“Insourcing” for Better Service: The New Hampshire Courts’ “Live” Call Center

“The phones.  The people at the counter.  The questions.  The courtroom support.  The new filings coming in.  The orders going out so people can move forward with their lives.  Yet, if we had to design it all over again, it probably would not look the way it does” (Laconia District Court, Off-Hours Productivity Project).

Laura Kiernan
Communications Director, State of New Hampshire, Judicial Branch

The New Hampshire court system was dramatically restructured in July 2011, merging its three busiest jurisdictions—the district and probate courts and the family division—into a single circuit court that now handles more than 80 percent of the court system’s entire caseload.  Part of a leaner, more efficient framework for circuit court operations is a new centralized “call center,” which, when up to full speed, will field an estimated 2,600 calls per day from 66 circuit court locations around the state.  For court staff, the reprieve from responding to general telephone inquiries means more uninterrupted time to focus on case processing and on citizens who come to the clerk’s office seeking assistance.

New Hampshire is rolling out its “live” call center slowly—expectations are that all 66 locations will be tied in by July 2012.  But the early enthusiasm among the staff for this ambitious and unique project is clear. New call center employees were greeted with a standing ovation when they paid a visit to the 6th Circuit Court in Concord, one of the first sites linked to the call center.

“It was just an incredible difference,” said clerk Diane Lane, whose busy staff is used to the distraction of constantly ringing telephones.  “It’s quiet.”

Court administrators estimate that call center representatives will be able to answer 70 percent of the thousands of general-information calls that now come to the local courts every day.  Each call center employee, wearing a headset, is seated in front of two computer screens for quick access to information from the case management system, the judicial branch Web site, or other sites.  Questions that require the physical case file (about 30 percent of all calls) are immediately transferred to a staff member at a specific court location.  The call center itself is a large room; the background noise is just a hum of muffled voices.  Only the employee hears the sound of a call coming in through an earpiece.  No telephones are ringing.

The call center is staffed by 22 employees, including 17 veteran court staff (one of whom is the supervisor).  One individual has 32 years of courthouse experience.  Five new part-time hires went through four weeks of intensive training on court structure, procedures, and the case management system.  Redirecting the telephones to the call center is expected to save $266,000 a year in payroll costs.  The total cost for equipment, software licensing, and training time for the call center was $137,500.  This relatively low start-up cost was possible through the sharing of an IT infrastructure with the Department of Safety, which established an in-house call center four years ago to handle the high volume of telephone calls to the motor vehicle division.

The circuit court and its new call center are both products of the New Hampshire Judicial Branch Innovation Commission, which the state supreme court established in March 2010 with a mandate to initiate change and bring the state courts into the 21st century.  Circuit court administrators embraced the call center project from the start, but others, particularly lawyers accustomed to established relationships and “hand holding” from the clerk’s office, have been skeptical.

“When I call the court, I want to talk to the court,” groused one lawyer recently. To which, the Call Center representative responded, “This is the court.”

Increased productivity was the driving force behind the call center.  Court administrators calculated a 14 percent improvement in productivity at local court sites if staff were relieved from answering telephones calls and the time spent afterward trying to refocus on the task in front of them, such as processing a court order or an arrest warrant.

“Multitasking is just very inefficient,” said Judge David D. King, the deputy administrative judge of the circuit court.

A weeklong “Off-hours Productivity Project” in August 2011 at one of the state’s largest family division sites revealed the stark difference in productivity when staff was away from the telephones and the front counter.  Staff working the day shift for four hours completed 104 case-processing tasks while they were also answering general telephone inquiries and helping people at the counter in the clerk’s office.  Staff working the evening shift—when the phones were off and the clerk’s office was closed—completed 256 case-processing tasks, far more than double the productivity of the daytime staff.  With that demonstration in hand, lawmakers agreed to appropriate $250,000 in the court budget to hire part-time employees to work off-hours.  Those employees also help make up for veteran staffers who were selected to work as call center representatives.

Before the call center’s “go live” date In January 2012, circuit court administrators worked to improve the consistency and quality of the data entered into the case management system so call center staff would have as much information as possible.  For example, several new codes were added to the case management system so that the call center could answer questions without having access to a court file; the format for entering information about court orders was changed to make it consistent statewide; and prisoner transfer orders must now include the prisoner’s name. To save time and travel costs, administrators used “Go to Meeting” to link courts statewide to training sessions through the Internet.  The result is improved efficiencies, both at the call center and in the courthouses where staff interruptions are reduced.

Court administrators assembled the circuit court call center operation in six months.  They visited a private dental insurance provider’s call center and relied heavily for advice and training on the experience gained at the Department of Safety’s call-in center. Checklists were created so that call center “representatives” would have ready answers to commonly asked questions. Software selected for the court call center will supply detailed information about the work process, which will give administrators the hard data they need to assess productivity and make further improvements.