Editor's Note: Executive CIOs and IT directors contributed essays to a book that will soon be published by The Center for Digital Government. This book, Governing with Technology: Essays on Leadership in the Public Sector, includes essays from some of the Center's local government members, one of which is by Hampton, Va.'s IT Director John Eagle. An edited version of his essay follows.

Much has been written about customer relationship management (CRM) and call center technologies. Web self-service, call centers, 311, kiosks and similar customer-service-oriented systems continue to build momentum. Fueled by demand for improved service, governments around the globe have accomplished a great deal in a short time.

No longer bound by the service counter, Web sites and call centers create new and improved ways for government to conduct business with citizens -- and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

We have made it easier for citizens to interact with government, made processes more efficient, saved money, and created added value by extending access and hours of operation. But much more than that, technology-enabled customer service systems of today challenge the organizational structure of yesterday.

Because people are no longer bound by distance, time or types of monetary exchanges, one begins to wonder about the jurisdictional boundaries that separate cities, government levels or elected agencies.

How does the application of technology impact these systems and structures? What are our traditional organizational structures transforming into?

I will explore the answers to these questions through a short recounting of one 311 call center implementation and the resulting discoveries and revelations. I hope others might benefit from our experience in Hampton, Va., and use it to implement their own solutions as well as further the cause of good government reform.

What is CRM?

Simply put, CRM is a system -- hardware, software, people and processes -- that helps manage the relationship between a large, complex organization and its customers. CRM allows individual employees within a large organization to have the power -- in the form of information and actions -- of the organization at their fingertips.

CRM allows employees to see complete customer histories -- why customers come to the organization and how the organization responds.

Some consultants have said CRM is dead, past its prime, just a management catch phrase, a passing fad; the real deal is customer service.

They have a point.

All too often we are tempted to deploy what our neighbors have deployed because the technology is impressive, but to do so would miss the point.

In 1998, Hampton, Va., embarked on a traditional strategic planning process. After many meetings, task force sessions, community reviews, stakeholder conferences, drafts and revisions, a formal strategic plan emerged outlining five critical issues to Hampton's future. One that stood apart was "customer delight."

It's a strange name to indicate the city needed to focus on customer service, but the city's goal was to provide more than just customer service. More than merely meeting citizen expectations, city staff had an imperative to exceed citizen expectations. We needed to develop a vision for changing the fundamental way we approach our customers.

This imperative came from our citizens -- and with good reason. While banks installed 24-hour ATMs, grocery stores extended their hours, businesses created 24-hour hotlines and shopping online became the norm, Hampton continued to operate in its traditional 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. hours.

Citizens complained that doing business with the city was difficult. They didn't know -- and didn't care -- which department was responsible for a particular service, and they found it especially frustrating to get transferred from department to department in search of the proper person.

As is often the case, even city employees were sometimes unsure who was responsible for what.

Customer-Service-Oriented Architecture

Putting together a call center can be difficult.

Consolidating all telephone numbers into one is simple enough. Designing new business processes to handle the calls is another story -- assuming the call center will function as anything more than a call transfer station. It is often said that government should operate more like a business. When designing a call center, however, this oversimplifies the organizational structure of government.

Government agencies behave much like independent businesses. Each has a specific mission different from every other business unit in the organization. Most agencies have little to do with one another -- they have distinctive cultures and their own suppliers and constituencies.

Consider the police department, whose mission is to catch crooks and maintain order, and whose culture is similar to that of the military -- duty bound and deeply rooted in standing operating procedures and policy. Now contrast that with the library, whose mission is to make available free books and information, and whose culture is obviously very different from the military.

Yet both use the same systems infrastructure, administrative systems, facilities and business processes. A clerk in the police department handles unpaid parking tickets in the same fashion a library clerk handles overdue book fines.

Governments are large, complex structures because they have so many diverse business functions. Bureaucracy in this context is not a dirty word, but a necessary organizational element. The challenge is in refacing certain aspects so it's easier for citizens to interact with us and take advantage of places where overlaps occur (like with procedures for fines).

In this respect, CRM by itself fails to capture the essence of our challenge -- we need to build a service-oriented architecture for the organization.

Our 311 Project

Hampton began developing a 311 call center in 1998. The city formed a project team and assigned a project manager to implement the call center within one year.

