Able to explain complicated processes to a customer who is confused or angry before a conversation begins. Sounds like it may just be the work a superhero is made of. But in reality, it is the exciting challenge the team in the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Driver & Identity Service’s Information Center takes on every day in many different ways.
This dedicated group of seven information center specialists and one administrative assistant handle an average of 12,000 customer interactions every month. Many customers are requesting assistance or clarification regarding temporary restricted licenses, payment plans for fines and fees, license reinstatement, or information on how to replace a lost Iowa driver’s license. “Many of these topics impact the ability of our customers to drive where they need to go or prove their identity. These are very important issues for our customers that can quickly become emotionally charged,” said Julie Johnson, Information Center manager. “Our team has a very important job to provide reliable, accurate, and timely information and make sure that everything we do is focused on our customer and their experience while interacting with us.”
The Information Center is a part of Driver & Identification Services housed inside the Iowa DOT’s Ankeny facility and accepts calls on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. “The calls are nonstop from the time we open the phones until we shut them down for the evening,” said Johnson. The center used to be called the “Call Center” and for good reason – customers were expected to call in and wait on hold to be served. This lead to long wait times and frustrated customers who were understandably in an agitated state by the time they had the chance to speak with one of our specialists. As you can imagine, this lead to a poor experience for both the customer and the person serving them. Recognizing this, our Information Center specialists began looking at various ways to improve the experience our customers were receiving.
Recently, the Information Center was able to expand options for customers, giving callers the option to leave a voice message in order to have their call returned, utilize online chat, or send an email in lieu of waiting on hold.
Many of the questions customers have are complicated and require a bit of research on the part of the Information Center team, whether that’s researching various sanctions or convictions, verifying the need for SR-22 insurance, or checking with another agency to assure required steps are completed. Johnson states, “Both the option to leave a voice message and online chats have been very valuable. In addition to reducing wait times, they allow our team a chance to help research the customer’s unique situation and reduce the number of interactions it takes with our team to get the answers they need.
“In April, the first full month for these options, the team answered 1,065 online chats and returned 248 phone calls. During May, the team answered 1,179 live chats and returned 275 customer calls. The customer feedback we’ve received about these features has been very positive, especially the callback feature. While we state that the customer will receive a call within 24 to 48 hours, our current average callback time is just three hours.”
Karen Meeks handles a majority of the online chats and call backs. She said, “The online chat is a nice change from the phones, although it’s easier to get an understanding of how people are feeling and to empathize with them when we can hear a voice. When I’m responding online, I need to be really careful about the tone of what I’m writing. I want to make sure to get the information correct, but also get the idea across that we really do care about helping the person on the other end.”
Creating a caring atmosphere for customers starts with the atmosphere in the office. Johnson, who has been with the Iowa DOT less than a year, said, “We work to create a comfortable environment in which our team can share information and have the ability to call on each other for assistance. Our new area has been cleared of any walls that may have created communication restrictions in the past.”
Amanda Daughenbaugh is the administrative assistant in the center. Daughenbaugh is known for her ability to easily work with agitated customers. She is always willing to step in and assist when a caller is agitated or asks to speak to a supervisor. She said, “I enjoy being able to turn the call around. Our job is to de-escalate a situation and get the caller all of the information they need, make them feel comfortable and confident about the next necessary steps, and move forward.”
The team is great at helping customers sort out the issues they are dealing with, but this interaction goes both ways. Melissa Spiegel, Motor Vehicle Division interim director, said, “The Information Center team provides a way for customers to give us feedback on how well our online and other resources fit their needs. We rely on the team to be the voice of the customer and let us know if some of the information on our website could be more clear or if there are resources we can add or update.”
As Iowa’s population grows in diversity, so does the need for multilingual assistance in the Information Center. Johnson said, “We have always been able to access interpreters through a contractor. About a year ago we added Dalila Espinoza, who is bilingual and speaks fluent Spanish, to our team. With Dalila on board, our team has the ability to easily work with our Spanish-speaking customers without having to contact interpreters. Having Dalila in the Information Center has really benefitted both the team and our customers.”
While many customers may be calling due to various citations or driving restrictions, Lynn Isley, a 23-year Iowa DOT veteran, most vividly remembers the calls where she is able to help someone in need through no fault of their own.
“I specifically remember one call,” she said. “A guy who was overseas serving our country needed to get a driver’s license for his daughter when he was back on leave. He had a very short window of time. I was able to work with the supervisor at the driver’s license station to get a time scheduled so they could get in and out quickly. That made my day.”