Boosting travel service delivery through communications



Cutting costs


The Program Support Center (PSC) provides support services to all components of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and 31 other federal government agencies worldwide. PSC has a broad range of nearly 60 services and products, which include: administrative operations, health resources, information technology support, financial management, and strategic acquisitions. PSC is a shared services organization dedicated to helping customers achieve mission-critical results.

The HHS Travel Office provides one of PSC’s most widely used services to HHS and other government agencies. The office used strategic communications to put the right travel information in the hands of the right people at the right time.

When large disasters strike, the U.S. government sends representatives to ground zero to assess the damage and provide assistance. Public health officers from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention were quickly deployed to Haiti soon after the devastating earthquake in 2009. Medical researchers must trek around the globe to find ways to help prevent the spread of AIDS from mothers to children. Whether it’s urgent or long term support, travelers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have to get from point A to B to carry out their critical missions.

The HHS Travel Office helps them get there and to other areas on official business. In fact, they’ve been transforming the way the federal government manages the business of travel. The office supports all HHS travelers with comprehensive customer service and operational support from the moment travel plans are initiated until the trip is completed and the traveler is reimbursed for expenses. Providing world class travel service for 200,000 trips worldwide each year is challenging enough. Add the goal of growing a shared services organization—in the public sector—and that’s no small feat.

The office’s main challenge was to improve the customer experience with travel services—keeping customers informed, reducing help desk calls, improving satisfaction and allowing staff to develop innovative services.  Communications played a vital role but first, many challenges had to be overcome. By using a strategic approach, the office was able to accomplish its goals of supporting the travel demand while realizing dramatic customer service improvements and cost savings.

Seeing that convenience is a big motivator for customers, the office created a self-service Travel Web site to keep customers informed. Customers were able to access a knowledgebase containing travel policies and information, and link directly to the government’s online travel booking system, GovTrip, to make their travel arrangements 24/7.

This is just one of the strategies that the HHS Travel Office used to give itself a new lease on life. As a result, the ease and convenience of the travel system, along with an assertive communications plan, changed the way business was done. It also boosted their bottom line.

Planning Considerations

Effective communication helps travelers meet all federal travel requirements and fulfill customer travel needs.  Facing budget constraints and a full workload, part of the office’s challenge was to reduce the number of issues handled without diminishing a high level of service.  So the office outlined two goals: (1) removing as many obstacles as possible; and (2) conveying effectiveness and efficiencies. The main considerations were:

  • Gaining customer buy-in
  • Developing purposeful communications  
  • Choosing the right media (e.g., broadcasts, direct emails, Web, telephone, mobile applications, and social media tools like Twitter)
  • Obtaining and utilizing feedback

The office developed a partnership with customers and made sure their communications were targeted, timely and relevant to their customers’ needs. Also, getting feedback early and often helped the office modify their communication strategies.

Strategic Communication

The office developed a strategic communications plan that not only influenced customers, but educated and empowered them. The plan utilized several strategies, each designed to reach the target audience and achieve the appropriate outcome. 

Targeted distribution lists – By customizing an email distribution list of over 95,000 subscribers, the office sent targeted communications to customers, based on their travel usage or role in preparing travel documents, to advise them of important policy changes, system updates, and notifications.

Convenient training - Given the option to attend a 90-minute classroom session or online Webinar free of charge, more than 13,000 users were trained on the new travel system upgrade within three months. The attendees learned about travel policy and guidance, and the benefits of using government-preferred providers.

Direct customer engagement - As call volume decreased, account managers took on a more proactive role. By learning more about the customers’ needs, they created service and system enhancements. Based on this feedback, travel information was consolidated onto one Web site instead of multiple, leading to time-saving efficiencies with the travel system.

Self-Help Web site with Online Knowledge Base - By designing a simple "one-stop shop" travel Web site, customers could access the latest news, travel information and documentation were available from one reliable source. The site www.hhs.gov/travel enhances the travel experience with important information such as advisories, warnings, cancellations or delays, as well as other travel requirements and tips. The top 10 frequently asked questions are on the site based on calls to the Help Desk, which helps to deflect calls. Customers could access the HHS Travel Online Knowledge Base to search for solutions or open a trouble ticket and engage a support representative in a live chat session.

Survey feedback – Whenever the travel office issued a communication, recipients were given an opportunity to provide feedback by completing a brief survey. 

