pace with the public's growing demand for telephone 
services and interests in conducting more complex transactions over the 
telephone. Today, calls made to the 800 number are answered at 44 
geographically dispersed locations. A call placed to the 800 number may 
be answered by agents located in any one of SSA's 36 teleservice 
centers, 6 Program Service Centers; or at one of 2 components within 
SSA's Office of Central Operations.[Footnote 3] Figure 1 shows the 
locations of these call centers within the 10 SSA regions. 

Figure 1: SSA's 800-Number Call Center Locations: 

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

SSA staffs its 36 teleservice centers with approximately 4,060 
teleservice representatives who answer incoming calls to the 800 
number. In addition, each of SSA's six program service centers, which 
are co-located on teleservice center sites, has designated specialists, 
called "SPIKES," who have been cross-trained to provide back-up support 
in answering 800-number calls during peak call volume periods. The 
SPIKE staff is comprised of various technical staff in the program 
service centers whose routine responsibilities include processing 
claims, mailing out notices, managing SSA's debt collection activities, 
and handling reports of non-receipt of checks and representative payee 
issues. 

SSA employs a cadre of approximately 2,030 trained SPIKES in its six 
program service centers. When the volume of calls is expected to exceed 
the levels that teleservice representatives can handle, SSA activates 
SPIKES, diverting them from their routine responsibilities to answer 
incoming 800-number calls. These peak calling periods typically occur 
on the first day of the week, the first week of the month, and the 
first 3 months of the year. In this report, we refer to teleservice 
representatives and SPIKES as "agents" and to teleservice centers and 
program service centers as "call centers."

SSA's Office of Telephone Services (OTS) plans, implements, operates, 
and evaluates SSA telephone service to the public delivered by way of 
the national 800 number and field offices. OTS plans and conducts 
studies, pilots, and analyses of 800-number and field office telephone 
operations to assess and improve the service. It also provides direct 
support to call centers and field offices, including developing and 
communicating uniform operating policies and procedures. OTS staff 
works closely with SSA's vendor that supplies and manages the network 
hardware, software, and telephone equipment used to support the 800- 
number service. OTS also manages the 800-number network operations, 
designs and administers call routing plans, and monitors call handling 
and adjusts call routing to handle emergency situations. 

Full-time SSA agents spend much of their time answering calls.[Footnote 
4] These calls may cover a broad range of inquiries about SSA programs 
and procedures. Figure 2 shows the 10 most frequent reasons for calls 
to the 800 number in fiscal year 2003. 

Figure 2: Most Frequent Reasons for Calls to the 800 Number, Fiscal 
Year 2003: 

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

Agents' time off the phone, such as for staff meetings, training 
sessions, or annual leave must be scheduled months in advance so that 
the network operations may continue without interruption. 

SSA sets goals for telephone access and agent services and measures 
performance in these areas. In recent years, to measure access, SSA 
calculated the number of calls handled, the number of calls that reach 
the 800 number on their first attempt, and the number of calls that 
reach an agent within 5 minutes of selecting the option to speak with 
an agent. In fiscal year 2005, SSA replaced these measures with two new 
access performance measures--the average speed of answer and the agent 
busy rate--consistent with standards in the telecommunications 
industry. SSA also expects agents to adhere to agency guidance and 
procedures and sets standards and measures agent accuracy (i.e., 
compliance with SSA's requirements when serving callers) and agent 
courtesy. The Office of Quality Assurance and Performance Assessment 
(OQA) measures the accuracy of information agents provide callers by 
listening in daily to a statistical random sample of calls handled by 
agents nationwide. OQA assesses accuracy based on whether agents 
adhered to SSA requirements when responding to callers' inquiries. As 
shown in table 1 agents are expected to provide callers a broad range 
of services. OQA also periodically surveys 800-number callers to 
assess, among other things, callers' perception of agent courtesy. 

Table 1: Major Services That Agents Provide to 800-Number Callers: 

Provide information about Social Security numbers including 
requirements for obtaining Social Security numbers and replacement 
cards. 

Explain SSA program rules specific to individuals' circumstances. 

Screen individuals for entitlement to benefits under SSA programs. 

Advise individuals about their rights and responsibilities as 
participants in SSA programs. 

Receive and input reports such as address changes, non-receipt of 
checks, and deaths that affect SSA records or benefit payments. 

Answer questions about communications individuals received from SSA. 

Inform individuals of assistance provided by other agencies and make 
referrals. 

Source: GAO analysis of SSA data. 

[End of table]

SSA Has Improved Overall Access to the 800 Number, but Many Calls 
Seeking Agent Assistance Do Not Get Through: 

Despite making improvements to its 800-number systems, SSA still has 
difficulty keeping pace with caller demand for agent assistance. Since 
2001, SSA has made improvements to its telephone systems, management, 
and services to improve caller access to the 800-number network. 
Specifically, the new enterprise-wide network improved incoming call 
routing and network capacity; enhanced SSA's ability to manage network 
operations, forecast call volumes, and set staffing levels; and 
expanded automated and agent services. However, callers continue to 
demonstrate a preference for speaking with an agent over using the 
automated service menus. In fiscal year 2004, about 51 million callers 
requested to speak to an agent. Of these calls, 8.7 million, or 17 
percent, of these calls did not get through to an agent--a 2 percent 
increase over the previous year. 

SSA Made Numerous Upgrades to Its 800-Number Network: 

SSA upgraded the network to help overcome past access problems. One 
major upgrade was the replacement of the geographically based routing 
system with a nationwide routing system capable of distributing calls 
to any agent within the network. This change gave SSA the ability to 
monitor call traffic and agent availability in real time at each call 
center and receive "cradle to grave" management information on a call's 
movement from the time the caller dials the 800 number until the call 
is terminated. The network also effectively eliminated the busy signal 
that callers encountered when using the older system. The new system 
accepts all calls made to the 800-number network and provides callers 
with a broad range of automated services. Calls seeking agent 
assistance are distributed to 1 of SSA's 44 answering sites. 

When callers dial the 800 number, the network provides a series of 
prompts to direct them to the desired services. The network uses 
recorded announcements and pre-set menu prompts to separate callers 
according to language preference (i.e., English or Spanish) or type of 
telephone service (i.e., touchtone or rotary dial). The network uses a 
digitized voice to read menu selections to the caller and responds to 
caller-entered touch-tone digits. The caller's selection can invoke a 
number of options, such as playing a recorded announcement (e.g., on 
cost-of-living adjustments) or transferring a call to an agent. SSA 
provides callers with an extensive menu of available automated services 
before offering them the option of acquiring agent assistance. SSA told 
us that the menus were set up this way to offer callers an opportunity 
to conduct their business using automated services before forwarding 
their calls to agents. 

When a caller indicates a preference for agent assistance, the network 
determines the optimum destination for the call. It reviews among other 
factors agent availability, the number of calls in queue, and the 
minimum expected delay. If all agents are busy and call queues are 
filled to capacity, the network delivers an agent busy message to 
callers, advising them that heavy call volume prohibits the transfer of 
their call to an agent and encouraging them to call back during periods 
of typically lower call volumes. 

A call placed in agent queue remains queued until an agent becomes 
available. The network applies treatments to calls waiting in agent 
queue, such as announcements promoting the use of SSA's Web site. 
According to SSA, if the wait time in an agent's queue exceeds 15 
minutes, the call is re-routed to another agent and given priority over 
other incoming calls. The network continually tracks the status of each 
call until the caller disconnects. Although the network was designed to 
hold one call per agent in queue, the vendor told us that it typically 
holds up to 1.65 calls in queue per agent. 

SSA and the vendor have taken measures to ensure the integrity of 
network-generated data and the continuous operation of the network. 
Both SSA and the vendor conduct ongoing tests of the accuracy and 
completeness of the network-generated data on which so much of SSA's 
800-number related performance measurement, management decisions, and 
staffing levels depend. The vendor told us that redundancy was built 
into the network to ensure that the failure of any one component only 
affected existing calls. For example, if one component fails, the 
network automatically employs a backup execution path to bypass the 
problem location and reroutes calls to one of the remaining call 
centers. According to the vendor, the redundancy built into the 800- 
number network and the geographical dispersion of its redundant 
functions would make a complete system outage almost unimaginable. 
Vendor staff told us that the local outages that occur on occasion are 
mainly caused by loss of network facilities, extended local power 
failures, or hardware issues. SSA and the vendor maintain back up 
databases critical to network operations. 

