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For Social Security Chief Andrew Saul, Customer Service Is Job 1

The commissioner is fixing the way the agency assists older Americans

By Richard Eisenberg
November 18, 2020

In recent years, the Social Security Administration had a pretty lousy — and worsening — reputation for customer services. Nearly 125 of its field offices were shuttered and hold times on the agency's 800-number line were often infuriatingly long. Then Andrew Saul was sworn in as the agency's Commissioner in June 2019, at age 73.

The first thing the former chair of the Federal Thrift Investment Board said after taking over was that he'd fix customer service at Social Security. But soon after he got to work on that, the pandemic hit, forcing the agency to close its field offices except for a few essential services, to protect employees and the public. Saul was undeterred.

"To be honest, a year ago, I never thought we would be this far along now," Saul told me. "It did take us time to get up and running, but now we're going to reap the rewards of a year's planning."

Next Avenue: Why was customer service such a priority for you when you started running the Social Security Administration?

Andrew Saul: This agency, I think, probably serves more U.S. citizens and is more important to them than probably any other service that the federal government performs. So, customer service obviously is the most important feature of this organization.

And when I came in here, the first thing I did was make it very clear that our job at the agency, meaning the whole team, was to service our beneficiaries. Every decision that we make here has to be for the benefit of the beneficiaries. That's the mojo here, and that's what we are dedicated to do.

"This is an agency that needs to move forward. And I think that a lot of what we do was rooted in the past."

How would you describe the state of customer service from the Social Security Administration when you walked in the door? The operating budget had been cut quite a bit, and yet the number of Social Security beneficiaries had been growing.

The Social Security Administration gets about ten thousand new customers a day. So, we are a growing business. I think that the vast majority of our employees really are concerned about our beneficiaries and what services we provide.

However, this is an agency that needs to move forward. And I think that a lot of what we do was rooted in the past. The people here perform amazing tasks, considering the support systems they had, but it's now time, and was time a year ago, for us to move forward with modern ways to service our customer.

How has customer service improved since you've been on the job would you say?

Well, first we have to talk about, unfortunately, COVID-19, because there's no question you cannot.

When I took over here, we had a tremendous amount of plans to digitalize and modernize the way we deliver services. But obviously when March hit and we were faced with this situation, we had to keep the lights on. We had to protect our employees and our beneficiaries, and therefore we had to revert to operating from home.

And we were forced to close our offices, both our field offices and our disability hearing offices, and become a virtual operation. We had no choice.

So, the service that we were delivering was interrupted, but considering what happened, this team did an amazing job. And I think if you talk to people that use our services on an active basis, they'll say we really made a transformation here which was basically seamless.

Look, I'm not saying everything was perfect. It still isn't perfect. The last six months have really pressed the team to the limits. But having said that, I think we've done a great job in keeping the lights on and keeping the old boiler running.

Now what this [COVID-19] has taught us and what we've been doing is changing the way we do business. And I think it's going to be changed forever.

It doesn't mean that we're not going to have field offices. It doesn't mean that we're not going to have an eight-hundred [toll-free] number. But we are going as quickly as we can so that our major form of communication to our customer is digital and video.

How are you shifting to providing customer service online?

As far as the field offices go, we are transforming as fast as we can to a much more online operation. We have something called the my Social Security account; fifty-three million Americans today have one. [It lets you check your Social Security statement, change your address for benefits, verify your earnings and estimate future Social Security benefits.]

And what we're going to do over the next twelve months is increase that number through a major [marketing] campaign to over a hundred million my Social Security accounts. That will provide the ability for our customer to go online and be able to do a tremendous amount of the things that they would normally do in person or on the eight-hundred number.

"When we hopefully go back and roll out our field office operations again, we're going to be using many more personal appointments."

And what about people who call Social Security?

The other major change we are now rolling out is all new technology for our eight-hundred telephone number.

We have hired a thousand more operators, which is something I did a year ago. The second tranche of five hundred is being trained as we speak. Plus, the new system that we're rolling out with Verizon will enable us to improve the eight-hundred service tremendously.

And the field offices?

When we hopefully go back and roll out our field office operations again, we're going to be using many more personal appointments rather than having people just come into the office. I believe the offices are going to be much better organized, with express service for certain things that people come in for on a much more regular basis.

What about the Social Security Administration's website?

We're going to have a new website, completely redesigned, which is something that is important because it's our most important face to our customer.

How far along did you get before you had to pivot in March with the pandemic?

We had most of this underway. And you know, the amazing thing about systems work is you can do it offsite.

I'm not going to tell you this [COVID-19] didn't slow us down, because we had to be able to go from an in-office to a virtual operation. Did it slow us down? Yes, it did slow us down, but now we're running well.

