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10997 - Case Study: The Social Security Administration Call Center

by - Joseph Ganci

Chances are that in the last few months you have had to place a phone call to a government agency, a credit card firm, or a utility company. If so, you are not alone. Every day, tens of thousands of people dial phone numbers hoping and praying that they will reach someone who will be able to help them.

That someone they reach is typically sitting in a cubicle behind a desk with a telephone head set and a computer mouse in her hand, in a call center manned by anywhere from a dozen to thousands of personnel. The computer probably contains useful information about you, such as your current balance or your projected date of retirement. This is an important tool the call center operator uses to not waste your time or hers.

Let's see how this might work. Let's say you've decided it's high time your credit card company raise your credit limit. You place a call to the number on your statement and you hear an automated message that directs you to hit the number four to talk to a customer service representative. At that point, you may be told that there is a five minute wait due to a high volume of calls and are asked to punch in your credit card number on your phone.

By the time the credit card representative comes on the phone, his computer will already have displayed on its screen any important information about you. This allows the operator to get right to business after greeting you. You tell him that you've been a loyal customer for years and you would like to have your credit limit raised. One or two clicks of the mouse later, and the call center operator can see that you have a very clean record, with only one late payment in the last four years. You are told that your credit history is excellent and the operator proceeds to the next step. Depending on the policy of the firm, he may be able to raise your limit on the spot or may tell you that your request has been forwarded and that you will be receiving a response in the mail within ten days. You give thanks, knowing that now you can afford that trip you've always wanted on the first commercial space shuttle.

Of course, your call to the credit card company may be much more high strung, especially if you've just found fourteen unauthorized charges on your bill. In a case like that, the call center operator must be more than just a fountain of information. She must also be able to deal with your emotions, whether they be anger, fear, or worry. Dealing with your emotions does not mean she should take on a therapist role 'this would not be fair neither to you nor to her. Instead, she needs to be able to wade through the emotions, sympathetic without getting emotional herself, while ensuring that she understands your concern and is able to address it.

This is even truer for call center operators in an agency like the Social Security Administration (SSA). Every day, thousands of calls are placed to SSA call center operators around the country. Many of these calls come from those who have just lost a spouse to death, or who are not relishing the thought of retirement after a thriving career. SSA personnel need to be especially well trained in knowing how to help people whose emotional state may not be at its best.

The SSA turned to Interactive Media Corp. to create a CD-ROM application that would help the Administration. s call center operators, called Direct Contact Employees (DCEs), learn how to best help those who are calling for answers or help. It was decided that there were five areas that needed to be addressed, listed as the five C's:

  • Confidence, in which DCEs are taught that showing confidence instills trust in callers,
  • Control, in which DCEs are told how to balance taking care of business with listening to the caller,
  • Communicate, showing DCEs how to best adapt their pace, tone, volume and vocabulary to each caller, among other skills,
  • Candor, which teaches that giving the full truth on a matter is best, even when a caller is exhibiting anger, sadness, or worry,
  • Complete, which instructs DCEs that making sure the caller has obtained all the information he needs helps to avoid callbacks and caller frustration.

Each of the five topics begins with one or more introductory screens. For instance, the Communicate section is subdivided into five areas that speak to the subject:


After the introduction to the section, the student sees a motion video clip of a DCE talking with a caller. The DCE makes several mistakes along the way. For example, the DCE here is shown interrupting the caller more than once because she is frustrated with his lethargic pace.

Whenever the caller is not exhibiting proper behavior, it is considered a missed opportunity to be of best service to the caller. The student is instructed ahead of time to click the video when a missed opportunity arises. Every time the student clicks the screen during a missed opportunity, he is awarded a point. If the student clicks the screen during a moment that is not a missed opportunity or if the student fails to click the screen when a missed opportunity is presented, a point is subtracted.

The student has the ability to pause, rewind, or fast forward the video to repeat passages as many times as desired.

Following the video of the DCE missing opportunities with the caller, the students are shown a second video of the same DCE speaking with the same caller in which all moments of opportunity are addressed. This gives students the proper positive role model needed after seeing the results of what can happen when a DCE is not exhibiting proper behavior.

While the above sections have proven very instructive in helping students, it should be noted that both the DCEs and the callers represented in the video are hired actors. To add realism to the application, a series of short video clips were taped, in which actual DCEs speak to their day-to-day experiences regarding specific topics. These clips are inserted as "tips" throughout the application and are also collected together on the following screen. Clicking on a DCE lets you see the video clip for that person.

This application has proven very popular with employees of SSA. It is a showpiece both for SSA as well as Interactive Media Corp. At the Interactive '97 Conference, Brandon Hall awarded the gold medal to this project.

Joe Ganci can be reached at 703-858-0808 or

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