311 Survey: Customer Service Systems Spread to Smaller Cities and Counties

311 systems reduce 911 calls and offer better customer service and management information - but cost remains an issue.

by / May 12, 2008

A local government uses a centralized customer service system - sometimes called 311 - so residents can call a centralized government phone number, place requests for service and are assigned tracking numbers to monitor their requests.

Though a centralized customer service system is valuable for residents, local governments benefit too. Some big cities - Baltimore, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York, Houston and Dallas - have implemented these systems to ease the burden on 911 emergency systems, and they seem to be doing the trick.

The International City/County Management Association recently conducted a Local Government Customer Service Systems (311) national survey. Funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the survey explored successful 311 implementations and how they're used to respond to citizen needs and strengthen local government-constituent relationships.

Overall Usage
Of 710 survey respondents, only 104 reported they use a centralized system. But the results show that not only large cities and counties are using them: Thirty-two local governments that use a centralized system have a population under 30,000. Although that number of adopters seems low, twice as many local governments are considering installing a system.

For local governments that lack systems, the major concerns were cost and the process of obtaining a 311 designation. But implementation leads to demonstrable savings, such as reduced calls to 911, and improved customer service, information, reporting and management. There are also alternatives to a 311 designation, such as an easy-to-remember, seven-digit number.

Forty-three percent of respondents - the highest percentage in the survey - cited improving their service as the impetus behind system implementation. In Los Alamos County, N.M., 311 system implementation was prompted by the overwhelming number of phone calls for information after devastating wildfires, according to the Los Alamos County KanDu/311 Contact Center, one of many reports from Call 311: Connecting Citizens to Local Government Case Study Series.

Public pressure was also identified as a factor, and poor results on citizen satisfaction surveys often prompt the exploration of a centralized system. Residents expect value for their tax dollars, and centralized customer service systems can show demonstrated areas of high performance and those needing improvement.

Technology and Logistics
A small majority of local governments, 52.2 percent, said they used off-the-shelf call intake technology. Most governments have added their customizations, and vendors are generally willing to work with clients to make modifications. For example, San Antonio, Texas, already had departments with their own call centers and work management systems, so officials designed an overlay system that works with all of the systems, according to San Antonio Customer Service/311, another report from the ICMA's Call 311 case study series.

As far as handling calls, the survey showed there isn't a consistent practice. Call intake technology and the centralized service system work hand-in-hand. Central call staff members are trained to handle the calls in 38 percent of the reporting local governments, and 28 percent said that central call staff records the call and then transfers the caller to the responsible department.

Other local governments reported that customers enter their "call" into a Web-based system, which then routes the information to the responsible department. Departments may also take calls and enter them into a centralized system.

Local governments that have implemented a 311 system recommend that not all departments go online simultaneously. They suggest going live first with the three or four departments with the highest call volume, and then adding more as the system matures.

Local governments that responded to the survey said the following services are integrated into their 311 system:
o public works (95 percent);
o code enforcement (88 percent);
o city and county management and administration (84 percent); and
o parks and recreation (81 percent).

Twenty-eight local governments have tracked the number of nonemergency calls to 911 since their centralized systems

were implemented, and 43 percent reported a decrease in calls to 911. Oftentimes, frustrated customers call 911 when they don't know which department to call, so any central call number sometimes will reduce those calls to 911.

Requests for services topped the list of requests received by governments' centralized systems. Although complaints about graffiti and vacant lots were listed separately, they are probably handled as requests for service because dispatching employees is necessary to address the problem.

Customers often have different needs or preferences when communicating with a service provider. Local governments reported that they provide more than telephone access to the system, with e-mail and Web access reported by the highest percentages of governments. None of the local governments indicated use of voice recognition; they facilitate wider use of their system by offering multiple ways to access the system because Web and e-mail allow customers 24/7 access.

Forty-four localities reported that their centralized customer service system uses GIS, which can show on a map the potholes or graffiti in a particular neighborhood - an aid when identifying patterns of problems.

Customer service representatives can also use GIS to provide directions to callers. One local government indicated that GIS helped track the location of work crews sent to a dangerous neighborhood where two police officers are required to patrol together. The local government could then plan to ensure work crew safety.

GIS is important to consider from the start. Integrating GIS lets departments better organize work crews and assignments. It also lets call center staff ensure locations requested for service are within their jurisdiction and not a neighboring community.

Responsiveness Is Key
Eighty-two local governments reported that their systems include customer response mechanisms, such as estimated repair times or notifications that the repair has been made. Seventy-one local governments give the caller a tracking number, which lets the customer obtain status reports by phone or online.

Several local governments provide more than one update, such as the estimated resolution date, an automated e-mail with the request and additional information, and automated e-mail resolution updates. E-mail is typically used to communicate the response, although phone and postal mail are also used at the customer's request.

Almost 90 percent of local governments reported that routing and tracking requests are handled within the centralized system. Most of those governments indicated that departments are alerted when a request is submitted, which suggests the centralized system may not be integrated with a work-order system. Centralized systems are updated to reflect job status, according to 92 percent of respondents.

Ten local governments reported that routing and tracking are handled by department-specific work-order systems. Of those, six update the central customer service system with job status information. Most proponents of centralized systems stress that integration with a work- order system is critical.

Reporting Capabilities and Use
Centralized customer service systems can support management decisions, policies and strategies. Reports generated from the system are a starting point for this support. If managers receive information about service requests by geographic area, for example, they can identify patterns that seem concentrated in a particular location and take steps to address those problems.

The amount of time taken to complete a service request is useful for establishing benchmarks and for evaluating processes and procedures involved in the response. Being able to access information on repeat requests allows a manager to look at why a problem recurs.

Twenty-six of the local governments that use reports for performance measurement indicated that they use all four of the reporting capabilities listed in the survey - neighborhood or geographic area, type of service request, repeat requests and time spent. The two least-reported uses of the report information are for capital maintenance planning and annual reports.

Using the data with citizen groups and in annual reports is an essential step in the customer service feedback loop. For example, if code enforcement staff members know a problem occurs more often in a particular neighborhood and use the reports to show that the frequency has significantly decreased, they can demonstrate their responsiveness. It also may help engage residents in solving the problem by showing them the data. Staff could compare across neighborhoods and show what's different and what works.

Financial Information

The survey included questions about development, capital and operating expenditures. Few respondents provided information, and the expenditures in each category varied significantly. For this reason, the information is difficult to use.

The first category of expenditures is "development and implementation," defined as planning, design, consulting and staff time. Ten local governments provided amounts, ranging from $1,000 to more than $4 million.

The next category is capital expenditures, which included software and hardware purchased to implement the system. The lowest amount reported was $8,000, and the highest was $525,000. Annual operating expenditures were described as staffing, training, supplies, software and noncapital hardware. Again, amounts reported ranged from $1,350 to $350,000.

Although current 311 use is limited, there is significant interest in these systems: Almost twice the number of local governments that currently use them plan to implement a system in the future. We anticipate expanded use of these systems as more success stories are told about the benefits of robust reporting capabilities

Visit ICMA's National Study of 311 and Customer Service Technology for case studies and other resources on centralized customer service systems.



Evelina Moulder Contributing Writer
Evelina Moulder is director of survey research for International City/County Management Association in Washington, D.C.