IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Customer Relationship Management: Diversity in Service

How are CRM platforms are evolving into retail-like customer service applications for city governments? We'll tell you.

Editor's note: The Digital Communities Special Report, which appears twice a year in Government Technology magazine, offers in-depth coverage for local government leaders and technology professionals. View all sections of the special report.

People like service that’s good and speedy, all at a low price. While parts of the private sector have excelled at providing all three, few local governments are able to be so consistent. But customer relationship management (CRM) software could be just the answer to that conundrum. Cities have been using CRM for years, primarily as the back end to 311 hotlines, in which callers talk to operators to get answers or to request services that were non-emergency in nature. The first 311 operation began in Baltimore in 1996 and has been growing across the country ever since. But running a call center is costly, and few cities can afford to staff them adequately, given the surging demand.

That’s where the next generation of CRM technology comes into the picture. Customers — as they are called by city call center managers — now have a choice to call an operator, submit a query online, access information over their smartphone, lodge a complaint via interactive voice response, text or use live chat. They can get answers to many of their questions — some managers say they can post answers online to 85 percent of the questions they receive — by looking them up on the city’s website.

Cory Fleming, 311/CRM program director for the International City/County Management Association, has pointed out that governments now recognize that city services must be 24/7 and that residents expect the level of customer service in their city or town to match what they get in the private sector. And CRM can help make that happen without blowing a big hole in the budget.

Having multiple channels doesn’t mean citizens will stop calling a city’s hotline number — local governments have rarely seen more than 20 percent of CRM interactions that are classified as self-serve — but it reflects the diverse ways that people want to interact. As one 311 call center manager put it, “Some people will also want to talk with an operator, and there are others who only want to use the Web or chat.”

When it comes to CRM’s impact on the digital city, there are a number of factors to watch:

  • First, CRM is moving to the cloud, making it possible to implement customer service without all the IT infrastructure traditionally needed for an enterprise application. That opens the doors for smaller cities to use CRM, and it can lower the cost for larger cities too. Philadelphia was an early adopter of cloud CRM for its 311 services. Cloud CRM is expected to be used in as many as 85 percent of all deployments by 2025, according to IT research firm Gartner.
  • Second, open data, a cornerstone of smart cities, is impacting the use and cost of CRM. Nearly 40 percent of the most common service calls into Chicago’s 311 are either duplicates or residents calling to check on the status of a request. By opening up that portion of 311 data to public viewing, Chicago and other cities have found a way to leverage open data so that it improves customer service while holding down costs. Other jurisdictions are using open data in similar ways.
  • Third, just a few years ago, it was hard to find anyone linking the topic of citizen engagement with 311 and CRM. Today, citizen engagement has become extremely important in local government, thanks, in part, to the merging of CRM, social media, mobile technologies and customer service. An excellent example of the interconnection between engagement and CRM can be found in Boston’s Citizens Connect mobile 311 app, which allows users not only to report problems, but also to provide feedback on community issues. Social media is beginning to play an important role in CRM services. Initially cities used Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms as a means to send outbound marketing and service-related messages. However, as residents have turned to social media to solve customer service issues, 311 service centers have responded and are beginning to use the tools as a way to interact, engage and help constituents.
  • Finally, CRM collects so much data about citizen complaints, queries and requests that it only makes sense to use analytics to try and measure gaps in service performance and to even predict what services might need more funding (and which ones need less) before the next budget cycle begins. New York City, with the largest 311 service in the country, has been running CRM analytics for years to measure performance to improve internal processes and services. City managers like CRM because it generates a complete audit trail, which can help them understand a variety of factors, such as where there might be staffing needs, or it can help them spot deficiencies in certain operations.
CRM continues to evolve. One trend is known as “omni-channel” CRM, in which users can connect with the city through one channel and then reconnect through another, but have the same user experience, explained Spencer Stern, president of Stern Consulting and an expert on 311 systems. Another trend is to personalize each contact between citizen and city, so that call takers have a profile of a user’s past queries and service requests. And another trend is to allow for a single sign-on to reduce the number of accounts a citizen might have with the city to just one that’s accessed through CRM.

“The goal is to make citizen interaction more retail-like,” said Stern. “This dovetails with how smart cities want to simplify the user experience.”

CRM does face some challenges, however. Despite lower technology costs, call centers and the labor needed to run them can be expensive. Some cities, especially smaller jurisdictions, that have launched 311 systems in recent years have seen demand surge, putting a strain on budgets. Training is another concern. Teaching call takers to be knowledgeable about city operations takes time and effort.

But there’s no mistaking the fact that what started out as a solution to the problem of too many people dialing 911 with non-emergency requests has been transformed into an interactive, multi-channel strategy to make customer service a top priority.

Go back to the Digital Communities Special Report.