A city water line bursts, shooting liquid 20 feet into the air. A startled resident dashes to the phone and dials 911. Although the situation is urgent, it is not an emergency in the same context as a serious car accident or a building fire, and it is the water department rather than the police that needs to respond to the scene.
For years, city and county 911 centers were inundated with such non-emergency calls from residents uncertain whom to contact when an urgent situation occurred. That all began to change in 1997 when the Federal Communications Commission designated 311 as a national number to handle non-emergency calls. Since then, dozens of cities have established 311 call centers to alleviate the burden on 911 operators.
To help the centers fulfill their missions to provide exemplary customer service to residents, many local governments have equipped the centers with customer relationship management (CRM) software that staff can use to find answers to questions or open and track work orders. Now, by dialing one simple-to-remember number, residents can learn how to apply for a building permit, find out how late the library is open, or report a stray dog.
And, because CRM systems and 311 centers serve as clearinghouses for community problems, local officials are tapping into them to better manage services. They can see the most commonly reported problems, where they occur and how quickly departments are responding to service requests, and they can allocate resources accordingly.
All services, one number
When Houston officials began investigating 311 service and CRM software, their motivation was to reduce the number of non-emergency calls to 911 and to save residents the trouble of searching through more than 700 government phone numbers to find the right destinations for their inquiries. A call for non-emergency help typically was transferred several times, a frustrating situation for residents and time-consuming for city employees. In addition, department personnel did not have access to the same information, so residents might get varied responses to their requests.
In establishing Houston's 311 system in 2001, Gloria Bingham, 311 director, centralized customer service into a single call center and chose CRM technology from San Francisco-based Genesys to pull all city information into one location. The software manages inbound 311 calls and routes them to the appropriate agents, a feature that has been useful for many Spanish-speaking residents who are routed to Spanish-speaking agents. In some cases, agents can find the information needed to close the call in the CRM system; other times they transfer the caller to the appropriate department or create a work order that can be tracked to its eventual completion.
Presently, the average time from an answer to completion of a call is under two minutes, and a 2005 performance audit and independent customer satisfaction survey indicated more than 85 percent of constituents were strongly satisfied with Houston's 311 service. And, in the past six years, use of 311 has surged to an average of 10,000 calls per day with record highs of 21,000 during hurricanes, such as Katrina and Rita, an indication that the public has been sold on its efficiency.
From abandoned cars to graffiti
In February 2004, Albuquerque, N.M., Mayor Martin Chavez launched an initiative to clear the city of abandoned vehicles, asking residents to report where they could be located, says Brian Osterloh, application development manager. At the time, the city was 16 months into a pilot program for a 311/CRM system that project directors hoped would be adopted citywide in the next budget. The car-clearing initiative was used to test the city's CRM system and set benchmarks for the call volume, call times and customer service the city could expect if it fully implemented a 311 service. “We had seven people taking 1,600 calls in two days, and we had a hard time keeping up,” Osterloh says.
The reporting feature in the PeopleSoft CRM software provided by Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle plotted the locations of the abandoned vehicles, clearly showing that vehicles were evenly distributed across the city and not concentrated in certain sections, like some believed. That test helped illustrate the value of the CRM system, and the city council approved the budget for the citywide 311 roll out.
Since launching in June 2005, Albuquerque's 311 call center received an estimated 490,000 calls in its first fiscal year. The following year, that number jumped to 750,000, and this year officials estimate the center will answer 1.25 million calls. “The public loves it,” Osterloh says. “They don't have to remember a lot of numbers or departments. They don't have to care who fills the potholes, just that the city should fill them.”
The CRM technology helps city leaders tackle problems more quickly, Osterloh says. For years, Albuquerque has spent extensive time and money removing graffiti. The CRM system pinpoints the exact day and time of a graffiti complaint, where the cases exist, where cleaning crews should be dispatched, and how long it takes for the jobs to be completed. “In November of last year, it was taking four days to close [a grafitti case],” Osterloh says. “By March of this year, it was taking, on average, one day.”
