Dialed In

New York City removes the wrap from one of the biggest call center projects in the country.

by / June 27, 2003
During his campaign for mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg was frustrated to discover that New Yorkers had to sift through pages of phone numbers for city services. He responded by making customer service via one phone number a key priority for his new administration.

The city is centralizing 40 different call centers, 14 pages of phone numbers and a host of help lines from dozens of different city agencies into one three-digit phone number and service center staffed by more than 300 operators. The initiative is backed by an integrated call center information system about as sophisticated and enterprising as they get.

In addition to handling as many as 30,000 calls in 170 languages, 24 hours per day, seven days a week, the 311 system is expected to increase worker productivity, reduce operating costs and help the city leverage its existing resources in dealing with quality of life issues. Once the 311 service has been fully marketed and the 45,000 square foot operations center is fully staffed, the city expects to answer nearly 10 million calls annually -- three times the volume of the next largest city call center in Chicago.

"There hasn't been anything done on this scale before," said Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) Commissioner Gino P. Menchini. "Ultimately the mayor wants to change the city's identity in terms of customer service."
It's not just the size but also the scope of the project that caught the attention of others in government. Most jurisdictions expect their 311 projects to grow in size, but many don't plan for the potential transformation of government services. New York City is different, according to John Kost, managing vice president for Gartner Research.

"New York City, unlike most 311 implementations, has a grander vision of how they want this thing to grow," he said. New York City viewed its 311 system as much more than a call center application right from the start. That view depicts more pro-active city services, as well as transparent government based on detailed information captured by the technology behind 311.

Other cities that have launched successful 311 systems include Chicago, Dallas and Baltimore, to name a few.

The mayor, a wealthy businessman who eschews the trappings of the office for a down-to-earth work ethic -- he rides the subway to work and has a cubicle at City Hall -- is known to have a passion for technology when it comes to solving business problems.

"He not only gets technology, he gives it," joked Menchini, who said he spent numerous occasions with the mayor going over the intricacies of the call center implementation.

In addition to insisting on one number (along with 911 for emergencies) for city residents to call for city services and information, the mayor also required that callers only talk with a live operator. He said automated interactive voice response (IVR) should not be used for handling requests or complaints, and that calls were to be answered within three rings -- the goal is to answer 80 percent of all calls within five seconds. According to Kost, most cities that have opted for 311 are using live operators as the main contact point for callers.

"Cities tend to focus on the channel that citizens are most accustomed to dealing with," he said.

Bloomberg set a final requirement: The call center had to be up and running in just a few months. Like many businessmen, he has no patience for a long, drawn-out procurement and implementation process. The initiative was announced during the State of the City address in January 2002 -- by July, the pace of implementation reached high gear, according to Steve Hurst, a partner with Accenture, the project's prime contractor.

Software, Training and Knowledge
One reason the project stayed on track was because the key piece of call center software, from Siebel Systems, was already used in a number of city agencies -- including the Mayor's Office of Operations -- for e-mail management and other CRM tasks, such as correspondence tracking.

Accenture was awarded a contract by the city to help deal with telephony, customer contact software implementation, call center development and overall business process re-engineering. The firm also helped the city set up the training program for call center operators, a crucial aspect in changing how government helps its citizens through centralized call centers.

Traditionally city jobs in help line centers have been dumping grounds for workers unsuited for other tasks, Menchini said. Under the commissioner's direction, the position has been upgraded to "citizen service professional" with training and a career path. Operators are trained to handle callers as customers and juggle questions from rat control and alternate side of the street parking, to housing and noise complaints.

Accenture set up four teams of professionals to implement the 311 project. The teams were assigned to business re-engineering, infrastructure and telephony, application software, and training.

In addition to using Siebel's software for the call center's management system, Accenture implemented computer-telephony integration (CTI) software from Genesys Telecommunications, content management tools from Interwoven and a PBX solution from Nortel. By all accounts, the most difficult part of the project was creating the knowledge database from which 311 operators could find answers to the wide range of questions received. Ultimately the city and Accenture developed more than 6,800 discrete lines of content for the operators to use.

