The problem started with a derelict house in Lynchburg, Va. Drinking and drug activity there led a number of citizens to call and complain to the city government. One by one, different departments began to act independently of each other, trying to solve the same problem. Over time, they filed a litany of overlapping violations against the absentee landlord. The situation came to a head when the city went to court to take the house away from its owner, only to have the judge throw the case out because of all the redundant violations filed by the city.

The embarrassing outcome forced the city to act on a problem that plagues nearly every local government. "We didnt have any way to centralize citizen complaints," said JoAnn Brown-Martin, Lynchburgs communications director. The problem wasnt just with code enforcement. Other citizens complained about getting the runaround from city officials, and of phone calls being repeatedly transferred, followed by no response.

So Lynchburg, under the leadership of City Manager Charles F. Church, launched a major effort at revitalizing how it achieved results. At the core of his plan was improving relations with citizens through better services. To deliver on that promise, the city built an integrated call center using customer relationship management (CRM) software from JPH International, a Canadian firm.

Now, citizens call just one phone number to file a complaint or to request a service. Trained service representatives use a database of scripts to gather information and then tell the citizen how long it will take to fix the problem. E-mail routes the request to the correct city department for action. If they want, citizens can visit the citys Web site and check on the status of their request, or they can use the site to file a complaint, giving them the ability to communicate with the city 24/7.

Revolutionary Relationships

But the technology that lies beneath the new results-oriented, citizen-first strategy in Lynchburg can do much more. CRM allows citizens to communicate with their government through a number of channels -- phone, fax, e-mail or the Web -- and it allows different departments to share information about a problem, complaint or concern in such a way that they can manage service fulfillment so that problems get solved and work gets done. These kinds of results are beginning to revolutionize the business of government and its relationship with constituents. "By using CRM and call centers, we have completely reengineered the way we do business in the city," said John Eagle, information technology director for Hampton. "We have not only centralized how we serve our citizens, but we have centralized our knowledge. CRM is transforming the way our organization works."

Hampton is just one of many jurisdictions that have turned to CRM technology to overhaul customer service. From cities, such as Baltimore and Chicago, to state agencies, such as the Ohio Department of Education and the Kansas Department of Revenue, governments around the country are investing in CRM and integrated call centers so they can be as responsive to their constituents as private companies are to their customers.

In fact, one of the key reasons governments are investing so heavily in this technology is the huge success the private sector has had in improving their bottom line through better service. People like it when they are treated as first-class customers by retail firms and service companies. Now they expect the same from government.

"In the commercial sector, CRM is all about making customers feel good so they will spend more," said Mark Searle, director of state and local market development for ACS, a CRM company. "In the public sector, its about enhancing your perception of government and making constituents feel good about how their tax dollars are spent."

This pent-up demand for better government

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor