Grand Rapids, Mich., Deploys a 311 System to Emulate

The new system has transformed and vastly improved customer service in the city.

by / August 21, 2015

Grand Rapids, Mich., announced it officially completed phase two of full implementation of the city’s 311 customer service system, Grand Rapids 311 (GR311). The project is now being used to assist customers with nearly all city services, including setting up new refuse and recycling services, water/sewer services, voter registration, property tax information, and city electrical permit and inspection updates.

Eight full-time GR311 customer service representatives now answer calls in a centralized call-taking center on the fifth floor of Grand Rapids City Hall, and in a first-floor service center that also accommodates walkup business. The GR311 system has more than 2,000 pre-loaded scripts that call-takers use to respond to caller inquiries and conduct city business.

The system has “transformed and vastly improved customer service here in Grand Rapids,” said City Manager Greg Sundstrom. And the results of an independent audit show that the system is becoming a business model for 311 centers nationwide.

A recently completed audit found that customer service representatives handled 265,692 citizen interactions through GR311 in fiscal 2015. Representatives also improved services, reducing the average service time from 3:42 to 2:59 and reducing the average time to produce a resolution or answer nearly in half, from 41 seconds to 22 seconds.

Improving Efficiencies

In 2010, Grand Rapids established a 311 steering committee with the goal of exploring 311 and implementing a system if there was a proven return on investment. The city was hoping to improve service to citizens, lower costs and improve productivity. The steering committee was comprised of department heads, including the water system manager and environmental services manager, who along with the managing director of enterprise services, are responsible for the operating costs associated with water/sewer utilities. These departments were simultaneously undergoing a competitive assessment with a third-party consultant to improve business processes and efficiencies.

“We were using a homegrown mainframe system that was about 30 years old for our customer information system,” said Joellen Thompson, water system manager. “It was in desperate need of replacement.”

The city’s Information and Technology division ultimately chose Microsoft Dynamics CRM software to replace the customer information system. The division also sought to build a content management and knowledge base while using the case management module to track customer interactions with the city. The transition of the city’s utilities to this new platform provided a perfect time to transition to 311.

“The utilities were in a state of change and focused on the goal of improving processes, which set the stage for a new customer service-focused effort,” said Grand Rapids’ 311 Customer Service Manager Becky Jo Glover.

The city determined the Water Department would be the best place to begin implementing 311 because the department regularly receives a large number of fairly straightforward calls.

“We had 20 phone staff that would do what they could to serve our 80,000 customer accounts – collecting money, keeping accounts up to data, etc.,” said Thompson. “But we didn’t have a lot of standard practices or documentation on how to handle calls, so we struggled with that. Our phone answering wasn’t very efficient.”

Working with the Water Department, the city sought to improve the customer experience through 311, allowing users to access bills, make payments, request account changes and service orders, find water outage information and more automatically.

Scripting and Documenting

The Water Department began by documenting calls and scripting answers to common questions in preparation for the move to 311.

“It was important that the solution provide options and be user friendly for everyone to be able to further improve customer service and the overall customer experience,” said Thompson.

After several months of documenting calls, scripting replies and implementing technology, the Water Department successfully deployed 311 for all customer service, meter maintenance office, and walk-in services last October.

Since then, using their new scripts as well as feedback from GR311, the Water Department has transitioned almost all of its Tier 2 calls into Tier 1 calls. The change has allowed the Water Department to reduce staff and save money. Instead of 20 call takers, the water department now needs just four. In addition, the remaining staff can better focus on the department’s core mission.

“The four people that remain also do other tasks, such as our billing,” said Nicole Pasch, ‎Grand Rapids administrative services officer. “We’ve been able to implement better practices in regard to auditing, and the billing and data integrity issues are no longer there. The expectation of staff has been escalated – we expect more out of them, they get more done, and they also operate more at a real business ownership level.”

Pasch said department-wide only about 4 percent of Water Department inquires now go to a Tier 2 level.

Last May, the Grand Rapids Water Department earned national recognition when the Customer Service Week Conference recognized it with the Expanding Excellence Award for Innovation in Customer Service, stating that their efforts “far exceeded the ingenuity, success and commitment we envisioned when this award was created.”

But Pasch said the department isn’t ready to rest on its laurels yet.

“We want to add dispatch to the 311, and once we do that we should be close to 100 percent of calls being handled at a Tier One level, which is our goal,” she said. “Going through a transformation during an economic downturn can be challenging, but this all came out in a positive light. We saved money, but at the end of the day, the customers get a better experience.”

The Grand Rapids Treasurer’s Office also experienced transformational advantages with GR311. City Treasurer John Globensky said that 311 and its walk-in center transformed its tax collection services.

“We’ve coordinated and consolidated services with 311, which has truly improved customer service and improved our responsiveness,” he said. “By funneling our calls into the 311 channel, we are able to better serve our customers, and are now able to implement a tracking mechanism to boost service to taxpayers. Since implementation, we’ve turned our focus on internal improvement.”

In the future, Grand Rapids plans further integration between its CRM, 311 technology and other city technology such as Cityworks, Accela and a 311 mobile application. The city also hopes to add geospatial content to customer service screens so that GR311 experts can provide city service points of interest associated with addresses, such as trash and refuse days; development of GR311 dashboards and performance statistics, which help drive change management decisions; and service enhancements such as offering fire home safety assessment appointment scheduling.

“City staff has made more than 200 backend business changes to department processes to streamline its services through GR311,” said Glover. “The success of the system is due to the enthusiastic support and participation of the city commission, city management and fellow employees who strive every day to refine and streamline processes to improve service for our customers."

Justine Brown Contributing Writer