Unfortunately the market did not offer a software system with the functions and features we desired. The city used a work order management system in place at the Public Works Department at the time. The software was undergoing additional development, and the vendor added a database of frequently asked questions.

The FAQ feature could be adapted to allow call takers -- also known as "customer advocates" -- to answer information requests quickly and easily. To fill the FAQ database, the project team combed the organization for questions and answers, finding out what types of calls business units received and how they handled them.

During the implementation process we developed the FAQ database for customer advocates to use as a reference tool. Thousands of questions were input into the system with their respective answers. The database is indexed by keywords, meaning it can be searched in a Google-esque way. The system keeps track of hot topics and organizes the entry page accordingly, displaying the most popular FAQs first.

A valuable asset in any organization, the FAQ database represents the intellectual capital of the enterprise. The database puts the knowledge of the entire work force at call takers' fingertips.

During the database's creation, our development team sometimes discovered business units had conflicting information. The team was surprised and pleased, however, to learn the volume of information that was available. Going into the process, it wouldn't be unusual to hear a team member say, "We don't know what we don't know." By the end of the interview process, they said, "We didn't know what we did know."

The team also analyzed telephone traffic and determined call volumes for all business units to project staffing needs, and determine how best to reorganize and re-engineer processes. Staff positions were moved from individual business units based on call volume. Call volume would follow the staff position over to the call center accordingly. Most business units saw no reduction in staff positions, some lost a single position, and the largest units lost several.

There was some resistance to the reorganization, but the City Manager's Office, the project's primary sponsor, conducted many informative presentations to agency directors, senior managers and line employees. The City Manager's Office gained buy-in and momentum by convincing agencies that not only would their call volume be reduced, but customer service would be improved.

Building the CRM Culture

Call center candidates were thoroughly screened, and selections were based on customer service potential. Those who worked in business units that lost positions didn't necessarily get hired at the call center if they didn't show potential.

The average counter person, trained to accept transactions from a limited set of predefined types, does not necessarily have the optimal skill set for navigating the CRM-based online systems. Instead, we looked for "knowledge workers" -- employees whose basic skills and abilities enable them to do almost anything, if they have proper instructions. A knowledge worker can use the basic CRM tools to conduct any business transaction enabled by the system.

Call takers went through intensive training, learning about the city's organization, the city's various roles and responsibilities, city plans, and more. They learned to use the software and phone systems. They became experts in internal city policy and procedures. They learned about the community, schools, state offices and even nonprofit organizations. They refined their skills as customer advocates to provide exceptional service.

The final business process redesign was conducted with an anchor department -- a very large department with many services. During this phase, several issues arose that each organization had to deal with. Most decisions would depend largely on the organization's size and political landscape -- both internally and externally. We observed that an inverse relationship exists between the level of responsibility a call center can absorb and the organization's size. The reasons for this are not funding or resources, but rather other, subtler reasons, such as politics, turf and virtual boundaries.

One key design issue: Do you make 311 part of the 911 call center? Or should the two centers be separate? Certainly 311 will handle calls that previously went to 911 by mistake, and occasionally a call may go to 311 that should go to 911. There may be a cost benefit to consolidating the two.

We decided to keep them separate. We wanted to concentrate on our imperative to improve customer service. Let's face it, 911 is not about customer service. In an emergency, it's about saving lives.

Another decision: big bang approach or slow burn-in? We announced that our call center was going live with little fanfare -- a small mention in the local press, followed by a billboard advertisement a couple months later, and local media interviews here and there, complemented by advertisements on the Web site and in business unit literature. Our philosophy was to avoid a mad rush of calls that would cripple the call center and inflate wait times, creating bad impressions.

A media blitz would have done just that.

The 311 call center went live in 1999 and currently averages about 700 calls per day. The center is staffed by 10 full-time customer advocates, some part-time staff, a director and an information manager, whose primary responsibility is to maintain the FAQ database and associated information repositories used by customer advocates.

The call center operates from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. -- when 99.9 percent of the calls come in. During off hours, calls are automatically routed to the 911 dispatch center.

CRM Blocks

Customer advocates use three fundamental subsystems that are the building blocks of most CRM systems.

First is the work order management system, which lets them track and route requests appropriately. Work order management systems use workflow technology to route work requests to the appropriate city agency. With workflow tools, work orders can be handled differently according to predefined business rules.

