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Scaling Down 311: Customer Service is a 'Core Mission'

Customer service is the leading trend in local government, as residents expect levels in their city or town to match what they get in the private sector. As such, 311 is typically a 24/7 proposition.

by / June 2, 2015
Chattanooga, Tenn., has used 311 for 12 years now. It started the service modestly, letting it grow slowly over time, and today handles about 4,000 calls per week. Flickr/Klobetime

Editor's note: This is part of of a three-part series in which Government Technology looks at how some smaller jurisdictions have leveraged the latest in CRM technology to improve customer services and how they are coping with the changes that come with the technology.


Call it the “Amazon” effect. Citizens now expect the same kind of customer service from their government that they get from their favorite retailer: quick courteous service, with multiple contact channel options. Not so long ago, only the largest jurisdictions could afford the software necessary to offer such advanced and versatile customer service capabilities.

But lower costs have put the software – customer relationship management (CRM) – within the reach of mid-tier, even small-sized cities. The trend is growing and the effect is beginning to impact how smaller cities provide customer service. But it’s more than having a 311 number and software. There’s a ripple effect to embedding customer service throughout a local government, impacting workflow, training and management.

Listening to Tanya Ange, deputy city manager of Mankato, Minn., you might forget she’s a public servant. Instead, she sounds more like the manager of a private organization or company focused on keeping its customers satisfied and loyal. “Our core mission is customer service,” she said, describing the city’s 311 system, which has been operating since 2010.

Mankato has a population of about 41,000, but in the six years since the introduction of 311, the hotline and the technology behind it have become an essential part of city operations. It’s the same in Evanston, Ill. A suburb just north of Chicago, the city has used 311 for four years and receives about 150,000 calls annually, double its population of 75,000.

Like Mankato, Evanston’s 311 has become the umbrella term for customer service that can take place via a phone call, an email or even a live chat. Its impact has been widespread and deep. “In the four years we have had 311, it has dramatically changed how everyone interacts with the city,” said Erika Storlie, Evanston’s deputy city manager. “You name it, 311 has completely changed accountability and how functions are performed around the city.”

For years, 311 was a tech-driven hotline service that only the largest cities could afford. But as costs have dropped, the technology, known as customer relationship management (CRM), has become more affordable. It has also become more versatile, providing mobile access, live chat features and social media support, as well as versions that operate in the cloud and offer advanced data analytics.

As 311 technology gets cheaper and better, it’s giving smaller jurisdictions the means to provide customer service that sometimes matches what is offered by private-sector companies. At the same time, 311 takes some of the pressure off certain service departments within cities, answering calls and managing requests that would have been handled by public works, permitting and utilities, for example. For small jurisdictions that can’t afford to add more staff, the time that a 311 call center and its online channels can free up can be highly valuable, not to mention a great help to the public looking for quick answers to questions.

Better Technology, Lower Costs

Columbia, Mo., launched its 311 call center just a year ago. Actually, it’s not 311. “We still have a seven-digit number, and we’re not quite ready to go fully public with it,” said Carol Rhodes, assistant city manager. Still, the city of 115,000 already has received 26,000 calls, which are handled by the three-person staff that answers questions and manages service requests from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Like other jurisdictions both large and small, Columbia jumped into 311 when its city manager felt it necessary that citizens have a single point of contact when connecting with the city. Columbia uses a CRM software program called Tyler Incident Management. With such a limited number of call takers, or customer service representatives as some cities call them, Columbia has undertaken a soft launch of its service, mostly handling calls that would have gone to public works regarding trash pickups.

Columbia’s move to CRM and 311 may be new, but it’s part of an emerging trend among smaller-sized local governments. “There’s a recognition by small local governments that service is now 24/7,” said Cory Fleming, 311/CRM program director for the International City/County Management Association. “Residents also expect the level of customer service in their city or town to match what they get in the private sector.”

That view is reflected in a survey conducted in 2013 by GovDeliverythat listed customer service as the leading trend in local government, more so than mobile technology or cloud computing.

Chattanooga, Tenn., has used 311 for 12 years now. But like Columbia, it started the service modestly, letting it grow slowly over time. Today the call center handles 235,000 calls annually, about 4,000 per week. A staff of 12 operates the center Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and is now the point of contact for utility billing, recycling, traffic violations, code enforcement for residential and commercial properties, zoning queries, and reservations for parks and recreation programs and events.

Chattanooga’s call volume has doubled over the years and continues to grow. To handle growing demand, the city’s website has a 311 page for service requests and is about to launch a mobile version of 311. “We expect the mobile app to help reduce the number of phone calls,” said Liz Henley, Chattanooga’s 311 call center coordinator.

Advances in CRM technology have made it possible to add more channels, like mobile, Web and live chat, as well as use social media to keep residents informed. In Mankato, which has just eight call takers, the city evaluated all the requests and questions that come in via phone calls and has attempted to put most of the information requested on its website. “Our objective was to keep most of the 85 percent of the information online that we have available to the public,” Ange said. “There’s always going to be 15 percent of information that can’t be online.”

In 2014, Evanston replaced its existing CRM with one called PublicStuff, created by a startup in New York City. The platform has given the city a variety of new channels to engage with citizens and to expand services, according to Susan Pontarelli, Evanston’s 311 and service desk supervisor. The city’s website has a 311 page that offers 200 types of requests for services; residents and businesses can also submit requests and questions via mobile, chat and text, as well as phoning the call center.

Next up: Look for part two, Challenges and Opportunities with Multichannel CRM, on June 3.

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.

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