• December 31, 2010
  • By Koa Beck, Editorial Assistant, CRM magazine

311: The Agency That Never Sleeps

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For the city of New York, the discovery of one person’s trash has become a call center’s treasure. In 2002, while walking down an NYC street with three aides, newly elected New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg encountered an overturned garbage can. When asked who should be notified to clean up the mess, each aide responded with a different answer. An investigation into why these discrepancies existed uncovered a much larger problem for the city and its residents: Information pertinent to city residents was scattered across multiple city agencies and departments and was not being shared, making data retrieval difficult and forcing many NYC citizens to make multiple calls for support.

To fix the city’s communication breakdown and better serve its citizens, Bloomberg aimed to make all of the city’s agencies and departments behave like one unified agency under its 311 call center.

This undertaking would create one of the “largest and most comprehensive 311 systems launched,” says Cary Peskin, the former chief information officer and associate commissioner of New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).
New York City’s HPD was the first department to go live under 311 in 2003. In a few years, 311 was supporting more than 30 agencies, according to Peskin. (See our coverage of the HPD’s call center shortly before the launch of the city’s 311 system in the story, “A Day in the Life of a Call Center” in CRM’s November 2002 issue.) After more than seven years in operation, we take a look at how the city’s 311 initiative has endured the biggest recession of our time, how it maintains a high level of service with fewer resources, and how it has approached social media.

At the time of Bloomberg’s garbage can encounter, there was something called The Blue Book, which contained 40 pages’ worth of agencies, departments within agencies, and phone numbers to help citizens figure out where to direct their issue. “With the introduction of 311 in the city, that’s gone. You really only have to know that there’s one phone number you need to call,” says Saadia Chaudhry, the call center director of 311.

New York City’s 311 contact center manages calls in English and Spanish but turns to Language Line, a language and translation services company, to act as an interpreter for the customer and the call center representative. Doing so enables 311 to serve customers in 180 languages.

Fat and Happy

Chaudhry says that the 311 mission statement is linked closely with the administration’s three principles of open government: accessibility, accountability, and transparency. NYC’s 311 aims to provide the public with quick and easy access to all New York City government services and information with the highest possible level of customer service. “So this is new for government,” Chaudhry points out. “It’s not very often you see something in their mission statement about highest level of customer service.”

NYC’s 311 also seeks to help agencies improve service delivery by allowing them to focus on their own respective missions and efficiently manage their workload. “So if you’re the Department of Transportation and your department is responsible for filling in potholes, you shouldn’t be taking calls,” Chaudhry says. “You shouldn’t be writing down addresses. You should just be getting that information and then going out there to fix the issue.”

As part of its operation, NYC’s 311—now a unified agency—tracks, captures, and uses the data for forecasting, staffing, performance, and planning purposes. NYC’s 311 data and performance results also feed the city’s NYCSTAT suite of public tracking tools and measurement data, as part of the administration’s commitment to transparency.

Much of this data has helped reshape how services are distributed in New York City, eliminating duplication by centralizing all non-emergency concerns in one place. The city’s 311 system has uncovered spots where many agencies were performing the same services, such as improper disposal of refrigerators. NYC’s 311 has identified certain neighborhoods that have the highest level of complaints and helped concentrate resources to address those problems.

NYC’s 311 has also improved agency efficiency and service delivery, providing a detailed account of every inquiry and the ultimate result. This data is used in the Citywide Performance Reporting system, holding all agencies responsible for delivering positive results.
Between 2003 and 2008, a time that Chaudhry describes as “fat and happy,” 311 had a very thinly layered interactive voice response (IVR) system that ensured all calls were connected to a call representative in less than 30 seconds. Though there wasn’t much information up front in the IVR, 311’s maximum wait time was only three minutes. “If you called us at one o’clock in the morning, you would probably have the same experience as you would at 1 p.m.,” says Chaudhry. “Not only were all hours of the day treated equal but all calls were treated equal.”

NYC’s 311 call representatives also delighted in removal from the phones for impromptu five-day training courses, explains Joseph R. Morrisroe, executive director of 311.

“With the use of technology and our focus on customer service [311], we instituted new ‘perks’—such as giving extra break time to call center representatives (CCRs) who received customer compliments,” Morrisroe says.

Leaner Times

But when the economy took a turn for the worse in 2007, the phrase “budget cuts” suddenly had a presence at the contact center. At the same time, call volume dramatically escalated, as well as the types of calls. “People weren’t just calling about alternate side parking or potholes,” Chaudhry says. “The economy took a toll and there was a human aspect obviously. The effect on us was that we were handling more complex calls and more emotionally charged calls. All of a sudden, we’re getting more calls about soup kitchens and unemployment and ‘how do I get job training?’ ‘What do I do next?’ These were calls that we had always received but not at this level.”

NYC’s 311 saw more than a 200 percent increase in what are known as health and human services calls. This type of call also required a much longer handle time—upward of 20 minutes, compared with seven minutes before the recession. The unified agency suddenly had to confront handling longer, more complex calls with fewer resources while still hoping to maintain its “highest level of customer service” credo. From the beginning, however, Chaudhry says, there were certain aspects to the 311 experience that she and her team were not willing to compromise. “We’re not going to stop saying ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ or ‘is there anything else I can help you with?’ People have additional needs and that’s why we’re here,” Chaudhry says.

The city’s 311 call center also retained all its “fun” activities for employees, realizing that morale would be critical during a downturned economy. “A typical response when dealing with an increase in call volume is to cancel all off-the-phone time for CCRs,” Morrisroe explains. “We opted against this approach and used technology, such as Verint’s Impact 360, to find the best time to schedule team meetings when they would have the least impact on service levels, in addition to scheduling coaching sessions.”