Before the offices were shut down for the pandemic, a lot of people would come into the offices to ask questions and sign up for retirement benefits. How much has closing the field offices slowed down the number of applications that have come in?

You know, it is somewhat slower. What's happened is we have many more eight-hundred number calls. We also have many more calls to the individual offices.

The other thing is: We are getting tremendous amount of hits on our website. I think it's up fifty, sixty percent. We've been getting almost a million hits a day. Wow.

And we are doing about fifty-three percent of our transactions online through those that have the my Social Security account.

Most people who get their Social Security retirement benefits get them by direct deposit or a government issued debit card.

Ninety-five percent.

So, for the other five percent, has the pandemic and what's been going on with the postal service affected people getting their paper checks on a regular basis when they expect?

You know, I don't know that this is a problem. I don't believe it is. I still have confidence in the Postal Service. I'm aware there may be hiccups here, but it's not something that's been a major problem for us.

In 2010, the Social Security Administration mailed out a hundred and fifty five million annual statements telling people what their retirement or disability benefits would be, but in 2018 it mailed under fifteen million. Do you have any plans to send out more annual paper statements?

People may view their Social Security statement at my Social Security. But we are totally modernizing our paper statements — new format, new statement, much easier to read. So, we're not in any way canceling that form of communication, but we're going to modernize it.

But you're not going to go back to the way it had been a few years ago where pretty much everybody got one in the mail?

No, because all you gotta do is go on your my Social Security account and you'll get the same thing a lot quicker and easier. And in a more modern format online. Once a person has a my Social Security account, they do not receive a paper statement in the mail because they can view their statement anytime through their account.

Most people start claiming Social Security around age sixty-two, often for financial reasons. But analysts say some claim that early because they don't understand the rules and that if they delayed claiming, they would get an eight percent bigger benefit check in the future. They suggest that instead of Social Security saying 'early eligibility age', call it the 'minimum benefit age.' What do you think?

If you go to our website now, you will see our first phase of modernized information for our customers on retirement benefits. That hadn't been updated for many years. And over the next year, we are going to modernize the tools that we give the customer so they can better make their [claiming] decision a better-informed decision.

Are you planning to change the language at all?

What we're doing is trying to make it easier for the lay person to understand, I want to make sure people have modern tools to help them, but not to make the decision for them.

What else would you like to do to improve customer service?

We're going to have to see what happens when we start reopening the offices to the public.

I don't know how much you knew about the offices before, but it was terrible. I used to go visit these offices and some of the busy ones were really a disaster, in my opinion — just people sitting around waiting. I don't want that anymore. We can't have that.

I have to ask you about Social Security's solvency, which has been made worse with the pandemic. Fewer people are working, so there is less in payroll taxes coming in. What do you tell people who are worried that they're not going to get the Social Security retirement benefits they're supposed to receive?

Well, look, there's no question that people aren't working and they're not paying the FICA taxes. It's going to hurt the trust funds.

And I'm one of the four trustees for the Medicare and Social Security trust fund. The last meeting we had showed that The Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Fund was projected to become depleted in 2035 without making any changes in the plans. But I think that Congress is going to have to do something in order to keep the things solvent.

And I think they should do something about it.

That's Congress's responsibility, not ours. And we'll see how the trust funds are a year from now when we make the next report. But as it looks to me, I don't think this is seriously going to change the solvency year, unless this thing [COVID-19] becomes much more severe than it currently is.

So, anybody retiring between now and 2035, unless things get much worse with a pandemic, shouldn't be concerned about their benefits being reduced. But the closer we get to 2034, the more important it is for something to get done to make sure that everybody gets where they're expecting?

I think that's correct. I think that's a pretty good assumption.

What do you want Americans to know about Social Security scams, with con artists pretending to be from the Social Security Administration?

This whole scam fraud thing is really a big problem. It's unbelievable. And unfortunately, I do believe it's getting worse. We've tried to do everything from social media to all kinds of advertising, but the customer has to be aware that if they get the scam calls, hang up. Don't give them any information. That's the key.

A lot of people, especially elderly people, become victims and fall for this thing, which is not good. And it's just an awareness thing. They have to know that our agents don't threaten people or anything like that.

Two Questions for Our Influencers

If you could change one thing about aging in America, what would it be? 

For all Americans to have and to take the opportunity to save enough to live comfortably as they age. We offer tools to help. For example, you can open your own my Social Security account to verify your earnings, get a personalized Social Security Statement and get future benefit estimates.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your perspective on aging?

It underscored that this is an especially vulnerable population in need of our attention and support. Social Security is set up as a contract between generations and that contract should be more than just economic. It is terrible to think of older Americans living in further isolation because of pandemic quarantines. A saving grace is technology. Technology is the reason we've been able to communicate with the public and keep our services open.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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