• May 1, 2013
  • By Leonard Klie, Editor, CRM magazine and SmartCustomerService.com

Toronto's Nerve Center Provides Easy Access

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A few years ago, the city of Toronto was hit with a mandate from then-mayor David Miller to raise customer satisfaction levels. One of the main parts of that effort was a move to consolidate nine contact center operations scattered across 26 locations and to eliminate more than 250 disparate phone numbers for nonemergency city services. That mandate also included making service transparent by offering tracking numbers to callers for accountability, and imposing service-level standards.

Thus was born the Toronto 311 contact center, which officially launched in the city's Metro Hall in September 2009 after a three-year vendor screening process. Lagan Technologies, which was acquired in late 2010 by Kana Software, won the contract. Its Lagan Local Government Solutions, a blend of agent desktop, case management, business process management, knowledge management, real-time analytics, social media capabilities, and integrations with a wide range of back-office systems, power the Toronto 311 operation. The contact center, which runs in a Voice over IP environment, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Also included in the technologies employed at Toronto 311 is call recording, quality management, and speech analytics, which contact center management use to enhance operations and better serve customers. Together these technologies are helping the city understand what callers are saying, how they are saying it, and why they are calling.

Toronto 311 uses Verint Systems' Impact 360 Speech Analytics Essentials software, which allows the call center to index and organize data from each call. It also automatically categorizes the phone calls according to stated goals and identifies the most common reasons for calls within each of those categories.

Speech analytics also helps identify call drivers and root causes for increased call volumes and trending. It also provides information about how customer service representatives handle each call, how long the caller has to wait before speaking to an agent, call handling time, and other factors.

"We're using [speech analytics] to work with our agents," says Heather Callahan, Toronto's manager of information and business development. "We can see the really good calls and use them for training."

Toronto 311 is also using speech analytics to measure the emotional reactions of residents to city services, which supervisors and agents can then use to anticipate and better deal with high-emotion calls.

Callahan says speech analytics is not only helping the contact center, but it's improving government services in general. "We can provide information to other departments or agencies to help them improve their business processes as well," she says. "We're influencing changes in government overall."

Along with the 311 contact center, the city put in place on its Web site a robust knowledge base with answers to about 15,000 questions dealing with the most common citizen concerns. Agents at Toronto 311 use the online information portal to help guide customer inquiries, but the public can also use the knowledge base to find answers on their own.

In 2012, the online knowledge base was accessed 270,158 times by visitors. It's becoming "a great resource" for the city's 2.6 million residents, according to Callahan.

But Toronto 311 is still by far the largest way for residents to access city government. The contact center fields between 75,000 and 120,000 phone calls per month, and call volume is expected to increase by 10 percent every year through 2015 as more city agencies and services are added to the system and public awareness broadens.

Agents at Toronto 311 also respond to about 12,000 emails a month and a similar number of requests submitted through the city's Web portal. All agents are cross-trained to handle interactions regardless of the channel.

The phone makes up about 92.5 percent of all contacts. Email and fax account for about 6 percent of all contacts. The online offering, which was only launched in mid-2010, accounts for slightly more than 1.3 percent.

"People are getting great service on the phone and do not need to go to the other channels," Callahan says.

It wasn't always like that, though. In the early days of the contact center, more than half of all callers were left waiting 75 seconds or more for someone to answer the phone, and roughly 20 percent of calls never got answered, in large part, it was later discovered, because of high agent absenteeism. Today, more than 80 percent of calls are answered within the 75-second goal, and some weeks that percentage can climb as high as 87 percent. First-call resolution for the month averages about 75 percent.

With the old way of doing things, some callers had to wait 20 minutes or more for transfers to the proper city agencies, and agents typically had to stay on the phone until the call went through. That was time wasted that could be spent doing other tasks. "Now, we can see that the queue is backed up and give the customer a direct number to call or place him in the queue," Callahan says.

Of all the contact center systems employed, Callahan has probably been most pleased with the real-time speech and text analytics, which she says have led to tremendous gains in operational efficiency. They have also provided better insight into what residents are saying about the city and what they expect from city government.

"Not a lot of governments are using speech analytics," Callahan boasts.

"So far, it's been really good for us. We can see what really took place on the call. That kind of emotional feedback is key," she adds. "Speech really does all the heavy lifting for us. It gets us right to the issues we want to see."

Also improving operational efficiency is a new mapping technology that identifies the location of service requests. While handling a phone call, the agent can verify in real time that a request has not already been made for the same location before inputting the request. Online service requests and email inquiries are also reviewed to ensure that there is no duplication.

Efficiencies through the current system have allowed the contact center to operate with fewer agents despite higher volumes. When the contact center first launched, it employed almost 190 people. Toronto 311 operates today with a staff of 120 people, which is 4.3 percent smaller than in 2011.

While the use of speech analytics has set Toronto apart from most other cities, the mobile applications it launched about a year ago have garnered the most attention. The mobile apps let the public use their smartphones to instantly report potholes or graffiti without having to call into Toronto 311. They can also submit photos as part of the reporting process.

The 311 mobile apps, based on an open-standard (Open311) system that allows approved mobile apps to communicate directly with the other 311 technologies, resulted in the city receiving a Municipal Information Systems Association 2012 Award for Excellence in Municipal Systems Innovation.

Besides all the other activity that is expected to hit the contact center, Callahan says she is excited to be adding quality management functionality soon. "This will give us a lot more of a structured focus on particular issues," she says.

Then, she's anxious to start compiling statistics to show the system's return on investment. "So far, our focus has been on service [improvements]," she says.

The Payoff

Since implementing Lagan Local Government Solutions, Toronto 311 has seen:

  • more than 80 percent of calls answered in 75 seconds or less;
  • first-call resolution rates climb to 75 percent; and
  • operational efficiencies that allowed it to cut staffing from 190 agents to 120.

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