SSA takes several additional steps to help ensure that callers can 
access 800-number services. SSA network operations staff frequently 
calls the 800-number network to test the integrity of the main menu 
scripts and the routing of calls to both automated and agent services. 
They evaluate calls for proper routing through the option choices; 
proper functionality of the automated scripts; proper functionality of 
routing to agents; proper routing to agents and agent queues; and the 
quality and clarity of the connection. Call centers also have systems 
administrators who monitor the performance of the equipment used on the 
premises and notify headquarters when any anomalies appear. System 
administrators are responsible for keeping the phones and headsets 
working, troubleshooting problems with desktop applications, monitoring 
computers, printers, or management information data. If the 
administrators notice any problems, they are responsible for notifying 
headquarters so that the vendor can dispatch a technician to initiate 
repair. 

SSA Manages Call Traffic and Forecasts Future Call Demand and Staffing 
Needs: 

SSA takes advantage of the wealth of management information at its 
disposal to monitor ongoing network operations and plan for the future. 
SSA forecasts call volumes and schedules the appropriate number of 
agents in accordance with anticipated demand based on historical data. 
These forecasts allow SSA to group days into specific levels depending 
on the anticipated volume of calls. For example, the busiest days-- 
"Level 1" days--require the greatest number of SPIKES to be activated 
to answer phones. SSA sets and tracks SPIKE commitments to help ensure 
that enough SPIKES will be available networkwide to answer the volume 
of incoming calls. Depending on network conditions, managers may make 
adjustments to the number of available agents and the routing of calls 
to align available 800-number resources with caller demand. SSA 
adjusted its call volume forecast downward 5 times each in fiscal years 
2003 and 2004, allowing SPIKES scheduled to answer 800-number calls to 
return to their other assigned duties. 

SSA uses real-time data to monitor call traffic, caller activity, and 
system performance. SSA can use these data to track overall incoming 
calls and information on automation or determine whether calls were 
routed to an SSA call center or to a busy message. SSA monitors such 
800-number network statistics as calls made to the network, calls 
offered to agents, agent staff levels, average speed of answer, and 
agent busy rate. Staff also monitors cable and national news for 
events, such as inclement weather, news stories on Social Security, or 
homeland security events to determine what impact they may have on 
projected 800-number call volumes. Furthermore, SSA monitors caller 
usage of the automated menus and reshuffles automated options to keep 
the most popular options first. 

SSA performs limited checks of the network generated data. Upon 
receiving the data electronically, SSA runs the data through a 
multistep automated procedure that backs up the data and converts it to 
a readable format. As part of this process, SSA checks each record to 
ensure that all area codes are good, all phone numbers are properly 
formatted, and all listed phone numbers originate in the 800-number 
network. The vendor also generates separate reports on automated 
services and agents. SSA reviews the reports and compares the results 
with historical trends. Although SSA has no additional means of 
verifying the reliability of the vendor-provided data or the results 
that appear in report field outputs, both SSA and the vendor maintain 
that these data are accurate, and the vendor states that SSA has the 
source data it needs to assess network performance. 

SSA Expanded Its Automated and Agent-Assisted Services, but 17 Percent 
of Calls Seeking Agent Assistance Do Not Get Through: 

Since the inception of the nationwide 800 number and the later 
introduction of limited 24-hour automated services, SSA has continually 
improved the quality and quantity of services available to callers. In 
1996, SSA introduced voice-recognition applications and added an option 
allowing callers to replace their Medicare card by phone. In 1998, SSA 
implemented five new automated service options to handle inquiries 
surrounding the increased number of Social Security statement mailings. 
By 2002, SSA had made the full range of automated services available in 
the Spanish language. 

Callers may access the automated services at any time in English or 
Spanish to obtain services, information, or forms. Table 2 lists the 
services available through the 800-number automated menus. 

Table 2: Services Available through the 800-Number Automated Menus, As 
of June 2005: 

Main service categories: Field office locator database; 
Subcategories: 
* N/A. 

Main service categories: Password/password request code/account status; 
Subcategories: 
* N/A. 

Main service categories: Social Security card application form; 
Subcategories: 
* N/A. 

Main service categories: Benefit verification; 
Subcategories: 
* N/A. 

Main service categories: Social Security statement options; 
Subcategories: 
* Form to request Social Security statement; 
* Form to correct name or date of birth; 
* Form to request Social Security statement with different estimate of 
future earnings; 
* Message--why Social Security statement was sent; 
* Message--address on Social Security statement; 
* Message--earnings on Social Security statement. 

Main service categories: Medicare options; 
Subcategories: 
* Replacement Medicare card; 
* Form to request help with the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan costs; 
* Medicare Prescription Drug Plan message. 

Main service categories: Pamphlets; 
Subcategories: 
* Understanding the benefits; 
* Retirement benefits; 
* Disability benefits; 
* Survivors benefits; 
* How work affects your benefits; 
* Benefits for children with disabilities; 
* What every woman should know. 

Main service categories: Informational messages; 
Subcategories: 
* Payment delivery dates; 
* Direct deposit; 
* Best times to call 800 number; 
* SSA Internet address and services; 
* SSI message; 
* 1099 benefits statement (seasonal); 
* Cost-of-living adjustment (seasonal). 

Source: SSA data. 

[End of table]

SSA has adopted the telephone industry "best practice" of taking care 
of all of the caller's business during the initial contact. Agents have 
been trained to answer a wide range of inquiries and have the capacity 
to transfer calls they cannot handle to others who handle these calls. 
For example, in 1998, SSA began allowing callers to file claims for 
retirement and survivors' benefits immediately through the 800 number, 
eliminating the need for the caller to leave a message and wait for 
another SSA agent to return the call. In 1999, SSA gave agents access 
to a computer-based application to assist them in handling telephone 
calls more efficiently. In 2002, SSA provided callers the option of 
having their call routed to a designated group of bilingual agents. SSA 
also extended the hours of agent availability nationwide. Agents are 
now available weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in each time zone. In 
addition, SSA provides unadvertised agent service for extended hours on 
weekday nights and weekends. SSA also provides agent service for the 
hearing impaired through a separate toll-free number. 

In following SSA's instructions to handle all of the caller's business 
needs, agents may be performing tasks that limit their availability to 
answer calls. During site visits, we observed agents who filled out 
forms by hand, retrieved printouts, placed the mailings in an envelope, 
addressed the envelopes by hand, and put the envelope in the mail slot, 
while the caller remained on hold. While these steps may help give 
callers the assurance that their business is being completed, such 
manual tasks are time-consuming and potentially limit the number of 
calls that agents can handle. 

Although the number of calls placed to the 800 number has increased 
slightly since fiscal year 2002 and SSA has expanded services available 
through automation, the agency continues to have difficulty keeping 
pace with caller demand for live agent assistance. Figure 3 shows the 
calls made to the 800 number since fiscal year 2002 when SSA's most 
recent telephone network upgrade was fully implemented. The proportion 
of calls to the 800 number indicating a preference for agent assistance 
has been relatively consistent, whereas SSA had hoped that the 
introduction of automated services would divert calls away from agents 
to the less costly, self-service automated system. Such a reduction 
would be consistent with the call center industry trend toward self- 
service with minimal agent intervention. However, agents continue to 
answer the majority of calls, including some calls that, according to 
agents, could easily be handled through automation. The percentage of 
calls seeking agent assistance but not getting through declined from 
22.7 percent in fiscal year 2002 to 15.2 percent in 2003, but rose 2 
percent in fiscal year 2004. Specifically, as figure 4 shows, 8.7 
million (or 17.2 percent) of the 51 million calls seeking agent 
assistance in fiscal year 2004 did not get through. About half of these 
calls encountered a busy message and the other half abandoned the call 
while waiting in queue. Managers of private call centers do not place a 
lot of importance on call abandonment rates for several reasons, 
including their belief that callers terminate calls to visit the Web 
site. Some callers that request SSA agent assistance may be able to 
satisfy their needs through the automated menu or Web site. However, if 
callers' business require agent assistance, they will not be able 
satisfy their needs if they unable to get reach an agent. 

