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Why Do You Need a 311 Contact Center?

311 call centers ease 911 congestion, improve call management.

by / June 4, 2009

A 311 call-center model has emerged as a proven standard for municipal communications in numerous cities throughout the world. There are many reasons why a 311 contact center is a critical component in the efficient delivery of effective e-government. For example, opportunities exist to divert calls from the 911 emergency call center, improve citizen service, and better manage costs and budgets.

Consider the following questions to determine if you should consider creating a dedicated 311 contact center to serve your community:

  • Is your 911 contact center overwhelmed by nonemergency calls?
  • Do citizens constantly complain because they are dissatisfied with the way you provide information or respond to requests for services?
  • Are you always struggling to stay within contact center budgets amid ever-increasing citizen demands?
  • Do you feel like meaningful improvement cannot be made because you can't identify the true causes of operational inefficiencies?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then establishing a dedicated 311 contact center to serve as an "interaction hub" for citizens, businesses and other government customers is worthy of serious consideration. However, simply diverting calls from 911 contact centers will solve only a small percentage of the overall challenge. Far broader opportunities exist to dramatically transform the citizen interaction experience in a more cost-effective manner. Here are some of the benefits of a 311 center and basic guidelines to follow when implementing one.


Reduction of 911 Call-Center Congestion

In the absence of a 311 contact center, a large number of calls to a 911 call center concerning noncritical situations, inquiries and requests can negatively impact its overall efficiency and effectiveness. Thus, a 311 contact center represents a way to deflect nonemergency calls from an overburdened emergency police, medical and fire contact center.

Also, the 311 contact center can serve as a backup for emergency contact centers during major emergencies, either freeing up emergency contact centers to handle critical calls or serving as a backup for a 911 contact center that has gone down.


Improved Visibility and Management

Without a centralized 311 contact center, city managers have narrow views of what citizens most frequently need because departmental contact centers separately track citizen interactions.

A 311 contact center improves visibility and management of services because leaders can obtain a holistic understanding of the most common requests, where they occur and how quickly they are resolved. Management can also gain more relevant insight into the end-to-end citizen experience. This newly found knowledge lets managers better allocate existing resources and justify new staffing and technology resource requests to meet citizen demands for service.


The Keys to Success

Your new 311 contact center should not just relieve an overburdened 911 emergency contact center. It should also be a catalyst for significant transformation -- one that reinvents the way municipalities serve their citizens, improve constituent relationships and more efficiently use contact center resources. To succeed, the 311 contact center should be designed to focus on openness, interoperability, the citizen experience, agent and employee productivity, and business-process optimization.


Select an Open, Interoperable Platform

Regardless of who owns an issue, citizen-service representatives working in the 311 contact center must be able to deliver accurate status updates and provide timely service. This is why it's so important to have an open platform that ties into all the systems used by citywide departments, such as electronic records and management systems, work order management applications, appointment scheduling systems, and customer relationship management solutions.

Open platforms are also necessary because third-party applications are often required to enhance the capabilities of the 311 contact center software. For instance, an interface with GIS is useful to verify that information received about an address is correct so that a work order can be quickly executed.


Communicate the Way Your Citizens Want

To enhance the citizen experience, 311 contact centers should provide citizens with a single point of contact -- be accessible through the Web, phone, e-mail or by fax -- and facilitate consistency across these communication channels. In this way, citizens choose their preferred channel without experiencing a loss of service quality. When all channels are processed uniformly, operational costs also decrease dramatically and citizen satisfaction increases. Valuable resources are saved because the interaction is handled at the channel where the interaction originated, rather than citizens having to make a second interaction via another channel (usually a call) to complete their requests.


Connect Citizens to the Right Agent the First Time

Because a 311 contact center can centralize access to literally hundreds of nonemergency and government services, finding the right agent can be a real challenge. An interactive voice response (IVR) system and a skills-based routing application help determine the best agent for each interaction. An IVR system not only identifies citizens, but also why they are calling. With this knowledge, skills-based routing determines where the call should be directed -- either to a self-service application or to the agent or employee most qualified to efficiently handle the call based on specialized knowledge of a specific service, or the ability to speak the citizen's native language.


Make the Most of Your Valued Staff

Contrary to a commonly held assumption, calls to a successful 311 contact center may actually increase, rather than decrease, yet budget-sensitive municipalities often resist additional funding that would support this rise in call volume. Thus, the 311 contact center often must develop ways to handle the additional load without adding additional staff.

Balancing the control of staffing costs with citizen-focused service delivery requires work force management (WFM) software. WFM software is a critical requirement for effectively forecasting, scheduling and tracking operational needs within the contact center to help minimize costs, while also ensuring that residents receive fast and reliable service.


Reach Out to Citizens

The 311 contact center should support outbound and inbound contact. Outbound proactive contact can help reduce the volume of inbound calls and improve citizen satisfaction. For example, the 311 contact center could send notifications during emergencies about the status of the situation to help avoid a flood of panicked callers. Proactive notifications might be used to tell citizens about important changes in 311 services or about new programs and services.

Don't Leave Citizens on Hold
Long hold times are the biggest cause of frustration for citizens who call in to the contact center. During times of peak volume, virtual hold technology lets citizens receive a call back at a convenient time rather than wait on hold. This technique improves call response times, reduces call abandon rates, decreases telecommunications costs and increases citizen-satisfaction levels without adding costs for additional resources.


Integrate the Contact Center with Back-Office Fulfillment

By directly integrating the contact center and workflow management with the various departments' back offices, the contact center becomes an active participant in driving efficiency. A 311 contact center can reduce the time and effort for processing work orders by automating the departmental interactions and notifications required to complete these processes. Workflow management allows the citizen-service representative to efficiently take all necessary steps to resolve citizen queries, which reduces the time it takes to get residents the answers they are looking for. As back- and front-office integration decreases average handling times and reduces unnecessary repeat contacts to resolve issues, citizen satisfaction increases while the 311 contact center workload and costs are lowered.


Understand Citizen Needs

Because the 311 contact center is a centralized interaction hub, huge volumes of citizen interaction data can be analyzed to not only help the contact center allocate

resources more efficiently and effectively, but also to identify opportunities for improved departmental collaboration and service delivery. Also, management can more readily identify and resolve emerging service issues before they negatively impact community relations if they have an integrated view of citizen requests, the channels and services citizens use, and the level of service citizens receive.


Achieve Business Continuity Through Hosting

Good business continuity planning that includes hosted and on-premise flexibility will keep your 311 contact center up and running under any condition. A hosted provider is a way to keep a system out of harm's way at a secure location and offers the benefits of on-demand scalability during a crisis. As an added benefit, a hosted approach can also reduce up-front and ongoing expenditures.


Meeting the Challenge

Dialing a 911 number for every citizen concern simply isn't realistic in many cities. The 311 contact center solves this issue, but it can also do so much more.

311 can help cities meet increased constituent expectations for faster and better service, and to do more with fewer resources.

The selection and deployment sequence of these solutions should be flexible to accommodate a contact-center road map shaped by citizens' priorities and expectations and the need to drive operational efficiency and effectiveness. However, because citizen patience and budget constraints are unyielding, you should start implementing them as soon as possible to avoid foreseeable challenges with existing contact-center operations.

Bill Grabner Jr. Contributing Writer
Bill Grabner Jr., is the manager of government solutions for Daly City, Calif.-based Genesys Labs.
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