Following is a report from the OPM inspector general’s office on the level of customer service provided by the agency’s retirement services (RS) office.

OPM’s RS is directly responsible for the oversight of the Federal Government’s two major retirement systems, the Civil Service Retirement System and the Federal Employees Retirement System. RS provides customer service to approximately 2.6 million annuitants, survivors, and family members by determining Federal employees’ eligibility for retirement benefits; issuing annuity payments to retirees and surviving spouses who are eligible; and collecting premiums for health and life insurance.

The Customer Service Office is part of RS Operations and is responsible for responding to telephone and email inquiries, and receiving and responding to correspondence about retirement benefits and individual claims. These Customer Service Office functions are administered by the Retirement Information Office and Customer Information.

The Retirement Information Office provides annuitants access to RS’s customer service using a toll-free number listed on OPM’s website. Located in East Butler, Pennsylvania, the Retirement Information Office is staffed with customer service specialists, as well as contractors, who handle a variety of inquiries from annuitants, such as: address and direct deposit changes, taxes, adjudication issues, life insurance, health benefits, survivor benefits, disability retirement, and court orders.

In FY 2014, the Retirement Information Office received 1.67 million calls from annuitants. Customer service specialists handled 1.27 million of these calls, while approximately 400,000 calls were abandoned. The Retirement Information Office’s call volume increased to 1.9 million in FY 2015. Given this increase, the number of calls handled by customer service specialists also increased to 1.37 million with approximately 540,000 abandoned calls.

In addition to the toll-free number, annuitants can send RS written correspondence via email, postal letters, and facsimiles. RS’s overall goal is to respond to written correspondence within 60 days.

RS Operations provides customer service through its operational areas to include Retirement Claims, Disability Reconsideration and Appeals, and Retirement Eligibility and Services. Within the operational areas, every annuitant is assigned a legal administrative specialist. Once an annuitant’s case is assigned to a legal administrative specialist, they become the annuitant’s primary point of contact. Annuitants are able to contact their legal administrative specialist directly via the legal administrative specialist’s phone line, as well as calling RS’s toll-free number and being transferred. If a legal administrative specialist is unavailable to take an annuitant’s call, the annuitant can leave a voice message and it is the legal administrative specialist’s responsibility to provide a timely response.

To ensure annuitants are provided timely responses, RS developed an escalation process, which raises a customer’s inquiry to the management level when they indicate previous attempts to contact their assigned legal administrative specialist without a response. Escalations are generated by Retirement Information Office’s customer service specialists and RS management. Once an inquiry warrants an escalation, the Retirement Information Office Escalation Team will work to resolve it, or if necessary, send the inquiry to the appropriate Retirement Information Office functional area to handle. Escalations require a 48 hour response to the customer and its closure is documented in an RS tracking system.

RS also offers annuitants other avenues to access its services. At OPM’s Headquarters in Washington, DC, RS has a Walk-in Center, which serviced approximately 4,000 annuitants in FY 2015. Annuitants were primarily from the surrounding area to include Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC. Additionally, RS actively encourages annuitants to utilize its Services Online, a web platform that provides retirement services on demand. In FY 2015, more than 513,000 annuitants accessed Services Online, conducting more than 5 million transactions.

Retirement Services is Not Providing Timely Responses to Annuitants’ Inquiries

During our evaluation we found that RS is not providing timely responses to customer inquiries. Specifically, we found:

  •  RS is not meeting its goal to respond to all written correspondence;
  •  Legal administrative specialists are not responsive to messages left in their voicemail boxes; and,
  •  Annuitants are having to make multiple attempts to contact RS for a response to their inquiries.

RS is not meeting its goal to respond to all written correspondence within 60 days. While RS reports that their average processing time for all written correspondence is 48 days, as of the beginning of May 2016, they have a backlog of Controlled Correspondence (escalations generated by Retirement Information Office); Faxes (faxes from Federal agencies requesting verification of an employee’s service time); and, Mail Read (incoming postal mail that requires processing or needs to be forwarded to different areas within OPM).

