One call away
Sometimes residents don’t know which is worse, having a pothole in front of their house or trying to get it fixed. While their infrastructure problems have not magically disappeared, residents in Akron, Ohio, and Birmingham, Ala., can claim that getting their cities to react is much easier, thanks to centralized 311 telephone numbers. By using software to manage the service requests, local governments can provide fast and personal attention, says Dale Sroka, acting manager of the Akron call center, which began operations last summer.
Created as part of a customer relations management (CRM) program, a 311 call center allows residents to dial a single number to report a problem, such as a pothole or malfunctioning traffic light. Without the call center, residents might have to call several departments before reaching the correct one to solve their issue. Using 311 to report a problem saves time for the resident, who speaks directly with a customer relations representative.
The key to 311’s effectiveness is the customer service request (CSR) system used by customer service representatives to complete work requests and route them to the offices that will perform the tasks. A tracking number automatically follows each request until the issue is resolved, at which point the resident can be notified by e-mail. If the project is not finished quickly, a reminder is sent to the operating office and the appropriate supervisor is notified.
The 311 operators must respond to a variety of calls, so a database cataloging all common city tasks is built, including the time required to fix the problem. When a call is received, the operator types in key words to describe the problem, and a screen appears with appropriate questions to determine the problem’s details. For example, a 311 call for a missing manhole cover in Birmingham would prompt the operator to inquire about its shape to determine if it belongs on a water or sewer manhole, or if it belongs to another jurisdiction, says John Wade, Birmingham’s director of information services.
Fixing what is broken
When Wade was assigned the 311 project, he began by calling each department’s customer service number to gauge the level of service residents were receiving. He heard a wide variety of responses. Some staff members were polite, and some were rude, he says. Sometimes he was routed around, or the call was cut off. By using a centralized call system with trained customer service representatives, residents can place a single call and do not have to wait to talk to the right person, Sroka says.
By asking each department to map work flows, some departments found ways to make improvements. As a result, the way in which some tasks are completed is being re-engineered. “A major advantage of the CSR process is employee efficiency,” Sroka says. “It really streamlines the work.”
The CSR system has the potential to generate even further efficiencies, Sroka says. “I would like to see the CSR system generate the actual work orders and start doing the scheduling,” he says. “This would streamline the process even more. It’s possible, but we’re not there yet.”
The Akron system currently centralizes calls for 38 agencies, including the Public Works, Building Inspections, Traffic Engineering and Health departments. “It is amazing how much information is available at your fingertips,” Sroka says. “We’re even tied into the county GIS system, so we can go to maps and have access to aerial photographs.”
In addition to placing work requests, Akron residents can call 311 for information about services, ranging from building plans and permits to flu shots and clinics for women, children and AIDS patients. The line was particularly busy during the city’s leaf pickup season, Sroka says.
Akron has been operating its CSR system since June, when calls began rolling over from the individual departments to the call center. The 311 system was launched Nov. 8. The community was informed through the local media, community meetings and the city’s Web site, and stickers and magnets were distributed to remind residents about the service. Call volume has been steadily increasing, and there seems to be a positive response, Sroka says.
As residents grow more comfortable using 311 in Birmingham, Wade expects more departments to link into the CSR system. Last year the city received approximately 1 million 911 calls. Of those, only about 55 percent were emergencies. If the 311 call center handled non-emergency calls, the police and fire department operators could focus on emergency response rather than directing callers to appropriate city departments.
The 311 system was used in Birmingham to dispense storm information during Hurricane Ivan (see “311 call center relieves hurricane’s pressure” on page 48). Although the storm-related calls received by 311 were not counted, Wade says the 911 dispatch center operators reported a lower workload during the storm than during previous emergencies in the city.
Wade also points out that the CSR system of tracking service requests can be used in other ways. For example, city council members can use the system to identify the most frequent problems in their districts and how they are handled.
Putting the pieces together
Although the Akron and Birmingham systems are relatively new, few glitches have been reported. Sroka says that worker training was started a little early, so some of the staff needed a refresher course. A few problems arose in Birmingham because the computers were too slow, but that was corrected quickly, Wade says.
Currently, Birmingham’s 311 system covers only the city, but Wade says he would like to eventually include Jefferson County and nearby communities. He says officials from several local governments noticed the system’s effectiveness when they worked together during Hurricane Ivan. However, agreeing to build a regional 311 operation will not be easy, considering the many political, budgetary and procedural issues that have to be resolved first, Wade says.
In the meantime, if customer service representatives receive calls about problems in neighboring jurisdictions, they pass the request along anyway. “The ease with which residents can obtain public services is the best thing about the call center,” Wade says. “Before, residents would have to figure out who handled their problem, which jurisdiction was involved and which agency. Now, they just call 311. We figure out what needs to be done and will call for them.” Simply put, Wade says, “We don’t make residents figure out government.”
Cathy Dombrowski is a Silver Spring, Md.-based freelance writer.
311 call center relieves hurricane’s pressure
Many of Birmingham, Ala.’s residents witnessed the effectiveness of the city’s new centralized call center when Hurricane Ivan blew through in September. The center, which opened July 1, 2004, and typically operates Monday through Friday, was manned 24 hours a day for a week during Ivan. Throughout the stressful time, callers dialing 311 reached a person, not a recording, says John Wade, the city’s director of information services.
Birmingham’s 311 call center is part of the city’s customer relationship program and can be used by residents to report a problem, such as uncollected garbage or a pothole. During the hurricane, the city relied on 311 to answer non-emergency-related questions about the storm, rather than stress its 911 system.
As Ivan approached, local officials knew the extensive amount of rain would affect the city’s many low-lying areas. As calls came in, operators directed callers to a Web site showing maps of neighborhoods, flood zones and relocation areas. If callers did not have Internet access, the operators viewed the maps and passed on the relevant information.
When evacuations began, callers were told which areas were being evacuated and where they could seek shelter. Call center operators even coordinated transportation for those who required it and reported downed power lines.
Because response to the hurricane was a regional effort, the center provided information to residents outside the city as well. Normally, the center handles about 350 calls a day, but it received as many as 400 every half hour during the storm, Wade says. Although the city usually uses 15 lines, it has access to an additional 10 during storms and other emergencies.
Residents appreciated how the center responded to their needs during the storm, Wade says, noting a great deal of positive feedback. Many people even wrote letters, he says. The most common comment was, “How comforting it was to reach a real person instead of a machine.”
— Cathy Dombrowski