A pothole work order may need to be sent via hard copy to a dispatcher in the street maintenance division, while a stray animal work order may require an e-mail to animal control. Each business unit's processing system determines the workflow rules.

The second is the customer database, a subsystem allowing customer advocates to reuse information already collected from citizens to provide better service. It contains names, addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, account numbers and other demographic data that keeps the organization from having to repeatedly ask these questions. Properly configured, this subsystem can also serve as a basis for an online account for citizens using the Web, allowing them to review the status of other transactions.

The third component is the FAQ database system mentioned previously. This collection of facts and information, cataloged and indexed, is known as knowledge management.

More Than a Portal

Staff must maintain the knowledge management and work order components as the information changes. Assuming these changes can also be maintained through a Web browser, anyone in any valid organization anywhere can manage services provided by the systems.

It follows then, that one government can bring in participants from other levels of government or other political subdivisions that share a common interest in the community served, saving taxpayers the trouble of navigating a bureaucracy that extends beyond the boundaries of geography, political subdivision or level of government.

Enabled by knowledge management concepts and the Internet, there is no technical reason why there could not be a regional information and service request center. In fact, such a system could also extend to nonprofit public-service institutions.

The system is more than a Web portal, for it does not require the participating organization to have a Web site. Participating organizations can use the system to create informational resources and allow customers to use the system to submit service requests.

Suppose the local animal control function is contracted out to a private company. The company could create FAQs regarding animal control services, then create a "stray dog" service type, allowing citizens or customer advocates to enter information in real time. That information would automatically be forwarded to the responsible party. As a result, animal control starts operating as a part of the central system, yet little was required other than their motivation to participate.

This raises the question: How do you get other institutions to participate? It may be difficult to convince a political subdivision it will benefit from participation. Even in the most cooperative environments, we feel strongly about our constituency, and want nothing to come between them and us.

One answer is the "build it and they will come" approach. As citizens use more call center services, they will question why other services are not offered. This will translate into increased demand for call center services, which will inspire agencies to consider the ramifications of not participating.

Finding ROI

One of the first questions people normally ask me about our call center is, "Did it save you money, and how did you quantify it?"

ROI is measured in several ways, but the most important factor is not how much money we saved, but rather the impact on customer satisfaction. Our mission was to fix a simple business problem: the complex bureaucracy and call transfers that frustrated our customers. The ultimate success indicator is whether that frustration still exists.

In this regard, our ROI has been significant. Survey data indicates that more than 94 percent of customers are "very satisfied" to "extremely satisfied" with the call center, and more than 84 percent indicated an improved perception of city services.

More than 20 percent of calls come in after regular city hall hours, and call volume has increased each year since implementation.

Another ROI factor relates to proper use of resources. Before 311, many nonemergency calls went to 911 -- especially after regular business hours. After 311 was implemented, this was no longer true. Take the city's experience with Hurricane Isabel. When citizens called to find out whether they were in an evacuation zone, where the closest shelter was or -- after the storm -- where they could get fresh water, they called 311.

This prevented the 911 call center from being inundated with nonemergency calls and ensured 911 call takers were responding to actual emergencies.

Another way to look at ROI is on a per-call basis. How much does it cost you to deliver a service from the time the call is received until the service has been completed and the paperwork done? If you streamline that process, how might you lower the cost per call? How many handoffs can you eliminate in each process? How much elapsed time can you eliminate from the process?

Finally one should remember that you're building a service-oriented architecture that will be a catalyst for change across the organization.

Last Words ...

Ultimately we made use of what we had and did the best we could. The software we got wasn't pretty, but it worked. It didn't do everything we needed or wanted, but it got us going. Over time, our technical staff will enhance pieces of the system. As of this writing, we've decided to test the CRM market again because we believe CRM has matured.

Web browser technology has only been around 10 years. Call centers and 311 are in their infancy. And the next generation of citizens is not only not intimidated by technology, they have an expectation that organizations take full advantage of what the technology makes possible.

What we see is a slow transformation taking shape. Enabled by technology, new organizational structures will emerge, as the stovepipes of the past are challenged and redesigned, and traditional business practices are scrapped. It's happening right under our noses. Some of us are probably even involved -- making it happen. We've introduced a catalyst to the mix that, when fully developed, begs us to reconsider the way we've always done business. Government is changing, and for the better.

John Eagle  |  Contributing Writer