We found that 21 out of 39 (53%) legal administrative specialists were nonresponsive to messages we left in their voicemail boxes. Additionally, we received a voicemail message through our agency’s phone system notifying us that 8 of these 21 (38%) legal administrative specialists’ voicemail boxes were full and that our message was undeliverable. We only received this message because we were connected to OPM’s phone system. Annuitants calling from outside of the system would be unaware that their message was not delivered. It is important to note that while we were not annuitants, we stated on our voicemail messages that we were with the OIG conducting an evaluation on RS customer service and requested a callback.

During our observations of the RS’s Walk-in Center we found that:

  •  Thirteen of the 21 (62%) visitors stated that their visit was not the first attempt to getting their issue resolved; and,
  •  Eight out of 21 (38%) visitors stated their issue was not resolved in a timely manner.

From the annuitants’ calls that we screened, we found that:

  •  Nine out of 38 (24%) of the annuitants indicated that they made previous attempts through various avenues to contact RS’s customer service for resolution; and,
  •  Seven out of 38 (19 %) of the annuitants indicated dissatisfaction with the timeliness of RS’s response to their inquiry.

RS’s untimely responses have affected customer satisfaction. Each year, RS conducts a Customer Satisfaction Survey to measure annuitant and survivor annuitant satisfaction with services provided by RS in the prior fiscal year. In FY 2015, the RS Customer Satisfaction Survey results reported that:

  •  Sixty-six percent of the respondents stated they were satisfied with the amount of time it took RS personnel to respond to their written correspondence dated on or after the start of the FY 2015; which was a five percent decrease from FY 2014;
  •  Twenty-one percent of the respondents were dissatisfied with RS’s timeliness of resolving problems and complaints; and,
  •  Twenty-one percent of the written complaints from the survey indicated dissatisfaction with RS’s responses to inquiries, noting multiple attempts to contact RS regarding this same inquiry, and untimely responses to inquiries.

As the RS’s Retirement Information Office is the primary avenue to access RS’s Customer Service Office, the RS’s untimely responses to annuitants’ voice messages and written correspondence could be a cause for the high call volume. Annuitants not receiving timely responses are making multiple attempts to contact RS, which increases the number of calls received by the Retirement Information Office. If annuitants receive more timely responses, this could potentially reduce the number of times they contact the Retirement Information Office, essentially decreasing the number of busy signals and the long wait times.

Recommendation 1

We recommended that RS establish written policies and procedures for legal administrative specialists to handle annuitants’ phone inquiries including guidelines that ensure legal administrative specialists are retrieving voice messages regularly to avoid full voicemail boxes and returning calls within a specified time frame.

Retirement Service’s Comments

“Retirement partially concurs with this recommendation. RS has developed procedures and standard responses to the most common questions we receive from our customers. RS also has an Escalation Tracking tool to log and track phone calls received to ensure all inquiries are addressed in a timely fashion. Additionally, RS has developed a customer service chart guiding response times and customer service is part of the performance management plan for each employee. RS will review these procedures and if applicable, make appropriate updates.”

OIG Comments

RS should ensure that these policies and procedures include guidance for legal administrative specialists to retrieve voice messages regularly and return calls within a specified time frame to avoid full voicemail boxes.

Recommendation 2

We recommended RS allocate additional resources to address the backlog of written correspondences.

Retirement Service’s Comments

“RS concurs with this finding and was working on this issue prior to this evaluation. In this [Final Report] Draft Report, the OIG also documents that Retirement Services had made a commitment to hire more personnel to address this issue. Specifically, RS/Retirement Information Office (RIO) is in the process of hiring 42 customer service specialists (20 on-board and are in the process of making 22 more offers). RS also notes that we are losing 20 in contractor support. Since RS has taken action on this item, we request that the OIG close this recommendation before the report is finalized since we are taking action to address this weakness. We must be clear that the additional hires may not [be] commensurate with our goals but positive action has been taken to move in this direction.”

OIG Comments

Our recommendation is for RS to allocate additional resources to address the backlog of written correspondences. The allocation of additional resources should decrease the backlog. Our office does not consider the hiring of 42 customer service specialists as addressing this recommendation if those specialists are not allocated to reducing the backlog of written correspondence. As discussed in our finding “Annuitants Experience Difficulty Accessing RS’s Customer Service,” the additional customer service specialists are being hired to address the Retirement Information Office’s staff-to-customer ratio on the RS toll-free number.

