Articles

The Future of CRM and Customer Service: Look to Boston

Every service request — by phone, mobile app or Boston’s Web portal — becomes a piece of data that can be used to track the city’s performance.

by / June 1, 2017
In Boston, nearly 60 percent of service requests come via digital channels.

If traditional, hotline 311 calls and fully staffed call centers are financially unsustainable, then the future of customer service and CRM might be found in the city where the first mobile app was launched. Since that eventful moment, Boston has seen its digital channels grow significantly, expanding 10 percent per year for the past three years, according to CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge. “Today, we are averaging 59 percent of our service requests through digital channels,” he said. “There’s been a dramatic move by our customers from phone to digital.”

Like other cities, the rise in digital requests, queries and complaints in Boston hasn’t put a big dent in the number of phone calls; instead, the city finds that citizens are becoming more comfortable and more aware of the fact they can contact and engage with the city as never before, pushing up the overall growth in 311-related services. At the same time, however, better technology means better data, and that converts into better information for the city.

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.

Part 1: 311: From a Hotline to a Platform for Citizen Engagement

Part 2: Cloud 311 Popularity Grows as Cities of All Sizes Move to Remotely Hosted CRM

Part 3: The Future of CRM and Customer Service: Look to Boston

Part 4: CRM Use Is Gaining Traction in Local Government — Here Are the Numbers to Prove It

Every service request — by phone, mobile app or Boston’s Web portal — becomes a piece of data that can be used to track the city’s performance against a benchmark service-level agreement. “That data from the SLA becomes incredibly valuable information for managers to use,” said Franklin-Hodge.

Managers can use the information to figure out what to pay attention to, as well as any anomalies that can affect performance results. Franklin-Hodge related one situation where a city department was capturing weekend work requests on paper and not reporting them into the system until the workweek began, delaying valuable information on what repair work they had completed.

Another way Boston uses 311 data is to figure out which neighborhoods are using the service and why. More importantly, why aren’t some neighborhoods taking advantage of 311 services? “We’re trying to find out whether people feel empowered across different city neighborhoods to get their needs met by contacting the city and why there are disparities when it comes to using the app or the hotline,” said Franklin-Hodge. “It’s possible some neighborhoods might not know the services are there for them to use, or they don’t feel empowered to use them.”

The Amazon Metaphor

As cities become more sophisticated with 311, inevitably they speak about Amazon, the giant online retailer, as a metaphor of what public customer service can become. For example, Amazon doesn’t have a different website for each of its services; it’s all found under one digital roof, making it easy to shop. “Constituents expect the same from government these days,” said Franklin-Hodge. “That means breaking down the silos; building just one app, which allows a user to have just one login and one shared experience.”

While companies have figured out how to hide their silos from customers, government hasn’t quite reached that frontier. As Kansas City discovered, as long as there is no incentive or accountability for agencies to participate in 311, silos, whether they are hard or soft, will remain. It takes leadership at the very top to drive such change.

When it comes to customer services, one problem that government doesn’t face compared to the private sector is customer loyalty. If customers don’t have a good online experience on Expedia for example, they can move over to the next competitor. Government, of course, has a captive audience. But there’s a huge risk if government doesn’t provide the kind of consumer-like experience that is expected today.

“Consumers can’t change governments if they get frustrated,” said Franklin-Hodge. “But they will become cynical about government and lose trust, and will be less willing to support the next big public project or engage with us over an important issue. We have a profound obligation to define and set an experience of government services that is better than they have received in the past.” 

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.