Figure 3: Calls Placed to the 800 Number, Fiscal Years 2002 through 
2004 (in Millions): 

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

Figure 4: 800-Number Calls Seeking Agent Assistance That Did Not Get 
Through, Fiscal Years 2002 through 2004 (in Millions): 

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

SSA offers a variety of possible reasons why callers abandon their 
calls after being placed in queue for an agent, one being that 
customers simply do not want to continue waiting any longer before 
having an opportunity to speak to an agent. SSA has several initiatives 
underway to reduce the number of abandoned calls in queue, including a 
call-back service, which will provide callers kept in queue beyond a 
certain threshold with an opportunity to enter their telephone number 
and select a contact time so that an agent can call them back. While 
providing convenience to callers and potentially using any agent "down" 
time more efficiently, a call back option also has the potential to 
increase agent workload. 

Since 2002, SSA's 800-number automated menus have received 
progressively higher call volumes but handled fewer calls to 
completion. In addition, as shown in figure 5, the number of calls 
being abandoned without completing a transaction in the automated menus 
has steadily increased, culminating in fiscal year 2004, when nearly 
half of calls to automation were abandoned. 

Figure 5: 800-Number Calls Handled and Abandoned in Automation, Fiscal 
Years 2002 through 2004 (in Millions): 

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

Although SSA offers a number of possible reasons, it is unable to say 
with any degree of certainty why calls continue to be abandoned. In the 
past, SSA has conducted follow-up caller surveys to ask callers what 
had prompted them to abandon the automated services. The primary reason 
that callers gave for hanging up after an initial selection of an 
automated service was their desire to speak to an agent. According to 
SSA, many callers simply desire the security of human contact when 
leaving personal information that is required to transact business. SSA 
has now eliminated the need for callers to redial; callers may now have 
their calls transferred from automated services to agent queue. 
However, this option will likely increase agents' call burden. SSA 
intends to make its automated menu selections more accessible by 
introducing a speech-enabled main menu that would allow callers to 
simply speak their needs in response to directed questions. For 
example, rather than listening to a list of options, callers will be 
able to use their voice to narrow down available options and find the 
ones relevant to the services they seek. SSA plans to implement this 
feature nationwide later in this fiscal year. SSA also redesigned its 
Web site in 2003 to improve its accessibility and usability in the hope 
of relieving the burden on the 800 number. The Web site now attracts 
over 30 million visitors a year, which SSA says has reduced the demand 
for direct service from 800-number and field office agents. SSA's 
customer satisfaction surveys from 2002 and 2003 show that the 
percentage of the survey respondents who said they would likely use the 
800 number the next time they contacted SSA decreased from 75 to 61 
percent. In contrast, the percentage of respondents who reported they 
were likely to use the Internet or email to contact SSA increased by 2 
percent and the percentage of those who said that they would likely 
call or visit a field office increased by 10 percent. 

SSA Trains and Provides Agents on-the-Job Resources, but Agents Have 
Not Met SSA's Standard for Accuracy of Assistance: 

SSA has taken steps to help agents provide callers accurate information 
and comply with agency requirements, but still has problems with agents 
meeting its standards for accurate service. SSA provides agents with 
comprehensive training and equips them with on-the-job resources to 
help them provide accurate and consistent service. In addition, SSA 
monitors agents' calls and compiles agencywide assessments of agent 
accuracy in handling calls and identifies agent training needs. SSA's 
own monitoring assessments for 1998 through 2003 found that the agency 
generally met its standard for agent accuracy in handling issues that 
had the potential to affect individuals' benefit payments, but not its 
standard for "service accuracy," handling issues that did not have the 
potential to affect benefits. SSA's overall performance for "service 
accuracy" for fiscal year 2003 was 85.1 percent; below SSA's 90 percent 
target. According to SSA's assessment, agents' failure to obtain the 
required identifying pieces of information from callers to verify their 
identity before accessing and disclosing information was the most 
frequently committed service error. In fiscal year 2003, this error 
alone accounted for 28 percent of all service errors that SSA 
identified. SSA has taken several actions to help agents improve their 
performance, but these actions have not resulted in sustained 
improvements in service accuracy. 

SSA Trains Agents and Equips Them with Resources to Properly Handle 
Calls: 

SSA provides agents with comprehensive training to enable them to offer 
callers a broad range of services and to complete callers' business on 
initial contact. The basic training curriculum is comprised of formal 
course work to teach agents about the agency's programs, policies, and 
procedures,[Footnote 5] including rules for disclosing information to 
and accepting reports from callers; how to access, interpret, and enter 
data into SSA computer systems and databases; and how to query and 
interpret SSA records. As part of their basic training, agents take 
frequent tests, conduct mock interviews, observe experienced agents 
handling calls, and answer calls. The basic training curriculum for 
full-time agents at the call centers we visited ranged from 11 to 16 
weeks. In addition, call center officials told us that they taught a 
modified 11-to 12-week course to back-up agents to augment their 
existing technical skills. In addition, officials told us that they 
supplemented the basic training with regional and call center training 
offerings, such as new employee orientation, diversity training, and 
public service training. 

After agents complete basic training, regions and call centers follow 
their own established practices to help agents transition to handling 
calls on their own. At the sites we visited, agents were mentored or 
closely supervised during a transitional period. For example, some call 
centers assigned a personal mentor to sit and observe agents handling 
calls and to provide prompt assistance, as needed. After spending a 
number of weeks with a mentor, agents are evaluated to determine their 
readiness to handle calls on their own. As another transitional step, 
one call center placed agents in a training unit that had a higher 
supervisor-to-agent ratio to allow closer supervision and monitoring of 
agents' work. Floor support staff in one training unit said that, in 
addition to providing technical assistance, they review the accuracy of 
agents' data entries for events, such as direct deposit requests and 
death reports. Based on an agent's proficiency, floor-support staff may 
review agents' work to provide daily feedback or review their work less 
frequently as agents demonstrate proficiency. 

Agents may receive subsequent training in a variety of ways. For 
example, training can occur during the 3-hour allotments reserved for 
monthly staff meetings. Call center staff and officials told us that 
these meetings were used as a forum to provide agents information on 
emerging issues such as national and regional initiatives and changes 
in operating procedures, as well as feedback on the call center's 
performance. During the workday, supervisors may provide agents with 
important information that agents need to know, such as generic 
responses to calls triggered by current media reports on Social 
Security solvency. We were told that agents also receive voluminous 
intra-agency communications for which they may be allotted 15 minutes 
at the end of each workday to read. We were also told that supervisors 
and floor-support staff use various strategies to ensure that agents 
are aware of the most important changes. Call center managers and 
supervisors told us, that if needed, more time maybe requested for 
agents to be off the telephones to receive additional training, such as 
hands-on computer training. 

To assist agents in providing callers with accurate and consistent 
services, SSA provides agents with the Customer Help and Information 
Program (CHIP)--a customized online computer application for providing 
services to 800-number callers. CHIP helps agents navigate the 
comprehensive set of requirements and guidance for SSA programs and 
directs agents in the actions they should take to accurately complete 
callers' business on initial contact. For example, if an agent enters 
an address change for individuals receiving Supplemental Security 
Income (SSI) benefits, CHIP displays screens prompting the agent to ask 
callers a series of questions about changes in living arrangements-- 
events that may lead to an increase or decrease in SSI benefits. As 
another resource, the call centers we visited made more experienced 
staff available to help agents handle more complex or technical calls. 
Officials told us that such floor support was customary at call centers 
agencywide. 

SSA Monitors Agents to Assess Performance and to Identify Training 
Needs: 

SSA monitors agents' handling of 800-number calls for payment accuracy 
and service accuracy.[Footnote 6] SSA assesses agent performance for 
payment accuracy in cases where agents' responses on such matters as 
eligibility, filing of claims, or reportable events could potentially 
affect an individual's eligibility or benefits. SSA also assesses 
agents' performance for service accuracy to determine whether or not 
the services they provide correspond with SSA policies and procedures. 
When assessing service accuracy, SSA considers whether agents provided 
accurate information as well as performed all other related actions 
that the agency requires. Some of these actions are required as a 
matter of convenience to callers or to avoid the potential need for 
follow-up contact. 

SSA conducts random, remote monitoring of agents handling calls for 
various purposes. OQA is responsible for two types of monitoring. 
First, OQA monitors a statistical national sample of calls handled by 
agents throughout the year to develop both agencywide and regional 
assessments of agent performance. This type of monitoring serves as 
SSA's means of assessing agent payment accuracy and service accuracy. 
OQA officials told us that such monitoring had the capacity to reveal 
issues that needed to be addressed at the agency level, such as 
pinpointing areas needing policy clarification. However, the 
responsibility for agent performance, including improving performance 
to meet agency targets, rests with the various regions and individual 
call centers. Second, if requested by regional officials, OQA 
occasionally monitors a small number of calls handled by individual 
call centers and visits the call centers to brief managers and agents 
on its findings. Call center staff also randomly monitor calls handled 
by their call center for payment accuracy and service accuracy and to 
identify training needs for their agents. SSA does not specify the 
number of calls that should be monitored for this purpose. Call center 
officials told us that the number of calls they monitored do not 
provide a statistically valid assessment of their center's performance. 

