Start Small, Win Big With Service Transformation in Government

The Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS) tackled a customer service dilemma that had reached critical mass by implementing a new customer service management (CSM) solution, and came out of the ordeal with lower customer wait times, a renewed and energized staff, and a demonstrably strong value proposition to satisfy the bottom-line demands of the state’s Federal funders and support a statewide service rollout.

Those sentiments came from Landon Cook, Director of Customer Service at Tennessee DHS, who spoke at ServiceNow’s Knowledge 18 Conference May 9 on how the enterprise cloud provider’s CSM product offering helped turn around a department approaching a near-catastrophic service backup.

DHS’s success shows that service transformation can start with small segments–within a department, within an agency–and that those successes can be translated to other areas. Start small, establish success, and you could win the approval necessary to fund even bigger service initiatives.

DHS provides social services, including work placement and employment readiness training, disability assistance, and a number of other service-oriented initiatives to the broader citizen community in Tennessee.

To say the scope of their impact is small would be a misstatement. But DHS aimed to improve one discrete organizational problem with the new product: customer service inquiries.

Around the end of 2015, Cook said, a confluence of factors–including early retirement of a significant percentage of staff due to an employee retirement buyout, followed by an agency-wide hiring freeze, and economic downturns for the population served–led to a significant uptick in customer service traffic to the department. Subsequently, peak wait times for DHS customers soared “almost overnight,” he said.

“The need began to grow from our customer base and we had no capacity to react to it,” Cook said.

Wait times grew to more than two hours over the phone, and an hour at the in-person lobby. “I remember hearing reports of up to three or four hours, someone sitting there,” Cook said. Email inquiries, on average, took 36 hours to simply be assigned to a representative. Complaints increased dramatically as did the number of escalated calls.

“Our staff were getting just drained by this,” Cook said. “Imagine seven and a half hours a day, sometimes more, every call you take starts off with having to explain why someone was waiting for two hours. That’s only further delaying service, and that’s a soul-crushing thing to experience.”

Overwhelming demand was impacting staff in many other ways as well. Lacking an appropriate platform to handle service requests, Cook said the department had a staff member whose “entire job” involved dragging inbound and outbound requests from one Outlook folder to another.

Cook said the staff were doing great procedural work with the tools they were given, but those tools were simply a woeful resource.

DHS partnered with the Office for Customer Focused Government and Strategic Technology Solutions to find a solution. The Office for Customer Focused Government was established in 2011 to address Governor Haslam’s priority to provide “the best possible service at the lowest possible cost.” Strategic Technology Solutions is effectively the state of Tennessee’s IT Department.

The team selected ServiceNow’s CSM product to deliver the CSM solution for the State. DHS then implemented the ServiceNow CSM product as the pilot organization for ServiceNow in the state of Tennessee.

Workflow management was the biggest benefit, Cook said, as employees were now able to see who was responsible at each step of the process. Surfacing action items for escalated cases and linking related cases and items were all new features that trumped the disjointed workflows and piecemeal spreadsheet management that had dominated the department.

Our drag-and-drop friend? Quite happy to have found better use of his time. The 36-hour assignment time for inquiries was down to eight minutes within a couple of months, Cook said. “I checked last Friday and we’re down to 100 seconds,” he said.

“I checked last week for untimely inquiries,” he also said, referring to the time the department guarantees for service assignment. “I haven’t seen one since March.”

The journey was not without trials. Cook said two years of bureaucratic back-and-forth preceded the decision to go live. For some stakeholders, customer service can take a backseat to the fiscal foreground.

“We are 93 percent Federally-funded. The people we have to satisfy first come from the Federal government,” Cook said. “We had to present this as a financial solution.”

To do this, Cook estimated the cost associated with hold times for the roughly 70,000 calls the department received annually. The cost savings in that aspect alone proved compelling, particularly since the expense was associated with the delay of services, and did not even factor the savings boost to delivery of services – the mission of Tennessee DHS.

Cutting escalated-inquiry resolution times by more than half, as the CSM product did, seemed almost incontrovertible evidence of success. Increased data analytics are forthcoming, Cook said, but the simple reduction in man-hours appears evident.

These gains have substantiated implementation efforts for a statewide rollout, and plans are underway to expand the ServiceNow solution to Tennessee’s Department of General Services and Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Moreover, people want to get their hands on the product, Cook said. Employees are requesting training. Customer reviews are now littered with superlatives, rather than expletives. And perhaps the biggest benefit has been realigning DHS’s altruistic arbiters of citizen stewardship with the mission of the department.

“Our staff didn’t join DHS to do data entry,” Cook said. “They came here to serve customers.”

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