Annuitants Experience Difficulty Accessing RS’s Customer Service

RS annuitants have access to customer service through multiple avenues, however they primarily use the toll-free number listed on OPM’s website to access the Retirement Information Office. Our evaluation found that annuitants using the toll-free number are experiencing difficulty accessing RS’s customer service. Specifically, annuitants are receiving excessive busy signals and long wait times when attempting to contact RS.

According to OPM’s Annual Performance Report for FY 2015, RS did not meet its goal to handle at least 75% of customer calls. While the Retirement Information Office staff handled approximately 1.37 million calls in FY 2015, they received 1,909,997 calls and averaged 24,0364 busy signals per day. Annuitants who are able to get through on the toll-free number experience long wait times of up to 20 minutes or more before a customer service specialist can assist with their inquiry.

Annuitants have expressed dissatisfaction with access to RS’s customer service via the toll-free number. Each year, RS conducts a Customer Satisfaction Survey to measure annuitant and survivor annuitant satisfaction with services provided in the prior fiscal year. The FY 2015 survey reported that overall customer satisfaction was 77%. However, when trying to find assistance within RS via the toll-free number, 22% of the respondents stated that the telephone rang without an answer or stayed busy and 25% stated they were left on hold for long periods of time. Additionally, 79% of the written complaints from the FY 2015 survey expressed dissatisfaction with the toll-free number indicating poor telephone service and long wait times.5

RS management is aware of the excessive busy signals and long wait times, and have attempted to address resource challenges by providing more automated services via Services Online. Despite the increase in services available online, only a little over 500,000 out 2.6 million annuitants actually use this avenue to access RS’s customer service. It is important to note that the average age of an annuitant is 72 and this age group generally is not technologically savvy nor do they trust technology. Despite annuitants increasing the utilization of Services Online, the Retirement Information Office’s call volume remains high.

RS also added additional Retirement Information Office telephone lines to allow for more annuitants to access customer specialists and reduce busy signals. However, due to the Retirement Information Office staffing levels, the additional telephone lines actually increased wait times and led to higher abandonment rates. Given the high call volume, the Retirement Information Office does not have the staffing levels needed to provide adequate access to its 2.6 million annuitants. Currently, the ratio of Retirement Information Office customer service specialists, and contractors to annuitants is approximately 27,000:1.6 In FY 2014, RS management reached out to other agencies with similar call volumes, such as the Social Security Administration, to explore staffing ratios and best practices for addressing busy signals and long wait times. The Social Security Administration’s service representative-to-customer ratio was 8,000:1, which is considerably better than the Retirement Information Office’s and could be considered a best practice.

This fiscal year RS management plans to hire an additional 42 customer service specialists, which will decrease the Retirement Information Office staff to customer ratio of approximately 19,000:1. Although the increase in staff may help to reduce busy signals and long wait times, the ratio is still too high to provide annuitants with adequate access to RS via toll-free number.

As a result of excessive busy signals and long wait times, annuitants who attempt to contact RS to make changes, obtain information, report a death, or apply for retirement benefits are unable to get the assistance they need. This lack of adequate access to RS could potentially lead to unnecessary hardships for annuitants, survivors, and family members, as well as potential overpayments being made by RS.

It is important to note the relationship between excessive busy signals and long wait times, and RS’s untimely responses to annuitants’ inquires. Annuitants not receiving timely responses are making multiple attempts to contact RS, which is potentially a contributing factor to the high number of calls received by the Retirement Information Office.

Recommendation 3

We recommend that RS develop a plan of action to reduce the specialists to customer ratio to increase the access to RS customer service via the toll-free number.

Retirement Service’s Comments

“RS concurs with this finding but also needs to highlight that this was an area Retirement Services was actively working to address at the time of the audit. RS had taken the initiative by reaching out to other agencies, such as Social Security Administration (SSA) for best practices and has followed through and hired additional customer service specialists. Given the current budgetary challenges/constraints, RS has done its due diligence to address and improve in this area. In addition, we actively engage and educate the annuitant population to know about and use the self-service automated customer service tool Services Online. The increasing number of unique users documents our success and commitment to improving the level of customer service our clients receive….”