Workers need good equipment to give good service. Let's stick with FEMA as the example: FEMA's main equipment used to be tents and tons of paper. After a flood, FEMA would set up a tent on dry ground and all the victims would have to go there to fill out forms. FEMA inspectors would stop by the tent, pick up a batch of forms, slog out to the damaged houses to check them out, then slog back to the tent to exchange those forms for the next batch. To give better service, they needed better tools, and they got them. Now, flood victims can call a toll-free number to apply for aid, and inspectors have hand-held computers with modems that receive claims and transmit their evaluations without any slogging. Many other agencies needed and got modern equipment to give better service, too.

Telephones are a top priority in customer service all across the government because more Americans contact the government by phone than any other way. The attention is producing better service.

Last year the people at the Social Security Administration were judged the best in the business at handling calls. An independent survey by Dalbar, Inc. picked SSA as the best toll-free telephone service, compared to several top private sector firms. SSA beat Xerox, Southwest Airlines, L.L. Bean, and Disney. (13) But SSA wasn't satisfied -- it took too long to reach an operator. The service was world-class, but the access was not. This year, Social Security transferred staff to the call centers, converted data centers to handle calls, put in technology so that all claims representatives could handle overflow calls on the busiest days, and installed a 24-hour automated system for frequently asked questions. Now, less than half as many callers get busy signals, and 90 percent of all calls go through in less than five minutes.

FEMA and Social Security are not the only ones who see phones as the key to better service:

That Number, Please

Auto Safety Information 1-800-424-9393
Consumer Product Recall Notices 1-800-638-CPSC
Export Assistance For Business 1-800-USA-TRADE
Immigration and Naturalization Forms 1-800-755-0777
Meat and Poultry Safety Tips 1-800-535-4555
Social Security Information 1-800-772-1213
Taxes, Recorded Information 1-800-TAX-4477

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