The SSA Benefits From Advanced IP Telephony

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2015-09-17 Email Print this article Print
IP Telephony Benefits

The Social Security Administration modernized its telecom system to improve performance, enhance customer service, trim costs and reduce administrative overhead.

Operating an agency such as the Social Security Administration (SSA) presents a number of challenges. Somewhere between collecting and managing contributions and paying out benefits is the onerous task of assisting citizens who have questions and problems.

The federal agency receives an average of 400,000 calls each day, and peak periods can run much higher. What's more, as Baby Boomers hit retirement at nearly 1,000 per day, the need for efficiency is paramount.

SSA previously relied on a conventional PBX phone framework. However, each of the agency's 1,200 field offices relied on different telephony systems and providers. In many cases, the equipment was 15 or 20 years old and didn't operate efficiently.

"Almost all the products were nearing the end of their life, and finding replacement parts was an increasingly difficult task," acknowledged Todd Markulik, the SSA's contracting officer's technical representative (COTR). "The situation was unsustainable."

In 2007, the agency turned to Avaya to provide a unified IP framework for Voice over IP (VoIP). As a result, SSA was able to consolidate systems and achieve better performance at a lower cost—all while providing faster and better service to callers.

"Previously, we had somewhere between 20 and 45 analog lines from a local phone company, and we were being charged $35 to $40 a month per line," Markulik says. "The move to VoIP eliminated all but eight of those lines."

Continually Upgrading the Telephony Network

Avaya manages the telephony network from service point to delivery, and it continually upgrades and updates the technology.

"This approach introduced enormous efficiencies from a management and cost standpoint," he explains. In fact, the resulting cost reduction has ranged from 30 to 50 percent, depending on the office, while also reducing administrative and IT overhead.

Equally important, the telephony network provides redundancies that help the agency support contact centers in four regions of the United States. "If one location goes down, we have the bandwidth and technology to switch over to another immediately," Markulik reports. As a result, the agency managed to get through Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and last year's severe blizzards in the Northeast without incident.

It's also possible to address problems quickly and get an office up and running again without delay. "In the past, an older office might go down for a week or two," he says. "It's now possible to avoid those problems."

The failover typically takes less than 20 minutes, and callers are not disconnected if a regional office goes down. That feature has kicked in four times since 2008, he notes.

The agency has also been able to put data to better use. The VoIP phones offer advanced features, and the agency now has access to more sophisticated reporting and analytics. The system also allows the agency to use skills-based routing and can send calls to a bilingual agent, when necessary.

Markulik says that the SSA is now looking to expand telework and VoIP capabilities—including the use of soft phones—in order to deliver additional benefits, including an ability to plug in from remote locations or a home office.

"We are well-positioned for the future," he explains.

Samuel Greengard writes about business and technology for Baseline, CIO Insight and other publications. His most recent book is The Internet of Things (MIT Press, 2015).

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