Reporting – The office developed a comprehensive reporting service to give managers vital information to make their travel planning decisions.

Interactive Voice Response (IVR) – The office launched an IVR system to reduce or eliminate the need to speak with a call representative. It also allowed the office to save money by reducing labor costs while enhancing the customer’s telephonic experience. Through the IVR, a caller can be guided by an automated assistant toward a solution. Solutions were revisited monthly and updated as necessary to ensure callers had access to the latest top issues.

Transformation

The HHS Travel Office’s strategic communications plan yielded significant results. The office realized a substantial cost savings through self-service, and a measurable reduction in help desk volume. It also led to efficiencies with staff time as fewer resources were dedicated to resolving travel complaints.
Call volume reduction - Substantial cost savings were realized each year from 2008-2010 due to a decrease in call volume. There was a significant decline in the number of help desk calls when each travel document was prepared. And, the reduction in call volume and hold times meant customers were spending less time solving travel problems and more time focusing on their core duties.

IVR deflection –The IVR system eliminated the need for a live technical representative to assist each call. This system reduced hold times and provided quick access to solutions and a lower cost per contact.

Knowledge Base – Customers have access to the HHS Online Knowledge Base information 24/7. Although the Web portal was in its infancy, more users continued to opt to use it each month instead of contacting a live representative.

Moreover, while the incoming help desk calls were decreasing, the number of travel documents prepared was actually increasing. From 2008 to 2010 travel documents increased 73 percent while help desk calls decreased 43 percent, leading to more than $500,000 in cost savings. This dramatic relationship between travel documents and help desk calls, known as the Document to Call ratio (see right), demonstrates the effectiveness of the IVR system.

Service Growth

Prior to the communications initiative, growth stalled for two reasons. First, the workload did not allow time for business development. Second, the service lacked the confidence to demonstrate its value to customers. By reducing the workload and demonstrating world-class service, the office was able to dedicate resources to new business development. As a shared service organization, the office needed to monitor the environment and seek additional services that fit its core business.

The Travel Office has been able to develop new complimentary travel services, leveraging their vast expertise and experience. In 2010, they launched the GO! CardTM and Relocation Service. The GO! CardTM is a revolutionary way of providing commuter benefits to a transit subsidy charge card, enabling administrative cost savings and helps to prevent fraud, waste and abuse. With just 3,000 issued so far, it has already saved the government over a million dollars and garnered an Innovation Award from the U.S. General Services Administration’s  SmartPay program. The Relocation Service provides government employees end-to-end relocation support within the U.S. or globally.

Summary

The HHS Travel Office used a strategic communications plan to successfully raise the level of customer satisfaction and broaden its profit margin. "Keeping people informed in every service aspect reduced the calls to the help desk," said Flynn. "It’s really our biggest cost driver to reduce the amount of calls for every travel."

It has proved pivotal in improving customer relations, reducing costs and improving efficiency. As a result, the HHS Travel Office seized the opportunity to redirect and leverage resources to focus on growth. "It is important for our shared service organization to stay competitive by finding opportunities to increase our service portfolio with new services that fit our core business," said Flynn. "In doing so, we will be able to approach our customer base confidently and be viewed as a solid partner instead of as just another service provider."


About the authors

David Flynn serves as the Director of the Travel Services Division for the Program Support Center.  Prior to joining the HHS, David spent several years in the Middle East as a Regional Comptroller for KBR and Haliburton. Since joining the HHS in 2008, David has successfully transitioned the HHS Travel Office from a single business unit managing only HHS travel services to a shared service organization providing other government agencies with multiple business lines, including the Transhare GO!card (commuter benefits), Relocation, Parking, and Fleet Management. 

Tom Dollarhide is a senior consultant in the Program Support Center’s Travel Services Division where he is responsible for providing project management and business development support. Prior to arriving at the HHS, Tom was a technical advisor for the General Services Administration (GSA) e-Gov Travel Program Management Office responsible for managing the e-Gov Travel contract and supporting agencies utilizing the e-Gov Travel service.

John Moynihan is a communications specialist in the Program Support Center’s Office of Communications. John writes about a wide range of shared services topics, programs, employees and trends in the business of the federal government. He is a writer and editor for the monthly PSC employee newsletter, the PSC eNews. John is an experienced journalist, columnist and editor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Communications and master's degree in Journalism.