Help Yourself

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The Gartner study on the Minneapolis 311 call center found a significant return on investment when residents used the Web instead of calling 311, which forces agents to log cases on the customer's behalf. The study found that each telephone call or e-mail inquiry cost an estimated $4.50, while Web self-service cost 50 cents per inquiry. Once 311 Web self-service was offered in Minneapolis, 20 percent of cases were logged onto the city's Web site rather than the call center, which has saved thousands of dollars annually.

Minneapolis' 311 call center also proved to be useful during a disaster. When the Interstate 35 bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in August 2007, the 311 call center became the de facto nonemergency public information center, fielding thousands of calls for assistance, status of victims, alternate road routes and media requests.

"We learned a lot through the process, such as how to better utilize our knowledge base," Stickney said. "With the battery of service requests we had, we are now prepared in advance for any disaster situation."

Self-Serve Grows Popular

Currently 65 cities have 311 call centers for nonemergency calls to police and other government offices, according to Dispatch magazine. Like 911, 311 call centers have become inundated with calls, forcing municipalities to keep up with increasing demand. Many municipalities are embracing a supplemental 311 Web self-service that works in conjunction with the 311 call center to alleviate high 311 call volume or provide additional city services.

"I think [311 Web service] is a natural extension to 311 call systems already in place," said Sood. "The 311 call centers have been a very important customer service tool to provide centralized services and centralized points of access to cities. But now the extension to multiple channels on the Web is an important pathway for cities and counties to accelerate services forward."

Like Minneapolis, Fort Wayne, Ind., implemented its 311 system, One Call to City Hall, in October 2007 and is averaging about 7,300 calls per month for all departments, with 61,600 calls in 2007. While the Fort Wayne call center previously offered a central calling location, city residents' calls weren't being transferred correctly.

Fort Wayne worked with Lagan Technologies to implement the 311 call center that includes Web self-service. The city initially provided Web services corresponding to the highest-volume case service requests: solid waste, neighborhood code, parking control, street department, property management, sign and signal operations, and right of way. Additional departments will be incorporated in the near future, including animal control, water maintenance and traffic engineering, said Sally Clem, billing systems manager for Fort Wayne and technical manager for Fort Wayne's 311 call center.

The 311 Web self-service option in Fort Wayne allows citizens to log requests after- hours, becoming a 24/7 call center in a way, Clem said. This feature is particularly effective for services like missed trash pick-up and abandoned vehicles, helps expedite service in the city.

"We feel it will be a great advantage to our customers to identify an abandoned car, and they can report that car to us anytime they want via the Web," Clem said. "We feel we will be able to provide better and faster service to our customers if we do it this way."

Clem said the 311 Web self-service will make city departments more efficient since they'll spend less time on the phone and will save money overall. City officials are looking to expand 311 Web service offerings in the coming year. Fort Wayne has been rolling out fiber-to-the-home services, in partnership with Verizon, and it's hoped the service will be an incentive for people to use the Web 311 instead of calling.

"Our departments can concentrate on what they need to do instead of answering the phone, and they can start putting a team together," Clem said. "Overall it makes our departments more efficient, and in being more efficient, saves us money."

Chandler Harris  |  Contributing Writer