Designated call center personnel also monitor individual agents to 
provide agents individualized feedback on their telephone performance. 
Monitors may point out positive aspects of agents' performance as well 
as suggest additional training. Agents are given advance notice of when 
monitoring will occur and are allowed to choose whether to have 
monitors sit with them or to have monitors listen in from a remote 
location.[Footnote 7] For full-time agents, SSA guidance recommends 
monitoring as many as five calls per month for agents with more than 1 
year of experience and unlimited calls for agents with less than 1 
year.[Footnote 8] Officials told us that agents are given timely 
feedback on assessments of their overall performance. Some officials 
also said that when monitors observe agents making an error, they may 
interrupt the call to instruct the agent on the correct procedure. 

Agents Have Not Met SSA's Standard for Accuracy of Assistance: 

Although SSA takes a number of actions to help agents provide callers 
accurate information in accordance with agency policies and procedures, 
agents still have problems meeting SSA's standard for service accuracy. 
As shown in figure 6, from fiscal year 1998 through fiscal year 2003, 
SSA generally met its 95 percent target for payment accuracy--having 
agents correctly handle inquiries involving eligibility and benefit 
payment issues--but not its 90 percent target for service accuracy-- 
having agents serve calls related to nonpayment -related issues 
according to agency requirements.[Footnote 9]

Figure 6: SSA's Performance in Meeting Payment Accuracy and Service 
Accuracy Targets, Fiscal Years 1998 through 2003: 

[See PDF for image]

Note: OQA does not routinely calculate and publish confidence intervals 
at the agency level. However, OQA calculated the approximate sampling 
variability for the fiscal year 2003 results at the 95 percent 
confidence level to be ± .8 percent for payment accuracy for the 
universe of calls with a payment-affecting issue and ±1.1 percent for 
service accuracy. OQA said that because the call population, the number 
of calls monitored, and accuracy rates have remained relatively 
constant for the period of our review, the confidence intervals would 
change by only tenths of a percentage point from one year to the next. 

[End of figure]

SSA reported that its overall performance for payment accuracy in 
fiscal year 2003 was 95.9 percent, and the performance for each of its 
10 regions was similar. However, SSA reported its overall performance 
for service accuracy in fiscal year 2003 was 85.1 percent. Based on 
OQA's assessment, as few as four regions may have met the 90 percent 
service accuracy target in 2003.[Footnote 10] As shown in figure 7, for 
fiscal years 2001 through 2003, almost all regions had problems 
consistently meeting SSA's established target for service accuracy. 

Figure 7: Regional Performance for Meeting Service Accuracy Target, 
Fiscal Years 2001 through 2003: 

[See PDF for image]

Note: OQA does not routinely calculate and publish confidence intervals 
at the regional level. OQA estimates the sampling variability for FY 
2003 at the 95 percent confidence level, would range from ±2.9 percent 
to ±4.4 percent for service accuracy. OQA said it would expect similar 
regional sampling variability for prior years. 

[End of figure]

OQA identified 63 types of required actions that agents failed to take 
in fiscal year 2003 that led SSA to miss its service accuracy target. 
Agents' failure to take these required actions resulted in service 
errors. As shown in table 3, the most frequent error stemmed from 
agents' inadequate protection of individuals' personal information. SSA 
protects individuals' privacy by limiting disclosure of the personal 
information in its records to individuals for whom the agency maintains 
the records and to others authorized. Agents committed an error each 
time they failed to collect the requisite six identifying pieces of 
information to verify a caller's identity before accessing or 
disclosing information from SSA records (i.e., improper handling of 
access and disclosure).[Footnote 11]

Table 3: Top Five Types of Service Errors Observed in Fiscal Year 2003: 

Type of service error[A]: Improper handling of access/disclosure; 
Percentage of all service errors: 28; 
Example of service error: Caller inquiry and agent action: A caller 
representing an attorney's office wanted to know when a client who was 
in the attorney's office should expect payment of disability benefits. 
The client had received a letter indicating SSA had made a favorable 
decision; The agent obtained the client's Social Security number from 
the caller, verified that a favorable decision was made, and told the 
caller that it usually takes 3 months from the date of the letter to 
receive payment; 
Example of service error: Action agent failed to take: Agent should 
have asked to speak to the client to verify client's identity and ask 
the client's permission to conduct business with the attorney 
representative. 

Type of service error[A]: Failure to obtain or properly interpret a 
query; 
Percentage of all service errors: 10; 
Example of service error: Caller inquiry and agent action: A caller 
wanted to know the status of her child's disability claim; The agent 
misread SSA's records, advised the caller that the claim was denied, 
and offered to mail appeal forms; 
Example of service error: Action agent failed to take: Agent should 
have advised the caller that a final decision had not been made and to 
allow 60 days for SSA's decision. 

Type of service error[A]: Improper handling of potential claims[B]; 
Percentage of all service errors: 8; 
Example of service error: Caller inquiry and agent action: A widow 
reported her husband's death to stop his retirement checks. The agent 
accepted the death report and told the widow she should return the 
husband's next payment to her local SSA office; 
Example of service error: Action agent failed to take: Agent should 
have screened the widow to determine her possible eligibility for 
benefits on her husband's account. 

Type of service error[A]: Improper handling of referral to another SSA 
component; 
Percentage of all service errors: 8; 
Example of service error: Caller inquiry and agent action: Caller 
wanted to obtain replacement of a lost Social Security card. The caller 
acknowledged having two of the identity documents that the agent said 
she would need to get a replacement; Agent told the caller to contact 
the SSA office ahead of her visit to make sure the two documents were 
sufficient and was given the SSA office address and telephone number; 
Example of service error: Action agent failed to take: Agent should 
have offered to mail the caller a Social Security card application form 
that would have allowed caller to obtain a replacement Social Security 
card without having to visit an SSA office. 

Type of service error[A]: Improper handling of acceptable reporter[C]; 
Percentage of all service errors: 6; 
Example of service error: Caller inquiry and agent action: Caller was 
payee for two children receiving benefits, one of whom recently turned 
18 and was away at school. Caller wanted to report address change for 
both children; Agent properly identified the caller, processed a change 
of address for the younger child, and told the caller the older child 
would have to report the address change herself; 
Example of service error: Action agent failed to take: Agent should 
have accepted address change for both children because caller was an 
acceptable reporter. 

Source: OQA "800 Number Evaluation Reports" for fiscal years 2001 
through 2003. 

Note: The examples provided are for illustrative purposes and the 
actual incident depicted may not have occurred in fiscal year 2003. 

[A] OQA identified 58 additional causes of service errors, 9 of which 
occurred at frequencies between 1 and 5 percent, and the remaining 49 
occurred at a frequency of less than 1 percent. 

[B] Inquiries about claims where there was no reasonable probability to 
affect payment or eligibility for benefits. 

[C] This error occurs when agents either accept a nonpayment-affecting 
report without verifying the identity of the reporter to determine if 
the report can be accepted, or refuses to accept a nonpayment-affecting 
report from a proper reporter. 

[End of table]

Managers at the sites we visited have taken actions to reduce the 
number of service errors, particularly access and disclosure errors. 
For example, some call centers provided CHIP refresher training, 
designed desk aids reminding agents of the steps for proper disclosure, 
placed "hot pink" sheets detailing the service errors on the desks of 
agents who commit them, or established a "CHIP doctor" to provide 
agents with technical assistance to help navigate the CHIP computer 
application. However, the effectiveness of these actions to improve 
service accuracy for agents within the respective call center is 
unknown because the monitoring that occurs at the call center level 
does not provide a statistically valid measurement to make such an 
assessment. 

OQA has reported that the lower service accuracy rate primarily stemmed 
from agents' failure to follow SSA's requirements when asking callers 
to verify their identities. Assuming that such "access and disclosure" 
failures could be cleared up through the use of the CHIP application, 
SSA mandated its use in November of 2001. The service accuracy rate 
subsequently improved for fiscal year 2002, but dropped the next fiscal 
year because, according to OQA, agents did not make optimal use of 
CHIP. OQA recomputed SSA's service accuracy rate without the access and 
disclosure error for comparison purposes and reported that it would 
have increased from 85.1 to 89.2 percent in fiscal year 2003. SSA has 
not determined why agents fail to follow agency procedures when 
handling some calls, resulting in service errors. 

