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Digital innovations have brought a renewed focus on improving the customer experience across the federal government. Leaders at agencies like the General Services Administration, Veterans Affairs, Federal Student Aid and the Social Security Administration have dedicated new resources to improving the customer or citizen journey® by launching online engagement channels that include mobile apps, web chat and redesigned websites that feature multichannel integration and artificial intelligence technologies to help citizens access information and resolve issues more quickly.

These advances are changing the ways citizens interact with their government, but it’s important to remember that the customer experience is about more than just the latest technology tools. At its core, government services are focused on meeting the needs of its citizens. So, even as the government’s technical capabilities to deliver these services advances and citizens are offered better, more robust options for self-service, it is imperative to offer the ability to speak with an empathetic person that can help determine how to best address their need. In fact, we’ve found in our own contact centers that close to two-thirds of citizens want to speak with a live agent when they have a difficult or complex issue. And, sometimes they just feel their problem simply requires more than an app or a website to resolve it. This is why it’s even more important to ensure that both digital, self-service options and live agents are components of the customer experience – and ensuring seamless hand-offs between them is critical.

The essential role that human interaction plays in the customer experience is never clearer than during times of crisis, such as a natural disaster. From hurricanes and floods to wildfires and tornadoes, millions of people across the country have been impacted just this year, with many in need of food, shelter, employment and medical care – and they’re looking to their government for help. When this happens, technology solutions can absolutely expedite their ability to get answers, but there are times when the issues are too complex, too emotional or too numerous to be handled through self-service channels, which is why it’s necessary to have both available. It’s also extremely important that the transitions between the self-service tools and live agents are smooth and seamless. In these times of crisis, it’s both unnecessary and time consuming to make the citizen start over with a live agent because they didn’t find what they needed with the self-service tool. The live agent must be able to pick up the process from where the citizen left off and help them work towards an expedient resolution.

In times of crisis a citizens’ ability to access self-service technology may be restricted due to a lack of power or phone lines, or they may be displaced without access to a computer, or any other number of unforeseen and traumatic circumstances. This means that their ability to speak with a person over the phone might be their only path to emergency resources or could even be their lifeline. And, even when all technology tools are available, sometimes they just need a personal connection from someone who can understand their situation and help them prioritize their needs.

These are situations when speaking with a human can both help comfort and assist in getting the services they desperately need and the reassurances they are seeking.

Today’s government contact centers help millions of citizens in their times of need – whether it's assisting disaster survivors with filing claims or meeting a deadline for Medicare, tax season or student aid enrollment. Research has shown that citizens are increasingly engaging with government agencies via digital channels, which provides expedience to them and efficiency for the agency. However, for the others, it has also shown that almost 60-percent would rather pick up the phone to speak with someone because they feel their issue is too complex to be resolved through an automated contact center or self-service function. Some of this is due to their previous negative experiences with immature IVR technology that was incapable of serving them effectively, but other times they just simply want a person to assist them. These are the times when technology serves as the support mechanism and a person must take the lead.

Innovative technology is incredibly valuable and can truly expedite citizen interactions and the efficiency of service delivery. But, we can’t forget the human element and that technology must be augmented by human engagement, and it is critical that government provide a path and the ability to speak with a person. After all, citizens may say they want an Apple experience from their government, but in the end they are not just buying or getting service on a mobile phone – they are handling critical life events. We must remember that government serves the people, and since people are unique, offering both effective self-service tools and the ability to get help from a person are important in implementing a multichannel approach to service delivery that ultimately delivers a positive customer experience.