When questioned, just about anyone at DoITT has difficulty pinpointing the start date for 311. The mayor's Web site has a press release announcing the service dated April 23, the local press first reported the service in March, while the center acknowledges receipt of calls since October 2002.

The reason for the discrepancy is simple, according to Menchini. "The mayor decided to have a soft launch, without any fanfare," he said. "He didn't want a big push on opening day and have the operators and the system overwhelmed."

Instead 311 service has slowly but steadily ramped up as callers (fellow employees at first) learned about the service.

Mining the Data
When the new 311 call center began operating, city officials prepared operators to handle all types of calls, from the routine to the unusual. One minute they may have to answer a question about the Bronx Zoo's hours of operation, and the next minute deal with a complaint about a menacing chicken in an apartment building.

At the same time, they braced themselves to deal with a higher call volume at certain times of the day, week or season caused by such things as increased noise complaints on Friday and Saturday nights, heating problems during the winter and pothole complaints in the spring.

Unexpectedly operators were flooded with parking complaints every Sunday. It seems New York churchgoers often double-park or block driveways in their rush to get to services on time. In the past, these complaints were spread among dozens of neighborhood police precincts, the parking authority or some other city agency.

No one knew the extent of the problem until calls flooded 311, and operators entered the complaint types and locations into the system's computers. After viewing the results in databases and mapping programs, it became apparent the city had a significant Sunday morning parking problem.

Each incoming call is assigned a tier, with tier one handling general questions and requests for information. If the question is too complex for the operator to handle, the call is transferred to specialists -- other operators who are knowledgeable about a specific agency. Tier-two calls are full service requests, in which case the operator takes down the details of the query, routes the request electronically to the agency in charge and gives the caller a tracking number.

The caller can call back later, give the 311 operator the tracking number and receive an update on the request's status. Eventually New Yorkers will enter the tracking number on the city's Web site to see the status of the request online.

Larry Knafo, DoITT's deputy commissioner for strategic technology development, tested the system's capabilities first hand, when some late night revelers turned the street in front of his Bronx residence into a drag racing strip. That evening, he placed a call to 311 for a service request and the next day called back to check on its status, using the tracking number given to him by the operator. The computer came back with the news that a police cruiser had been dispatched and an arrest was made.

In fact, Knafo's experience is a crucial -- and somewhat unique -- element of New York's 311 system. All 122 of the city's police precincts have been networked to the 311 system's database -- so calls, complaints and service requests related to quality of life issues are routed to the precinct's computer, and the information (all calls are geo-coded) is downloaded into GIS software. The police can use the information to analyze problems more quickly and decide on effective responses to the situation, whether it is drag racing on Friday nights or double parking on Sunday mornings.

The city's police aren't the only ones benefiting from the rich harvest of data emerging from the 311 system. The information can be used to help the city better manage its finite resources. For example, Menchini said the city suffers from a huge pothole problem, a result of severe winter weather. As complaints about problem holes come into the 311 center, the data can be displayed on a map, indicating which holes are generating the most calls. Using routing software, the city can dispatch repair trucks to priority potholes and fix them as quickly as possible.

These instances get to the nub of how 311 can begin to change the way a city like New York operates. For the first time, the city has at its fingertips performance metrics on what the problems are and how it's responding on a weekly, daily or hourly basis. The metrics are available because there is a common system for capturing inbound data from citizens.

"Every city that has done 311 has asked itself, 'What does it mean?' and has come to realize there's tremendous value in the performance metrics that can ultimately transform the actual service delivery itself," Kost explained.

The metrics and what they show, good and bad, can serve the democratic principles of government. "Our goal is to take these performance statistics and put them on the Web," Menchini said. "The mayor wants to make them available to the public, to shine the light of day on what's going on."

The statistics will not only cover pothole repair and the number of tickets issued for double parking, but also reveal how well the 311 system itself is doing.
During the first months of operation, DoITT officials noticed data that showed operators were giving callers phone numbers to dial for more assistance instead of transferring the call themselves. "That just jumped off the pages as a service improvement we had to make," Menchini said. "So we did."
Tod Newcombe Features Editor