SSA Conducts Training, Monitoring, and Customer Surveys but Lacks a 
Uniform System for Assessing Agent Courtesy: 

SSA uses training, call monitoring, and surveys to ensure that agents 
deliver courteous service, but does not routinely document or analyze 
all incidents of discourtesy or caller complaints. As part of its 
comprehensive, multiweek training curriculum, SSA teaches agents the 
interviewing and interpersonal skills they need to provide courteous 
service. It also determines through monitoring whether agents are being 
courteous. Based on its monitoring results from 2001 through 2003, SSA 
reported that it found agents to be courteous to callers over 99 
percent of the time. SSA also measures caller satisfaction with agent 
courtesy as part of its annual 800-number customer satisfaction survey. 
In 2004, 91 percent of respondents rated agent courtesy as good, very 
good, or excellent; 5 percent rated agent courtesy as fair, and 4 
percent rated it poor or very poor. While SSA uses training, monitoring 
and customer surveys to ensure courtesy, it does not have a uniform 
system for analyzing incidents and complaints of discourtesy. Call 
center staff told us that they typically apologize to callers and offer 
to provide the desired assistance whenever callers lodge complaints by 
phone. Moreover, they may not record the complaint or attempt to 
capture and assess information on the nature of complaints. Customer 
service studies highlight the importance of paying attention to 
complaints and the benefits of having a good management complaint 
system. 

SSA Relies on Training, Monitoring, and Customer Surveys to Ensure 
Agent Courtesy: 

As part of its comprehensive, multiweek training curriculum, SSA 
teaches interviewing and interpersonal skills to help agents serve 
callers in a professional and courteous manner. The training includes 
instruction on how to establish rapport with callers, how to obtain 
information necessary to accurately serve callers' needs, and how to 
end calls on a positive note. As a courtesy measure, agents are 
instructed to allow callers to end the call. Agents also receive 
training on how to respond to angry, loud, or abusive callers, 
including how to calm such callers, and how to continue serving them or 
to transfer those calls to supervisors. 

SSA also uses its call monitoring process to oversee courtesy levels 
and has procedures for immediate intervention to remedy any observed 
problem.[Footnote 12] OQA procedures call for monitors to immediately 
inform management of a discourteous incident, prepare a written report 
for the agent's call center manager, and retain a copy of the report in 
the event that a disciplinary action is taken against the agent. Call 
center managers who become aware of discourtesy allegations or observe 
agent discourtesy are required to follow similar procedures. They are 
required to discuss any incident with the agent and consider a 
progressive range of disciplinary actions from issuing a reprimand to 
terminating an agent's employment. 

OQA officials told us that formal monitoring is time-consuming work. As 
a result, OQA said that over the years, it reduced the sample size of 
the monitored calls due to resource constraints. Regional and call 
center management expressed varied opinions as to whether the reduction 
in the number of monitored calls was an obstacle to identifying agent 
discourtesy. One call center manager told us that discourtesy was more 
likely to be observed by managers and supervisors patrolling work areas 
than through formal monitoring. On the other hand, one regional 
official noted that additional unannounced monitoring would be a more 
effective way of catching agent rudeness. 

Some of the managers and officials with whom we met, however, told us 
that they believed courtesy levels were very high and not a problem. 
According to the agency's call monitoring records, SSA agents have 
performed at consistently high rates with regard to courtesy. For 
fiscal year 2003, OQA determined that based on 4,384 calls, agents had 
been courteous to callers 99.9 percent of the time. [Footnote 13] It 
reached similar conclusions from its 2001 and 2002 monitoring. 

SSA also relies on its annual survey of callers to assess and ensure 
agent courtesy. Callers who have used agent services have been asked, 
among other questions, to rate agent courtesy on a 6-point scale. The 
2004 survey showed that 91 percent of the callers rated agent courtesy 
as being good, very good, or excellent; 5 percent rated it as being 
fair; and 4 percent rated it as being poor or very poor.[Footnote 14] 
These rates were about the same as those reported for the 2001 though 
2003 surveys. 

Other call centers may use telephone or online surveys to obtain 
feedback from customers, although the actual administration of the 
surveys may vary. For example, one organization conducts telephone 
surveys using voice capture software to record customer responses. At 
the beginning of a call, the survey system randomly selects 
participants and asks them to participate in a 2-3 minute survey after 
they complete their call. Another organization conducts online surveys, 
sending a survey to selected customers via email. Nonetheless, these 
organizations seek to obtain customers' views on their organization's 
performance. 

SSA Lacks a Uniform System for Assessing Agent Courtesy: 

SSA monitors calls and receive feedback from customers, but it does not 
systematically gather and assess this information to identify courtesy 
problems, such as particular problem locations or persistent patterns 
or trends. SSA agents handled an average of 40.9 million calls each 
year from 2001 through 2003. Even if agents were courteous 99.9 percent 
of the time as OQA reported, for fiscal year 2003 that would still 
leave nearly 60,000 calls in which the agents may have been 
discourteous. However, because SSA does not routinely analyze the 
details of agent discourtesy observed through monitoring, it has no way 
of determining the circumstances or lessons learned from monitored 
calls. 

Studies conducted on customer service have shown that building 
relationships with customers and a having first-rate management 
complaint system are critical to maintaining good customer relations. 
One study in particular noted that paying attention to customer 
complaints, regardless how minor they may be and addressing them 
quickly and completely helps satisfy customers and build trusting 
relationships.[Footnote 15] Similarly, people who contact their 
government agencies want to be heard and expect courteous and 
respectful treatment. It is therefore important for government 
employees to distinguish what their customers want and to take actions 
to ensure that their customers are satisfied. The study also noted that 
no matter how good the service or product is, occasions will invariably 
arise that result in customer complaints. However, it is important that 
when criticisms are voiced, that they are systematically and promptly 
addressed. A good management complaint system can provide data and 
information on complaints that can be compiled and analyzed to give 
insight into where problems are recurring and what needs to be done to 
fix them or prevent them from happening in the future. A good complaint 
system also facilitates the filing of complaints using simple, yet 
comprehensive complaint forms. 

SSA's 800-number customer satisfaction surveys are one means of 
gathering feedback from callers on agent courtesy. However, the survey 
does not ask why some respondents rate agent courtesy as poor. In 
addition, the agency does not routinely collect or analyze all caller 
complaints placed through the 800 number. Our visits to call centers 
found variation in how they handled such calls. When customers call the 
800 number to report agent-related complaints, SSA guidance requires 
agents to refer calls to supervisors or floor-support staff. However, 
SSA does not provide guidance for how those receiving referrals should 
handle them. We were frequently told that call center staff receiving 
these calls typically apologize for the other agents' rudeness and 
offer to provide service to the caller. SSA provides call center staff 
a form to document 800-number service complaints, including agent lack 
of courtesy. However, SSA has not provided them agencywide guidance on 
documenting complaints or the type of information they should record to 
allow SSA to identify service issues or trends. We were given a variety 
of reasons why call center staff may not document agent-related 
complaints. One call center official told us that his site allowed 
agents to exercise judgment in deciding which complaints they 
documented. Some agents, supervisors, and technical staff told us they 
were unaware of procedures for handling such complaints while others 
believed callers needed to provide sufficient information such as the 
offending agent's name or call center location to lodge a formal 
complaint. It was our observation that 800-number agents may not 
provide their full name or mention their call center location when 
answering a call. 

SSA responds differently to customer-reported complaints sent to agency 
offices than to complaints registered on its Web site. Specifically, 
regional and call center officials said that when warranted they would 
attempt to identify the agent, investigate the merits of the complaints 
reported to their offices, and initiate disciplinary actions. 
Headquarters staff who receive complaints through the agency's Web site 
told us that they routinely send customers a letter of apology, but 
have no one designated within SSA to whom to forward and or resolve 
complaints. Although the Web site has an Intranet-based form ostensibly 
designed to capture complaint information, it does not ask for specific 
information such as the nature of the alleged act of discourtesy and 
the date and time it occurred. By not systematically collecting and 
analyzing information on alleged agent discourtesy, SSA is unable to 
identify service issues that may warrant corrective actions. 

Conclusions: 

SSA's toll-free phone service is an important resource for the 
thousands of people who call the number daily, and the steps the agency 
has taken in recent years demonstrate a commitment to quality service. 
The agency's upgraded telephone system along with its expanded menu 
options and agent-assisted services has improved access in many 
respects by giving customers more services at their convenience. In 
addition, the agency has taken steps to help ensure that callers 
receive more accurate and courteous service. 

Even with good service, however, there is room for improvement. 
Improvements to the 800-number network have not necessarily ensured 
that callers receive the help they seek, given the number of calls not 
reaching an agent. This may not be a mounting problem if callers follow 
the general trend in the call center industry toward automation and 
self-service as they grow more comfortable with these options. However, 
the impending increase in the size of the retiree and disability 
populations, and anticipated changes to the Social Security system 
suggest that SSA may continue to experience a substantial proportion of 
callers who request agent assistance. Measures to improve customer 
access to agents may therefore be needed. In addition, SSA's many 
benefit programs will continue to generate some complex questions that 
require agent assistance. Currently, the prevalence of service accuracy 
errors diminishes the quality of service that callers receive when they 
do reach an agent through the 800 number. Finally, although SSA's 
estimates show instances of agent discourtesy to be rare among all 
calls, such instances could nonetheless affect tens of thousands of 
callers. Because SSA does not routinely capture information on all 
customer complaints about discourtesy, however, it loses the ability to 
assess the severity of the problem and misses opportunities to better 
understand caller needs, solve unanticipated problems, and retain the 
good will of the public. 

Recommendations for Executive Action: 

To improve the quality of the 800-number telephone service, we 
recommend that the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration 
take the following three steps: 

* 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. 

* 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 agents' views on the effectiveness 
of CHIP in helping them meet agency requirements. 

* 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 Comments and Our Evaluation: 

We obtained written comments on a draft of this report from the 
Commissioner of SSA. In its comments, SSA said it was pleased that our 
report reflected the agency's commitment to providing high-quality 800- 
number telephone service that meets the needs and expectations of its 
customers. SSA agreed with our recommendation to identify cost- 
effective ways to increase agent availability to handle 800-number 
calls and described several planned initiatives to improve agent 
productivity and to expand automated services. SSA also agreed with our 
recommendation to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the source of 
agent service errors. Accordingly, SSA said it would convene a 
workgroup to obtain feedback on the source of agent service errors and 
make recommendations as appropriate to improve the agency service 
accuracy level. 

SSA disagreed with our recommendation to establish procedures for 
documenting and assessing customer complaints. SSA said that its 
findings that agent courtesy levels are consistently high demonstrate 
that its present approach to ensuring agent courtesy--which combines 
training, monitoring, and customer surveys--is working. Moreover, SSA 
said that based on its experience with prior initiatives, a nationwide 
reporting system would require heavy resource expenditures and be cost 
prohibitive given current budget constraints. Furthermore, SSA stated 
that any use of agent resources to document complaints would be 
counterproductive to improving caller access to agent services. 

While we agree that agent courtesy levels are high and state this in 
the report, given the sheer volume of 800-number calls SSA receives, 
even relatively small percentages of callers encountering agent 
discourtesy could result in tens of thousands of callers not getting 
the service they deserve. Thus, we believe that SSA can benefit from 
having uniform procedures for documenting and assessing customer 
complaints and have added additional information for further 
clarification. Experts believe that paying attention to customer 
complaints, however minor, and working to quickly resolve them is 
important to building relationships with customers. In addition, having 
information on complaints helps identify recurring problems and 
potential fixes as well as help prevent future occurrences. Under SSA's 
current practices, because the decision to document a complaint lies 
with the individual agent handling the call, customers contacting the 
800 number have no assurance that SSA will review the merits of their 
complaints. Routinely documenting and assessing customer-initiated 
feedback could help the agency identify areas of concern to callers and 
reinforce the agency's commitment to providing quality "citizen 
centered" service. 

While we understand SSA's concerns about resource constraints, we 
maintain that SSA can implement a system to document complaints using 
existing mechanisms, such as its 800-number feedback form and Internet 
form for complaints reported to its 800 number and Web site, 
respectively. As we state in the report, SSA already devotes time and 
staff to the documentation and handling of customer-reported 
complaints; however, such efforts are not done routinely. SSA states 
that its agents provide more efficient service when they keep the 
caller on the phone until the caller's business and all agent actions 
are completed. We believe routinely documenting callers' concerns would 
take no more time than completing callers' other business. Further, the 
information could be collected uniformly in an electronic format that 
would facilitate analysis that could be used to improve service. As 
others have pointed out, a good system for managing complaints should 
be comprehensive, yet simple. Finally, we believe that understanding 
and responding to customer complaints are integral to the delivery of 
quality customer service. 

SSA's comments are reproduced in appendix II. SSA also provided 
technical comments, which we have incorporated in the report as 
appropriate. 

As agreed with your offices, unless you publicly announce its contents 
earlier, we plan no further distribution of this report until 30 days 
after its issue date. At that time, we will send copies of this report 
to the interested congressional committees and the Commissioner of SSA 
and will make copies available to others upon request. In addition, the 
report will be available at no charge on GAO's Web site at http:// 
www.gao.gov. 

If you or your staff have any questions about this report, please 
contact me at (201) 512-7215 or bovbjergb@gao.gov. Contact points for 
our Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found 
on the last page of this report. Key contributors to this report are 
listed in appendix III. 

Signed by: 

Barbara D. Bovbjerg, Director: 
Education, Workforce and Income Security Issues: 

[End of section]

Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and Methodology: 

The objectives of this study were to evaluate SSA's actions for 
ensuring callers have ready access to 800-number services and receive 
accurate and courteous service from agents. To do this, we reviewed 
published works that included the National Performance Review 
benchmarking reports to identify industry benchmarks in areas key to 
our work and issues surrounding call center services.[Footnote 16] We 
also reviewed GAO and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reports 
and SSA annual performance plans to identify what is currently known 
about SSA telephone service operations. To evaluate the quality of the 
800-number service, we compared telephone system performance data 
compiled by a contractor for SSA and SSA's Office of Quality Assurance 
and Performance Assessment (OQA) assessments of agent accuracy and 
courtesy to SSA's established standards and, where applicable, to 
industry benchmarks. We used performance data from OQA's monitoring of 
agents for fiscal years 1998 through 2003 and from OQA's 800-number 
customer satisfaction surveys conducted fiscal years 2001 through 2003. 
We reviewed OQA's management reports for these activities. 

To develop information on the actions SSA takes at the headquarters 
level to ensure quality 800-number telephone service, we reviewed 
documents related to (1) SSA's forecasts of call volumes and projected 
staffing levels for auxiliary agents; (2) services offered using the 
automated menu; (3) vendor-contracted services for the 800-number 
telephone systems hardware, software, and performance data; and (4) 
requirements for training agents, monitoring agent performance, and 
agent courtesy to callers. We interviewed officials in the Office of 
Telephone Services to obtain an understanding of the general operation 
of the 800-number telephone system including the routing of calls; the 
compilation of performance data; and SSA's actions to monitor the 
performance of the 800-number system and of the vendor. We also 
interviewed OQA officials to obtain more detailed information on 
procedures for monitoring agents and surveying 800-number callers. In 
addition, we reviewed some complaints reported by the public over the 
agency's Web site and interviewed officials in the SSA's Center for 
Program Support to discuss practices for handling complaints. 

We visited six call centers to observe the 800-number service 
operations at the regional and call center levels. At the locations 
visited, we observed officials monitoring their centers' call traffic 
and agent availability in real time, officials monitoring agents 
handling live calls, and agents handling live calls from customers. We 
reviewed documentation call center officials provided on agent 
training, monitoring of agents, agent-related complaints received, and 
disciplinary actions taken against agents. We interviewed regional and 
call center officials having line-management, supervisory, floor 
support, monitoring, and call-handling responsibilities to obtain 
information on call center operations and their experiences in 
providing telephone services and serving the public. The call centers 
we selected varied in the frequency and volume of calls they handled-- 
three handled calls routinely and three on a back-up basis--and are not 
representative of call centers SSA-wide. 

To assess caller access and the reliability of the 800 number, we 
interviewed SSA officials and contacted selected vendor staff to obtain 
documents and data on the 800-number management and operations. SSA 
uses the management data and information supplied by the vendor to 
track all calls and transactions on the network, including data on 
overall incoming calls and information on automation and to determine 
whether calls were routed to an SSA call center or to a busy message. 
The vendor's reporting system has internal alarms running on each 
server and an application that periodically checks each server's vital 
functions, capacity, and environmental operating conditions against a 
predetermined set of normal operational conditions. Upon receipt, SSA 
runs the vendor-supplied data through a multistep automated procedure 
that backs up the data, creates data storage files, extracts data to be 
stored in other datasets, and recreates the data in a readable format. 
As part of this process, SSA checks each record to ensure that all area 
codes are good, all phone numbers are properly formatted, and all 
answering telephones originate in the 800-number network. The vendor 
also generates separate reports on automated services and agents. SSA 
reviews the reports and compares the results with historical trends. 
Although SSA has no additional means of verifying the reliability of 
the vendor-provided data or the results that appear in report field 
outputs, both SSA and the vendor maintain that these data are accurate 
and the vendor states that SSA has the source data it needs to assess 
network performance. We reviewed SSA performance data related to access 
and determined the data to be sufficiently reliable for the purposes of 
this report. 

To assess the reliability of OQA's monitoring assessments of agents' 
performance, we examined data reliability issues identified in an OIG 
report and interviewed OQA officials knowledgeable about the monitoring 
process and resulting data. In addition, we reviewed documentation and 
training materials, including monitoring instructions, evaluation data 
entry forms and desk aids, corrective action and evaluation feedback 
forms, and information regarding the statistical sampling of calls. In 
evaluating OQA's sampling and weighting methodology, we determined that 
OQA's methodology for monitoring agents' payment and service accuracy 
appears to adequately represent the population of telephone calls. 
Approximate confidence intervals were produced by OQA using standard 
formulas for proportions based on a simple random sample. As OIG 
previously reported, [Footnote 17] we also found that decisions 
regarding payment accuracy and service accuracy continue to be 
unverifiable because SSA does not maintain documentation of all 
monitored calls. We determined that the data were sufficiently reliable 
for our purposes, given these limitations. 

To assess the reliability of the survey of 800-number callers, we 
interviewed OQA officials about the survey and resulting data and 
reviewed documentation on the survey methodology, sampling, response 
rates, and sampling variability. We also reviewed a report contracted 
by the OIG regarding this measurement of customer 
satisfaction.[Footnote 18] This report concluded that the 800-number 
caller survey produced a reliable measurement of callers' views of 
agent courtesy for the period measured, but that because the survey was 
administered only twice a year, it was unlikely that the survey results 
matched the true customer satisfaction across the entire year. Because 
the survey was recently limited to being conducted during a single 4- 
week period in March, we found that the survey results continue to be 
unrepresentative of callers' responses throughout the year. We believe 
that seasonal events could affect customer satisfaction in different 
ways throughout the year. The survey response rate during the period 
2001 through 2004, ranged from 53 percent to 71 percent. Although 
response rates within these ranges are not unexpected for this kind of 
telephone survey, it should be noted that as the response rate 
decreases, the certainty that the survey results represent the universe 
decreases. We determined that the survey data are sufficiently reliable 
for providing a general indication of customer satisfaction, for the 
specified periods of administration. 

We conducted our work at SSA headquarters, Baltimore, Maryland; at 
regional offices in Birmingham, Alabama; Kansas City, Missouri; and 
Richmond, California; and at two call centers in each region. We 
conducted our work from September 2004 through July 2005 in accordance 
with generally accepted government auditing standards. 

[End of section]

Appendix II: Comments from the Social Security Administration: 

SOCIAL SECURITY: 
The Commissioner:

July 22, 2005:

Ms. Barbara Bovbjerg:
Director, Education, Workforce and Income: 
Security Issues:
U. S. Government Accountability Office: 
441 G Street NW:
Room 5968:
Washington, D.C. 20548:

Dear Ms. Bovbjerg:

Thank you for the opportunity to review and comment on the draft 
report, "Social Security Administration: Additional Actions Needed in 
Ongoing Efforts to Improve 800-Number Service" (GAO-05-735).

Our response and technical comments to the draft report are enclosed. 
If your staff has questions about the comments, they may contact 
Candace Skurnik, Director, Audit Management and Liaison Staff, at (410) 
965-4636.

Sincerely,

Signed by: 

Jo Anne B. Barnhart:

Enclosure:

Appendix II: Comments from the Social Security Administration:

COMMENTS ON THE GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY OFFICE (GAO) DRAFT REPORT, 
"SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION: ADDITIONAL ACTIONS NEEDED IN ONGOING 
EFFORTS TO IMPROVE 800-NUMBER SERVICE" GAO-05-735:

We appreciate the opportunity to comment on the draft report. In 
general, we find the report to be thorough and comprehensive. We are 
pleased that GAO has recognized our commitment to providing high- 
quality National 800 Number Network (N8NN) service that meets the needs 
and expectations of our beneficiary population and the American public. 
We are proud that we have consistently met annual N8NN access 
performance goals.

Additionally, we are pleased GAO recognized that the Agency has: 1) 
Expanded its automated and agent-assisted call service accessible 
through the MINN; 2) upgraded its telephone systems, management and 
service to enhance its ability to monitor and manage call traffic, 
agent availability and network operations; 3) adopted the telephone 
industry "best practice" of taking care of all the caller's business 
during the initial contact; and 4) taken steps to help agents provide 
callers with accurate information (i.e., providing comprehensive 
training and on-the-job resources such as a customized computer 
application program).

Our responses to the specific recommendations and our technical 
comments are provided below.

Recommendation 1:

Identify cost-effective ways that will help ensure that more calls 
seeking Agency 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.

Comment:

We agree. We acknowledge that callers continue to show a strong 
preference for agent assistance. Therefore, we have focused on 
enhancements that improve agent productivity and expand our automated 
services. Both types of enhancements increase the number of agents 
available to assist callers seeking agent service and increase caller 
convenience.

To make improvements in agent availability and productivity, we are 
implementing a Screen Pop feature by the end of December 2005 for our 
agents that will make use of computer telephone integration. After the 
caller has been prompted to provide us with his/her Social Security 
number (SSN), Screen Pop will deliver the caller information screen, 
populated with the caller's data, to the answering agent's desktop 
simultaneous with the receipt of the voice call. Eliminating the need 
for the agent to ask, enter and query our data system with the caller's 
SSN is expected to save about 10 seconds per call. In addition, we have 
formed a workgroup, the Teleservice Center (TSC) Steering Committee, 
consisting of regional representatives tasked with developing 
recommendations to ensure consistent agent coverage throughout each 
day. The TSC Steering Committee is expected to complete development of 
its recommendations by November 2005.

We also plan to conduct a pilot with call-back services. The Schedule 
Voice Callback (SVC) service will provide callers with the option of 
scheduling a callback from SSA in lieu of waiting in queue to speak 
with an agent. Equipment within the N8NN network places a call to the 
individual during the selected time slot and connects him/her to one of 
our agents. Our expectation is that SVC, when fully implemented, will 
move calls from the peak calling times to times when agent queues are 
shorter or nonexistent. This will improve customer access and make more 
efficient use of our staffing resources. An implementation date for the 
pilot has not yet been determined.

Regarding enhancements to our automated services, we plan to implement, 
by October 2005, the ability to offer two speech enabled options to 
callers who desire to change their address/telephone number or sign up 
for direct deposit (or make changes to their direct deposit bank 
accounts) without the need to speak with an agent. We also plan to 
redesign our main menu to allow callers to simply speak their needs in 
response to directed questions rather than use the telephone keypad (a 
simple "yes/no" response) to navigate to the desired service. By 
December 2005, this speech enabled main menu will he available to 
approximately 55 percent of our callers with full implementation by the 
end of fiscal year (FY) 2006. We believe these two enhancements will 
further increase the number of callers using our automated services and 
thus, increase the availability of our agents.

Currently, many requests for forms and publications are processed 
through the Public Information Request System (PIRS). PIRS allows the 
agent to select the type/number of forms/publications, key in address 
information and have the requests automatically filled by an outside 
vendor. This system eliminates most of the manual tasks that are 
involved in mailing forms/publications from N8NN. We are constantly 
updating the list of forms/pamphlets available for automated mailing, 
allowing more agent availability to answer calls. While it may be 
necessary for an agent to occasionally mail documents (forms, 
printouts, etc.) to the caller, we believe more efficient service is 
provided when the caller remains on the telephone until all agent 
actions related to the call are completed. This ensures that the caller 
receives the service requested at the time of the call and eliminates 
time that might be wasted in conducting after-call wrap up activities. 
While a few of these tasks are manual in nature (e.g.. appeals forms), 
handing off some of the tasks would not be cost-effective since it 
would require double handling of the workload (i.e., more than one 
employee required to complete the action) and require additional 
resources.

