Paratransit Call Center Case Study
How GCS Turned an Ailing Paratransit Call Center into a Platform for P3 Best Practices
It’s no secret that public-private partnerships (P3) can result in game changing performances. These allegiances build our cities and towns, create and extend vital services to the citizenry, and benefit society in uncountable ways. Private sector support can mean the difference between great ideas that die on the table for lack of funding, expertise and execution – and innovations that change the way we live because the right resources, guidance and actions have come together. P3s aren’t privatized projects; while responsibilities are shared, the public agency is still the project’s owner.
The P3 Paratransit Connection
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements for paratransit programs were developed to create equal access to public transportation for persons with disabilities. There’s a common misconception that paratransit is a generalized service for the elderly; in fact, eligibility criteria generally excludes people over 65 who seek out paratransit as an alternative to driving. While the effects of aging may result in disability, aging is not a disability. AARP research indicates that rising demand for paratransit is growing as human services agencies have cut funding for complementary paratransit offerings.1
According to the American Public Transit Association (APTA), paratransit riders represent less than 2% of all transit riders combined, but the service itself makes up approximately 13.7% of transit agencies.2
These specialized services consume operating budgets with ease; transit authorities in major cities pay an average of $34 per paratransit trip.3 APTA also projects that in less than 15 years the cost of providing these essential services will reach $2.9 billion annually.4
P3s are particularly popular in public transit. A 2012 National League of Cities report noted, “Partnering with the private sector brings a specialized management capacity for transportation projects, including access to private sector expertise in the financing of a project, and private sector knowledge of new technological innovations can also help create better transportation initiatives. Outcomes of this kind of expertise include project cost savings and improved quality and system performance from the use of innovative materials and management techniques.”5
According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning analysis of the National Transit Database, in 2009 52% of public transit systems surveyed outsourced some aspect of their services. Two service categories represented the majority of the outsourced work: bus service and demand-responsive transit (paratransit) – with public agencies spending an estimated $1.75 billion on paratransit contracts alone.6
The National Council for Public-Private Partnerships (NCPPP) offers these seven essential components of effective P3s:
1) A public sector champion: the right advocates can help bridge the gap between public perception of a project and its realities.
2) A transparent and competitive proposal process.
3) A dedicated public sector team that stays connected to the project from the idea stage through planning, realization, execution and results.
4) A detailed contract and business plan.
5) A clearly defined revenue stream with an acceptable ROI throughout the partnership.
6) Strong external and internal stakeholder support.
… and we’ll let the NCPPP describe the last critical key for P3 success in their own words:
7) Pick your partner carefully: “The “best value” (not always lowest price) in a partnership is critical in maintaining the long-term relationship that is central to a successful partnership. A candidate’s experience in the specific area of partnerships being considered is an important factor in identifying the right partner. Equally, the financial capacity of the private partner should be considered in the final selection process.” 7
GCS: The Best Value Partner
Faced with rising costs and plummeting customer satisfaction, a large urban public transportation authority’s outsourced paratransit customer service program was on the verge of implosion. For the vendor, whose contact center programs were an auxiliary service and not their core competency, handling roughly 750,000 inbound calls each month was straining their weak infrastructure. Low employee morale was killing productivity, which manifested in unacceptable call wait times, avoidable errors, and abysmal service. Early morning long queues were typical; riders feared not getting reservations if they waited until later in the day to call.
The vendor’s contracted service level of 95% had slipped dangerously, and the transit agency’s leadership team - failing to strike a balance between managing costs and delivering good service - realized that their mandate to serve the public wasn’t being met, and it was time for an intervention.
Managing a 24/7 operation with an inbound call volume of three-quarters of a million monthly calls clearly required a managed service provider whose expertise was call center design, operations and management. In addition to assessing the correct number of local agents needed to handle call volume, the provider would be responsible for hiring, training and managing them, establishing effective workflows, creating disciplined processes, choosing and integrating appropriate technologies and systems, and meeting the agency’s strict budget requirements and timelines. Nothing less than a complete turnaround and consistently meeting a 95% service level would be acceptable. The transit authority sent out a call for proposals with an ambitious 90-day handoff schedule.
Global Contact Services’ winning proposal centered on a thoughtful, no-nonsense approach to replacing an unproductive model and toxic culture. Offering a combination of innovative partnering, on-boarding techniques, flexible staffing, proven processes and best-fit technologies, GCS pledged to deliver a new center on time and under budget. With a clear understanding of the stakes at hand and decades of experience in call center turnarounds, the GCS team galvanized around the 90-day transition.
What a difference the staff makes
In the world of contact center management, volumes are written about customer engagement. But what happens when the center’s workers disengage? Nothing good. In their Business Journal blog, Gallup shared some disheartening insights into the impact that disengaged employees have on businesses. “These employees are emotionally disconnected from their companies and may actually be working against their employers' interests; they are less productive, are more likely to steal from their companies, negatively influence their coworkers, miss workdays, and drive customers away.”8 The research giant estimates that actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity per year.
Workers will actively disengage when they feel powerless and stuck. As it turns out, this agency’s call center was a textbook case of worker disengagement. Without adequate training that would allow them to at least provide a decent level of service to callers, agents were floundering. Viewing their jobs as dead-ends had only made the situation worse; staffers were marking time with no hope for advancement within the agency.
