311 Upgrades Make It Cheaper to Connect With Citizens

Some cash-strapped cities shut down their 311 services during the recession. But they can actually save cities money.
by | June 10, 2015
Washington, D.C.'s call center.
Washington, D.C.'s call center. (Chuck Kennedy/MCT)

When Tulsa, Okla., launches its new 311 service later this month, the three-digit hotline will be just one component of what officials have dubbed as the “Customer Care Center.”

Similar to many retail companies, the Customer Care Center will now let people request city services, ask questions and file complaints in a variety of ways. Besides talking with agents over the phone, people will also be able to chat with agents over the Internet, use social media to interact with the center and track the status of their requests online and via email.

311 services began in the 1980s as a way to reduce the number of nonemergency 911 calls. Today, more than 300 cities have a 311 call system. But call centers aren’t cheap. It costs an average of $3.40 to answer a call, with some cities paying as much as $4 or $5 per call, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. At the height of the recession, some fiscally stressed cities -- including New Orleans and Detroit -- decided the costs were too high and shut down their 311 centers.

But advances in call center technology, known as "customer relationship management software," have created new options for contacting city hall while also automating how requests are handled. Sophisticated scripts do a better job of capturing relevant information, and routing software makes sure the request goes to the right department and then electronically follows it until the job is completed.

And getting citizens to contact a city online instead of by phone can also reduce 311 center's costs. In Philadelphia, for example, the 311 app reduced calls by 15 percent and costs by 50 percent. The information cities get from 311 users can also lead to cost savings. San Francisco, for example, saved about $1 million a year in labor, fuel and equipment costs by changing the frequency of street cleanings based on the volume of calls and service requests from certain neighborhoods.

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Tulsa gets over half a million 311 calls a year, according to Michael Radoff, director of the Tulsa Customer Care Center. But having a live person take every request and question can be slow, inefficient and costly. Radoff, who previously worked in the private sector for 20 years running customer service centers, knows that city residents today expect a range of options for contacting their local government. What they don’t want is a busy signal.

That’s why Tulsa is spending $2.5 million for the latest in software that will let citizens connect with the city 24 hours a day by phone, computer or mobile device. The software will automatically forward their questions, complaints and requests to different departments for resolution.

Fewer calls also means Tulsa doesn’t have to hire as many agents to answer phone calls. Some cities have reported moving anywhere from 15 percent to 30 percent of callers away from the phone to self-service channels.

“We expect the self-serve option to be popular because many people prefer to use it because it is fast and easy to use,” said Radoff.

Tulsa used to have 12 different call centers, but the new software will help Tulsa consolidate all of its hotlines into a single center where agents can deal with everything from animal control to trash pickup.

The new technology can help cities like Tulsa in two important ways.

First, it provides cities with a platform to deliver citizens the kind of customer service they’re likely to experience when they call businesses. City officials are working hard to move away from an outdated customer service that consists of limited hours of operation, busy signals and multiple call transfers before reaching the right person.

Second, the technology captures data from the calls and online requests that can act as a performance metric for cities. Tracking information can show just how many pothole complaints the Department of Public Works received, where the calls came from and just how quickly they were able to resolve the problem. Radoff said the new technology will not only produce metric reports for senior management but will also be able to map which neighborhoods have the most problems, for example.

The more progressive and transparent cities, such as New York, are posting the reports on their websites so citizens can see how well the city resolves complaints and problems. Radoff said that Tulsa plans to do the same.

When it comes to improving customer service, cities have to be technologically agile, according to Radoff.

“You have to upgrade, you have to invest in technology, so that citizens can get the services they pay for, so that businesses can get the things done to run their businesses better,” he said. “311 technology is going to make Tulsa a more accessible and transparent local government for its citizens.”