Denver officials also use the CRM system to document statistics that had not been readily apparent. They learned that 54 percent of residents participate in a solid waste recycling program, which is more than they previously believed. “It's become a useful tool in the budgeting process, because now, for the first time, we can justify our needs statistically,” says Michael Major, director of 311 Customer Care Operations.
CRM without 311
Moreno Valley, Calif., elected officials' desire to track resident complaints motivated them to begin using a CRM system, but the city was not ready to establish a 311 center. “There is a perception that a 311 call center should be tied to CRM, but I believe we want to get our system out on the Web first,” says Dori Lienhard, enterprise systems application supervisor. “Creating an FAQ list on the Web would handle a lot of the same kinds of calls.”
Moreno Valley officials began by choosing two processes they felt would benefit from automation — calls to the city council and the Maintenance and Operations Division — and tied them into a CRM system by Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Dynamics. Presently, residents who call the city manager's office to lodge complaints speak to a staff person who logs a service request into the CRM system and routs the information to the appropriate department. The entry becomes a case that can be tracked throughout the process by city employees. The CRM ties into the city's Microsoft Outlook e-mail system, Lienhard says, and all e-mails and actions then become a part of the case record so city council members and appropriate staff know who did what and when, and how many cases remain open.
Now one year into implementation, the CRM system has been tied into the city's geographic information system (GIS), so council members and department heads can see, at any time, what is happening in a particular district. The GIS tie-in has proven useful for council members to stay on top of quality-of-life issues in their districts, such as excessive noise complaints and instances of vandalism. “It really helps at election time,” Lienhard says, because council members can promote how quickly and efficiently they address problems in their districts.
Moreno Valley officials plan to start rolling out the CRM to the rest of the departments, starting with the Economic Development and Code Compliance Divisions. Once all departments are connected, the request system will be available to the public on the Web.
Like Moreno Valley, Arvada, Colo., a 105,000-resident suburb of Denver, has a CRM system without a 311 component. When residents call the main city phone number, they reach a voice-activated system by Blacksburg, Va.-based Tele-Works that records the service request and routs it to the correct department.
Officials expect a large increase in residents' use of the CRM technology when it is available online this month, says Vicki Reier, assistant to the city manager. There will be an icon for the system on the city home page, where residents can click to find answers to commonly asked questions or request a service, such as filling a pothole or trimming a tree.
The system will create a ticket and distribute the work without tying up a phone line or requiring the resident to call the next day when city offices are open. Residents will receive a tracking number so they can check on the status of their request. “The internal tracking and reporting components will be really important,” Reier says. “Now if we say we fix potholes in three days, we can see if we really do it.”
Extending CRM's reach
New York has set strict goals for its 311 call center staff, and it can track their performance using the reporting feature of its Siebel CRM software purchased from Oracle. City officials refer to the CRM software to see how well the call center is meeting its goal to answer 80 percent of calls in 30 seconds or less with a maximum wait time of three minutes.
Since opening in March 2003, the call center now handles approximately 40,000 inquiries a day, says Nicholas Sbordone, spokesperson for the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. In-house call center representatives can answer questions in English and Spanish, and the center outsources to translators for service in 180 different languages.
These days, New York's 311 service is used as an outreach tool for city departments, Sbordone says. For example, the Department of Consumer Affairs encourages low-income earners to call 311 and learn about the Earned Income Tax Credit program. Likewise, the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene runs an annual campaign to distribute free smoking cessation patches and advertises that anyone interested in quitting smoking can call 311 and ask for a free smoking cessation kit. “There are 8.2 million people in the city, but all they need to know is one number to get someone to take care of a problem,” Sbordone says.
Cities with CRM technology expect to make even greater in-roads into customer service in the years ahead. Houston has begun looking at predictive dialing — which automates outgoing calls — for its customer satisfaction program. Denver plans to allow residents to pay traffic tickets, permit fees, and property taxes either online or over the phone with an agent. And, Albuquerque has begun using CRM with 311 to sell event tickets online. “The main benefits are that we know what citizens are asking and how quickly we're filling their requests,” Osterloh says. “[CRM allows us] a better use of resources.”
Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.