Editor's note: 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. View all sections of the special report.
People like service that’s good and speedy, all at a low price. While parts of the private sector have excelled at providing all three, few local governments are able to be so consistent. But customer relationship management (CRM) software could be just the answer to that conundrum. Cities have been using CRM for years, primarily as the back end to 311 hotlines, in which callers talk to operators to get answers or to request services that were non-emergency in nature. The first 311 operation began in Baltimore in 1996 and has been growing across the country ever since. But running a call center is costly, and few cities can afford to staff them adequately, given the surging demand.
That’s where the next generation of CRM technology comes into the picture. Customers — as they are called by city call center managers — now have a choice to call an operator, submit a query online, access information over their smartphone, lodge a complaint via interactive voice response, text or use live chat. They can get answers to many of their questions — some managers say they can post answers online to 85 percent of the questions they receive — by looking them up on the city’s website.
Cory Fleming, 311/CRM program director for the International City/County Management Association, has pointed out that governments now recognize that city services must be 24/7 and that residents expect the level of customer service in their city or town to match what they get in the private sector. And CRM can help make that happen without blowing a big hole in the budget.
Having multiple channels doesn’t mean citizens will stop calling a city’s hotline number — local governments have rarely seen more than 20 percent of CRM interactions that are classified as self-serve — but it reflects the diverse ways that people want to interact. As one 311 call center manager put it, “Some people will also want to talk with an operator, and there are others who only want to use the Web or chat.”
When it comes to CRM’s impact on the digital city, there are a number of factors to watch:
CRM continues to evolve. One trend is known as “omni-channel” CRM, in which users can connect with the city through one channel and then reconnect through another, but have the same user experience, explained Spencer Stern, president of Stern Consulting and an expert on 311 systems. Another trend is to personalize each contact between citizen and city, so that call takers have a profile of a user’s past queries and service requests. And another trend is to allow for a single sign-on to reduce the number of accounts a citizen might have with the city to just one that’s accessed through CRM.
“The goal is to make citizen interaction more retail-like,” said Stern. “This dovetails with how smart cities want to simplify the user experience.”
CRM does face some challenges, however. Despite lower technology costs, call centers and the labor needed to run them can be expensive. Some cities, especially smaller jurisdictions, that have launched 311 systems in recent years have seen demand surge, putting a strain on budgets. Training is another concern. Teaching call takers to be knowledgeable about city operations takes time and effort.
But there’s no mistaking the fact that what started out as a solution to the problem of too many people dialing 911 with non-emergency requests has been transformed into an interactive, multi-channel strategy to make customer service a top priority.
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