Finally, we will continue to develop ways to expand self-help options 
in our automated services and on our Internet site, thus further 
increasing the availability of our agents.

Recommendation 2:

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 Customer Help Information Program (CHIP) in helping them meet Agency 
requirements.

Comment:

We agree. We know that non-compliance with access/disclosure 
requirements by our agents accounts for the majority of the service 
errors and that improvement in this area would significantly improve 
the service accuracy level. We have observed that agents who routinely 
use CHIP and available desk-aids have much higher service accuracy 
levels.

We plan to convene an intercomponent workgroup to address improvements 
needed to meet out service accuracy level. This workgroup will be 
tasked to conduct agent focus groups to obtain feedback on the nature/ 
source of our major service errors, in particular, non-compliance with 
access/disclosure. These focus groups will also provide insight on why 
agents fail to comply with the access/disclosure requirements and why 
they fail to fully utilize CHIP. The workgroup will also examine making 
recommendations for changes to our access/disclosure policy and the 
possibility of making recommendations for technical changes (e.g., 
adding a CHIP "check-off' screen for the access/disclosure questions; 
adding a message to callers in agent queue that they will be asked 
several questions about their personal identity). A start-up date for 
the workgroup has not yet been determined.

In October 2006, we plan to implement a Screen Splash feature. This 
feature will allow us to collect personal identifying information from 
callers while they are waiting in a queue for agents. The collected 
information will be presented to the agent's desktop via a pop-up 
screen reflecting which information was verified or not verified 
against our records. We expect this feature to save up to 30 seconds 
per call, improve agent availability and improve service accuracy.

Recommendation 3:

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 means to identify and address service issues.

Comment:

We disagree. As noted in the report, SSA's service monitoring and 
customer satisfaction survey's have consistently shown a high level of 
courteous service. We do not believe a formal complaint system is 
necessary or worth the intensive resources that would be required. We 
place a high value on the courtesy of our service, and believe that our 
current approach combining training, call monitoring and customer 
survey's is the best way to ensure courteous service. 

SSA previously piloted a Talking and Listening to Customer (TLC) 
initiative that was designed to gather and maintain records on customer 
comments and complaints. This initiative was abandoned due to heavy 
resource requirements. Likewise, a pilot to mandate the input and 
maintenance of a system for Customer Comment Cards used in our field 
offices was also determined to be too labor intensive. Accordingly, we 
decided that the benefit to the Agency was not proportionate to the 
resource investment.

Despite the potential benefit of having a formal, consistent and 
uniform process, we do not believe the Agency can devote, within 
current budget constraints, the resources required to plan, design, 
test and implement, then collect, analyze, distribute and dispose of 
courtesy complaints via a structured nationwide system. We believe 
requiring N8NN agents to register complaints received during N8NN calls 
would considerably lengthen the call. This would reduce the number of 
agents available and be counterproductive to our efforts to improve 
access to callers desiring agent assistance.

We also question the benefits to be gained by adopting a formal 
complaint process to assess courtesy. Many service complaints are often 
vague or invalid (i.e., the citizen didn't "like" the answer we 
provided). We believe that current and any additional resources that 
become available would be more cost-effectively used in conducting 
increased service observations at the local answering site level. Not 
only would this provide more valid site-specific data and indicate 
persistent patterns/trends, it would also permit quicker feedback and 
corrective actions, such as additional focused training. As noted 
above, our prior TLC pilot was not productive and we believe that 
future attempts would yield similar results.

[End of section]

Appendix III: GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments: 

GAO Contact: 

Barbara D. Bovbjerg, Director (202) 512-7215: 

Staff Acknowledgments: 

The following individuals made important contributions to this report: 
Shelia Drake, Assistant Director, Jacquelyn Stewart, Analyst-in- 
Charge, Susan Bernstein, Michelle Fejfar, Jonathan McMurray, and Roger 
Thomas. 

FOOTNOTES

[1] First established in 1988, SSA's 800-number service was initially 
available to 60 percent of the population. SSA expanded the service to 
all callers nationwide in 1989. 

[2] GAO, Social Security Administration: More Cost-Effective Approaches 
Exist to Further Improve 800-Number Service, GAO/HEHS-97-79 
(Washington, D.C.: June 1997). 

[3] Two components within SSA's Office of Central Operations also 
answer 800-number calls. SSA's Wilkes Barre Data Operations Center in 
Pennsylvania has approximately 266 agents trained to answer calls. In 
addition, SSA's Division of Earnings Record Operations in Baltimore, 
Maryland, has 198 agents trained to answer 800-number calls. 

[4] The terms full-time and back-up agents are used to describe SSA 
employees who handle 800-number telephone calls as their primary and 
secondary responsibility, respectively. 

[5] Guidance for SSA's programs include, the Teleservice Center 
Operating Guide (guidance for answering general inquiries and 
processing events callers report), the Program Operations Manual System 
(instructions for developing actions for input), the Modernized Systems 
Operations Manual (instructions for entering transactions into SSA's 
computer system), the Social Security Handbook (explains SSA's 
programs, health insurance, and related programs), and the Medicare 
Handbook (explains how Medicare program services are provided and 
payments made). 

[6] SSA's practices for monitoring agents are subject to a memorandum 
of understanding with the American Federation of Government Employees. 

[7] The purpose of monitoring individual agents is to assess an agent's 
performance and provide feedback without creating a punitive 
environment. 

[8] The national American Federation of Government Employees agreement 
allows SSA to monitor all full-time agents individually but requires 
SSA to bargain with local unions to similarly monitor backup agents. 

[9] In fiscal year 2003, SSA discontinued externally reporting 
performance for meeting the goals it set for payment accuracy and 
service accuracy. However, the agency has indicated that it remains 
committed to agents delivering an acceptable level of service. SSA 
officials told us that the agency continues to use the performance 
goals internally. 

[10] Given that OQA estimated the sampling error for fiscal year 2003 
could have been as large as ±4.4 percent, only the four regions for 
which OQA reported service accuracy rates of at least 85.6 percent may 
have met the 90 percent service accuracy target. 

[11] SSA does not consider the ability to provide all the required 
identifiers to be proof of callers' identity. Similarly, the agency 
does not consider the failure to provide required identifiers as 
conclusive evidence that callers are not who they allege. 

[12] OQA defines courtesy as a reflection of whether agents treated 
callers in accordance with generally accepted standards. Other SSA 
guidance provides examples of unacceptable agent conduct, including 
hanging up on callers without cause, using profanity, yelling at 
callers, exhibiting rudeness or impatience with callers, using 
inappropriate tone, and putting callers on hold unnecessarily. 

[13] OQA observed six calls of discourteous service that they said 
represented a population of nearly 60,000 calls. 

[14] A study contracted by the Office of the Inspector General reported 
that SSA's customer satisfaction survey provided a reliable statistical 
representation of caller's views for the period measured. However, 
because SSA limits the survey to being conducted during a designated 
period--most recently a 4-week period in March--the survey may be an 
inadequate representation of customers' views year round. Further, the 
sampling variability for responses to this question would be ±2 percent 
or less at the 95 percent confidence level. SSA's response rate during 
the period 2001 through 2004, ranged from 53 to 71 percent. Although 
response rates within these ranges are not unexpected for this kind of 
telephone survey, it should be noted that as the response rate 
decreases, the certainty that survey results represent the universe of 
800-number callers decreases. 

[15] Richard D. Young, Customer Driven Focus and Excellence in the 
Public Sector (Columbia, S.C.: Institute for Public Service and Policy 
Research, University of South Carolina, 2002). 

[16] National Performance Review, "Serving the American Public: Best 
Practices in Telephone Service," National Performance Review 
Benchmarking Study Report (Washington, D.C.: 1995). 

[17] Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General, 
Management Advisory Report: Performance Measure Survey of the Percent 
of 800-Number Calls Handled Accurately, OIG-A-08-01-11024 (Washington, 
D.C., August 2001). 

[18] Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General, 
Performance Indicator Audit: Customer Satisfaction, OIG A-02-02-11082 
(Washington, D.C.: February 2003). 

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