The technology behind a good call center experience can bolster the public’s opinion of city government, says Mark Grant, 911 communications manager of Dyersburg, Tenn. Grant says efficient call-taking procedures allow his staff to handle incoming calls more easily and accurately.

Dyersburg’s call center fields customer calls in an integrated 311 and 911 environment, where both emergency and non-emergency calls are answered by the same operators. Different ring tones let operators quickly sort emergency calls from less urgent requests.

The ability for citizens to dial one number for everything simplifies their interaction with the city, and the ability for call takers to easily prioritize calls makes the process less stressful for both parties.

“You don’t have to worry about flipping through a phone book. You can dial 311 and it doesn’t matter if it’s a non-emergency request for police or fire, or if it’s an emergency request or if your stop sign [is] missing,” Grant said. “We can process that call for you.”

The city of more than 17,000 implemented the system in 2010, and the operators have noticed benefits since then. According to Grant, there has been a decrease in the number of non-emergency calls coming through 911, even during disasters. At the same time, 311 calls have increased, but stress levels have remained low because operators can manage calls more easily, even when the volume is high.

Today, operators in the city’s 12-person call center answer 99 percent of non-emergency calls in less than 20 seconds and emergency calls in less than 10 seconds, according to Grant. In 2012, they processed more than 123,700 calls.

Inside the System

Dyersburg advertises 311 as the number for citizens to dial to reach police, fire and other government agencies for non-emergency issues. When a citizen dials 311, that call is routed to the same operators who answer 911 calls. Staff members can tell the difference between each call based on their ring tone — 311 has a softer ring than 911. And from an operational standpoint, a call taker will put a non-emergency call on hold if he or she receives an emergency call during an answering session.

Operators use CRM software to log and track non-emergency calls and the information associated with them. The operator can type notes about the call directly into the system while on the phone, essentially creating reports that are the basis for tracking and resolving the citizen’s issue over time.

The online reports also increase accountability and data intelligence within Dyersburg’s community and the administration. The operator can create a ticket for the issue, which is crucial to report tracking and future communication regarding the issue in question.

“You get a ticket number assigned to your complaint, and that’s emailed back to you in a verification,” Grant said. “We have the ability to track all of the complaints by GIS mapping.”

The CRM software’s user interface lets an operator create geocoded reports for future reference. He or she clicks a “where” tab on the computer screen, and the program zooms in on an interactive map containing GIS layers. The operator moves a digital pin dot onto a spot on the map to mark the location of the caller’s incident and saves the interaction. This generates a trouble ticket that’s automatically sent to the city department responsible for fixing the problem.

“It’s real time, and it starts a clock. If that trouble ticket isn’t closed in four hours, then it starts to re-email people,” said Keith LeBeau, CEO of QScend, which makes the QAlert CRM software used by Dyersburg. “There are all kinds of service requests — barking dogs, road kill, broken trees, trees on wires, missing stop signs — the product has an extensive knowledge base.”

Citizens can also create trouble tickets themselves on Dyersburg’s website, and the system automatically routes the complaint to the appropriate personnel to resolve the issue. Someone from city government must respond to the citizen within 48 hours with the status of the complaint, Grant said. City personnel also input data in the system about what they’re doing to fix the problem.

“If they don’t do it within a certain time frame, that ticket is automatically escalated and forwarded to that person’s supervisor,” Grant said. “And if that person’s supervisor drops the ball, it’s automatically forwarded to the mayor’s office. The mayor can say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Last week, Joe Blow talked about this pothole, and you haven’t responded to him. Have you fixed it?’”

The technology also helps Dyersburg fix issues and answer citizens’ questions more conveniently. According to LeBeau, QAlert prompts city personnel and those in other customer organizations to write detailed articles about internal procedures that departments use to speed up the call-taking and resolution process. Utility employees, for example, are asked about the procedures they follow to fix certain problems. Once these routine actions are recorded, operators can refer to them and answer citizen calls accordingly.

“When they get this call, somebody might ask them, ‘What department do I have to go to to get a permit to burn brush after this storm?’” LeBeau said. In this case, the operator would use the knowledge base to answer the caller’s question. “They don’t have to create a service request, but they have, at that point, logged the call.”

In addition, citizens can browse the knowledge base online, sparing them the need to dial the call center for information about city services and rules. Someone can search topics related to a particular issue, like the housing and neighborhood category, and learn the rules for storing junk and debris outside a home and what number to call to file a complaint.

The Future of Call Centers

Dyersburg merged the 311 and 911 numbers to divert the flow of non-emergency calls to 911 operators. In 2007, city employees began comparing the call volume with the types of calls received and released an RFP in 2009 for citizen service request management software. Dyersburg bought QAlert for roughly $30,000.

Although the integrated call center works well for the city, Grant is unsure if the practice of melding the two numbers will catch on nationwide. “I think, if you talked to a lot of 911 directors about implementing this service in a call center, they would balk [at it] because they would have a perception that they can’t handle it,” he said.

But Grant thinks that cities will warm to the possibility if they assess their current capabilities and needs.

“If cities do a really good job of promoting the 311 call center, they get a reduction in 911 calls,” LeBeau said.

Illustration by Tom McKeith

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.