Interview with Eric van Bekkum, Cluster Manager at the Regional Tax Group (RBG)
The Regional Tax Group in Schiedam (NL) collects taxes for district water boards and municipalities from 1.2 million households. This means that annually, approximately 2.5 million letters are sent out, which in turn generate a lot of phone traffic. People simply prefer calling over reading. That is why Cluster Manager Eric van Bekkum has frequently asked questions handled automatically via the telephone self-service application by Mtel.
One example is how emotions are dealt with on the phone. This is very important, as paying taxes often leads to strong reactions in people. 'In the past, it was customary to deal with all grievances. My assumption is that grievances are minor issues and understandable if someone is right. It is more important to empathise with the customer, show understanding, and try to identify the question. In that case, you can take over the conversation to reach a solution. But we make an exception when someone becomes too rude. Then we definitely step in.'
In addition to agents answering the phone personally, the Regional Tax Group has since June 2014 been handling a number of frequently asked questions automatically via their self-service application, which is fully integrated with the Online Contact Center service. A solution that was created to handle the large customer demand and to work smarter and more efficiently. 'In total, we send out 1.2 million tax bills annually for a total of approximately 450 million Euros. If we did that all at once, our customer service would be completely overwhelmed by the large number of phone calls, more than 230,000 on an annual basis. To avoid this, we send out mail in different ‘flights’ and via our Mtel Online Contact Center measure how many phone calls we can expect based on the number of letters being sent out. In addition, we notice that we often receive the same questions about remission and direct debit. Based on that, we created a self-service application to handle such questions automatically. That improves our accessibility, saves money, and keep agents available to handle more complex questions.'
Although the expansion of the self-service application was implemented less than a year ago, the results already exceed expectations. 'Handling frequently asked questions in this way mainly benefits the largest group of customers we serve at the Regional Tax Group. These are people who often pick up a phone before reading through an entire form. We recently sent out a ‘flight’ of 170,000 bills, and 63% of the calls resulting from that were handled via the self-service application. That is huge. To paint a picture: the Monday after people got their tax assessments, we received 4,300 calls. 2,700 of these were answered via the self-service application and were automatically processed by the back office. This meant on that day, 30 agents less were needed to deal with all the customer reactions, saving around €7,000!'
Saving money is one thing. With taxation, it is all about collecting money in the end. In that respect, the extension for the self-service application has many advantages. Because customers come into contact rapidly and can take care of things quickly. 'The best reaction we can have, of course, is that a bill is immediately paid. If not, we would very much like a customer to pick up the phone and ask us their questions. After all, every customer conversation represents a chance of a payment agreement. Which is a chance for actually collecting the tax money that municipalities and water boards need to do their work. In other words: more customer contact means more tax collection.
Eric indicated earlier that the new structure of the application contributes to improved accessibility. This is also due to the calls about remission and direct debit coming in on their own lines. 'We deliberately chose to use a separate number and have promoted that on the forms that were sent out. This way, the traffic for our self-service application does not affect our other line, where the live agents stand ready. If you know that for 1.2 million bills alone we receive approximately 100,000 remission requests, you understand the effect that can have. In part thanks to the new set-up, we achieve an answering rate of 99% now, which was 68% just five years ago. Moreover, virtually all calls are answered within 20 seconds.'
An important reason to ultimately choose Mtel was the mentality of the people. Did that have something to do with the fact that both organisations are strongly linked to Rotterdam? 'I think you may have a point there. In practice, it is noticeable that we are all naturally hard workers. We love talking, but not small talk. Most of all, we just want to get started quickly and get things done. That is probably why we immediately had a good feeling about Mtel. They asked the right questions and thought of practical solutions. Moreover, they have sufficient knowledge to not always have to return to the organisation, and they speak in clear terms. There is no technical jargon that does not interest me at all, but simply a clear explanation of the things that matter to me. That just shows you know exactly what makes me satisfied as a customer.'
Finally, we take a look at the future with Eric. How does he see the development of the Regional Tax Group and what does he consider important for his own department? 'What is noticeable already is that a cultural shift is taking place and that customer orientation is becoming increasingly important. The traditional bureaucratic attitude was always to send something out and just wait and see. Fortunately, that attitude has changed to sending something out and following what happens. After all, we are not here to keep the paper mill going, but to work properly and efficiently. And that is increasingly expected of us, because as an organisation, we are increasingly bound by performance contracts. In my view, this can never be at the expense of customer orientation. I want us to always strive for satisfied customers, even if we are basically giving them an unpleasant message. No easy task, but I think we need this at the Regional Tax Group. I am convinced it will help us achieve our goals faster and more easily.'