The level of toxicity in the environment was palpable. Morale had sunk to new lows, absenteeism was plaguing the center, and customers were increasingly distressed. GCS immediately chose two direct, functional routes to staff improvement:
- Selecting agents based on personality traits needed for customer service and other specific job functions. The overarching mandate was a simple one – there was an emphasis on hiring nice people.
- Creating a management candidate program to give agents a sense of empowerment and opportunities for career advancement.
Another critical task: developing and implementing a comprehensive training program that included specialized education to ensure compliance with ADA paratransit regulations. It was extremely important for the new agents to be able to communicate effectively with people who have different kinds of disabilities.
As the deadline for the switch-over approached, the service levels with existing provider languished consistently below 40% on a contractual requirement of 95%. Customers had obviously given up on being served - the number of abandoned calls at the cutoff was just shy of 36,000. The transit authority leadership was virtually counting down the days. And GCS was in the deep end, crafting a strategy that would turn the situation around as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.
The team continued to analyze the transformation necessary for achieving the required service levels and budget – both critical factors in the decision and the contract.
Key adjustments included:
- Changing the scheduling process to include part-time shifts to better handle peak times and more cost-effectively manage the workforce.
- Introducing a workforce management system to help manage agent cost and availability.
A seamless cutoff was the only way to avoid interruptions in the center’s 24/7 services. Existing and prospective managers and agents would need to be interviewed in a matter of weeks, instead of the several months the process typically takes. And, because of the sensitive nature of the planned cutover, the GCS team had just two weeks to assemble a fully furnished and functioning temporary facility at which all of the initial interviews and training could take place.
Contact Center Transition By the Numbers:
In 60 days:
- Number of applicants screened: over 10,000
- Number of prospects interviewed and assessed: 3,250
- Number of new hires: over 700.
In 45 days:
- Hours of classroom training conducted daily by GCS: 16
- Days of training offered by GCS each week: 6
- Hours of training/instruction logged by each agent: 80.
“Wiring a house with the electricity still on.”
That’s how GCS project manager Frank Camp described the stress of executing the seamless cut over. “At 11:59 pm the center belonged to the previous company,” he recalls. “At midnight, GCS took over. It required significant coordination by our team and the client to pull it off.” At 12:01 a.m. 700 mostly new employees began their first day of work as GCS employees in the paratransit center. Great care was taken to make sure everyone involved felt comfortable during the transition, including associates who previously worked in the center.
Successful P3s are partnerships in the truest sense; there has to be confidence, support and transparency on both sides. In this case, the transit agency was as close to a dream partner as GCS could ask for. “The client was open, cooperative, provided good guidance and was there to support us through the entire transition. Their commitment to change and what it meant to the customer was evident at all times. Without their support, it would have been much more difficult,” Frank adds.
On the first day GCS agents began working the center, the transit authority’s senior management was inundated with calls from long-time customers impressed with the change in attitude and service of the customer service crew. Hearing customer compliments and expressions of relief that an essential service that had gone off the rails was at last back on track? Even if it was just a burst of anecdotal evidence that this P3 was working from the first answered call, it was an affirming jumpstart for all parties involved. The numbers would back up the customer reactions soon enough.
In just 60 days after the GCS takeover:
- On similar call volume and handle time, calls were answered on average nearly 15 times faster than in the previous year.
- The abandoned call rate dropped by 93%. Customers no longer had to call back or miss a trip because they could not make a reservation in time.
- In fewer than 60 days, calls were being handled at a 96.73% service level.
- Higher efficiency rates resulted in significant payroll savings and allowed for growth without additional hires
- Increased call capacity with no additional full time employees
- Blending the talent pool and expanding training and skill set development created a more flexible and productive workforce
- Removing departmental barriers and changing group focus increased service levels
The 95% service level target is now met every month. Reservation and customer service call complaints are almost non-existent. Expenses are under budget and agent/management relationships are civil and cooperative. The customer advocacy committee has awarded group, individual agent and manager commendations that were unheard of a year ago. Agents are regularly receiving recognition and promotion to the contact center management team and other areas of the transit authority.
The call center has gone from a major sore spot to a shining star in the organization. According to the transit authority project manager, “The project was managed in such a way that all dates were met with ease and the project was implemented on time and within budget.”
By turning to customer service experts to staff and manage reservations and service issue resolution, this transit agency inherited a new culture able to maintain local employment, meet all service levels and delight the customers all while reducing cost and removing daily service center headaches.
As agencies work with the public sector for real solutions to managing communication, human resources and cost, they should consider the benefits of sourcing the call center as a separate entity to gain real expertise in the most effective ways to communicate with customers. It’s a winning combination for transit agencies and the public they serve.
Service Levels in the First 60 Days of GCS Daily Management
Service Level Take Over 60 Days Later % Change Improvement
Average Speed of Answer 3:40 0:15 -93% Calls answered 14.7 times faster
Abandoned Calls 35,997 2,640 -93% 13-fold reduction in abandoned calls
within Service Level 43.64% 96.73% 122% Service level doubled to within goal
Service Levels over 6 Months of GCS Daily Management
Metric First 30 Days 120 Days Improvement
FTE Variance Actual (11) (52) Higher efficiency = payroll savings
vs. Budgeted (+/-) Increased growth without additional hires
Total – All Calls 629,560 649,433 Expanded call capacity without extra FTE
COMBINED 87.68% 96.29% Fresh talent, proper training and skill set
Service Level Development resulted in increased productivity
Removing Barriers/Increases Service Levels