Sacramento, Calif., began 311 more than a decade ago, and like other cities has decided to move on to next-generation technology. Less than a year ago, it upgraded its legacy CRM to a cloud-based solution from Oracle.
“When we put out the RFP, there was only one vendor that offered an on-premise solution,” said Chris Hobson, the city’s 311 manager. “Market forces are pushing all of CRM into the cloud. All the big and small players are pretty much offering cloud-based solutions only.”
The Age of Customer.gov
The Digital Communities Special Report, which appears twice a year in Government Technology magazine, offers in-depth coverage for local government leaders and technology professionals. The June 2017 report explores the idea that the tech that drives 311 can help government deliver an Amazon-like experience.
One thing is clear — whether 311 operates in the cloud or an on-premises platform, the number of calls and requests continues to rise. One trend is that the addition of new channels, whether through a mobile app, chat or via social media, such as Facebook, has brought in an entirely new type of 311 customer: people who don’t care to use the phone, but are quite comfortable making a request online. Many of these new customers are millennials and other youthful demographics who may not know what a phonebook is or who have never seen a bank check, but know how to interact via an app. Other users of online channels are people who don’t speak English as their first language or may have a disability that makes phone calls difficult.
The new channels have not cut into the number of hotline calls cities receive, according to 311 managers. “There has been a steady increase in the people who continue to call us by phone,” said Hobson. In response, the city has put the most common questions it receives online in hopes of reducing the call volume. “Yet the calls continue to go up,” he said. And as the city adds new services and facilities (Sacramento recently opened a new downtown sports arena), it leads to more calls and queries to 311.
Moving more calls to online channels is important because the expense of having human call agents on staff to manage the queries and complaints is an issue for most cities. “The problem with 311 is that cities cannot sustain the call volume because of the cost,” said Steve Craig, director of constituent services for Somerville, Mass. “You need to be proactive about pushing the other channels as a means for engagement.”
For cities that operate 311 around the clock, the cost factor becomes critical. Sacramento, which has a population of approximately 480,000, is on the borderline in terms of city size for 24/7 311 services. “There’s very little activity after 10:00 p.m., until 6:30 a.m.,” Hobson said. Yet the city continues to maintain round-the-clock 311 service for a number of reasons.
Sacramento’s response has been to move as much of the information and requests as it can from phone calls to online knowledge-based articles or to chat, which can be handled differently. “Calls are the most expensive and least efficient means of customer service,” explained Hobson. “We want to reserve as much of the phone call time for those challenging and difficult questions. If the request is easy, you shouldn’t have to phone in that your garbage wasn’t picked up. That’s a straightforward request that can be done automatically through the Web or an app.”
But providing the public with easy-to-understand instructions — whether online or over the phone while talking with an operator — brings up another challenge in the world of customer engagement: It takes time and a lot of work to design the content that goes into the knowledge management system used by call center operators and, by extension, the apps that must capture what the customer wants, process the request, and convey it to the right agency or worker in the field.
“The problem is designing content so that a question can be quickly translated into useful information,” said Cornelius. “How do you create content that can be easily searched? How do you design content based not on what cities call things, but what a customer might call and ask about?”
Cornelius worked with New York City and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg on one of the earliest and most comprehensive CRM knowledge management databases ever designed. He said it was one of the most time-consuming parts of the project, pointing out that the database needed to have just the right kind of search words associated with the right content — and it had to be kept current.
“This is important with 311, where you are trying to provide the right information or answer on the first call,” he said.
The other reason why content design is so important has to do with the fact that call center agents are not domain experts. Making it easy for them to take a customer’s question or request and find the right answer — or the right department to handle the request — is critical to providing good service.
When a call center agent is talking with someone on the phone, he or she has the flexibility to ask additional questions to pinpoint the nature of the complaint or request. This isn’t the case when queries originate online, especially with social media, such as Twitter or Facebook.
“We have to triage those requests through the call center; they can’t just be automatically routed to a department,” said Jean Ann Lawson of Kansas City. A Web request or tweet actually takes longer to process because the staff person has to figure out how to classify the problem, code it correctly and get it to the right source. “A pothole isn’t always a pothole,” she explained. If, in fact, it’s a sinkhole, that involves a different department — water versus street repair — and a different kind of response.
One technological solution to the kind of ambiguity that can crop up through social media or Web requests is that the more advanced 311 systems include asset mapping. According to Lawson, Kansas City’s 311 will show if a utility or sewer line is beneath the location of a reported pothole, which helps take the guesswork out of some of the requests.
Asking the right questions, classifying the requests and then coding them properly so they get routed to the right department, brings up another issue that vexes every 311 system, namely well trained staff. Finding qualified workers to staff the 311 call centers, train them and then keep them isn’t easy. Many cities are just beginning to grow their staffs again after years of freezes. Those that can hire struggle to find the right people. Finding qualified staff members with the right computer skills and customer service skills can be a real challenge, according to Amber Wiens, manager of CS Week 311, a networking organization for 311 professionals. In particular, cities are looking for call agents who are bi- or multilingual to serve the non-English-speaking public, she said.
As Lawson and other 311 managers keep pointing out, cities need their best and brightest folks in there who can answer questions. “Our mantra is to be accurate, courteous and easy,” Craig said.