Prior to the recession, team meetings were held weekly for an hour. But 311 changed the frequency to biweekly and started using SharePoint sites so that each team could have its own portal to post information, ask questions, and share experiences. The idea was to keep the communication constant despite fewer meetings. In addition, CCRs were given journals to document their coaching sessions with their supervisor or QA analyst. Most of the time, CCRs shared the notes from their journals via their SharePoint site to give other CCRs insight and tips. “We’ve found this helps them feel like they are an active part in the process and also gives them something to refer back to so they are aware of expectations and next steps,” Morrisroe says. 

A series of town hall meetings and Q&A sessions uncovered a need for a more aggressively layered IVR and the removal of the maximum wait time objective. Before the recession, 311 was staffing to a 100 percent service level. That declined to an 80 percent service level, which was “more in line with industry standards,” says Chaudhry. “For us to be consistently at 97, 98, 99 percent service level was definitely outside the norm for our industry,” she notes.

Now, 311 uses a Nortel system for telephone support and IVR with its Siebel (now Oracle) CRM system. The CRM system contains more than 3,600 distinct pieces of information that are answers to questions, as well as provides support features for CCRs, such as navigation instructions on what action to take next. For workforce management, 311 uses Verint’s Impact 360 to forecast the volume of calls and the call duration, and then to schedule and staff resources to meet the demand. All of 311’s calls are monitored for quality assurance through a NICE Systems call-monitoring solution.

To avoid mass layoffs during the recession, 311 also began shifting schedules and downsized the number of agents on the shift that received the fewest number of calls: overnight, or 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Although the idea of setting a closing time for 311 was discussed, the consensus was that this was not an option. “In a city like this, and as consistent as 311 has been, it would have been a disaster. It’s not something that people would accept,” Chaudhry comments.

Chaudhry and her team also decided to keep their emphasis on “soft skills,” realizing the sensitive temperament of many callers. “When you’re calling 311, you’re not exactly in a good mood to begin with. You’re calling because you don’t know what else to do. You’ve probably already tried a couple of other avenues. You maybe don’t have heat or hot water in your apartment. That’s not a pleasant experience,” Chaudhry notes.

In keeping with taking agents off the phones for customer compliments, 311 also created a wall of recognition for agents with the highest positive call averages—again, an attempt to keep morale high. “These little things went a very long way, and it did not cost us a lot of money to do this,” Chaudhry says.

By figuring out different delivery methods, 311 executives determined that they could still educate their call representatives without a traditional training setting. The traditional five-day course no longer required five days. With about two hours of online learning, eight hours of classroom time, and five hours of job shadowing, 311 CCRs could procure all the same skills. 

Everyone on the 311 staff is trained to take calls, and indeed an “all hands on deck” approach has proved necessary on high-volume days (for snowstorms, for example).

As a result, 311 also decided to stress cross-training. Supervisors and managers learned how to deploy 311’s IVR. Through cross-training, 311 ensured that members from any support team could perform the tasks of every other team. “We needed to do this,” Chaudhry recalls. “We had to do more with less, and training was a pivotal part of that.”

Digital Developments

Although 311 prides itself on providing human-to-human interaction, Chaudhry and her colleagues recognized the need to be multichannel, specifically to appeal to New Yorkers who don’t wish to speak to a live operator. As a result and because of the budget cuts, 311 embraced social media in 2009, launching a Twitter account (@311NYC) in April and a Facebook page (New York City 311) in May.

“We started in May 2009, which is pretty late, but we are government.... We knew before the economic climate changed that we weren’t going to be able to sustain the customer service solely through the call center based on the growth,” says Chenda Fruchter, assistant commissioner of 311.

Even Chaudhry admits that “about 90 percent of what a call representative can do for you, you can do online now.”
Fruchter confesses that when it came to introducing social media to 311, “I [didn’t] really know about that kind of stuff. It’s a whole new world.” However, like many companies nervous about sending their first tweet, Fruchter saw that using social media was consistent with 311’s objective.

“We’re still trying to move the interaction between us and the customer from being a one-to-one to the one-to-many through IVR and through the Web site and, hopefully, through social media,” Fruchter says.

Although 311 has made an effort with both Facebook and Twitter, Fruchter admits that 311 has proved to be very Twitter-centric, specifically because “Twitter is much more suited to what we do, which is put out a lot of information for a lot of people.”

Originally, Fruchter and her colleagues were nervous about getting service requests via Twitter, something that “produced a lot of anxiety for [them in] moving into this venue and not knowing the right way to do it,” Fruchter says.

Fruchter describes the customer feedback from Twitter as her “pivotal experience” with social media, as 311 users were quick to help the contact center in developing its Twitter etiquette. With suggestions on how tweets should be constructed, retweeted, and delivered, the customers helped define the rules for 311 to follow.

Among her many lessons on social media, Fruchter has learned that maintaining the social media narrative has not been 311’s sole objective in embracing Twitter. “You’re not there to be the expert and provide all the information,” Fruchter says. “You’re there to facilitate the conversation. A lot of people want to talk to each other.”

Staying strong with Twitter and Facebook, 311 also plans to start a blog soon. The 311 iPhone application has been received “very well” according to Morrisroe, who says that “[iPhone users] have downloaded the app and are using it to report lost items in a taxi, graffiti, damaged trees, potholes, and more quality-of-life conditions. Over 3,000 requests have been submitted since the introduction of the app earlier this year.”

Further committing to its digital efforts, the unified agency plans to employ a chief digital officer for New York City in the coming months.
“This could have been a very bad time for us. Morale could have been down, communication could have gotten a lot worse, and people could have been running and screaming from the call center,” Chaudhry says. Who knew that an overturned garbage can could yield such a positive outcome?

Editorial Assistant Koa Beck can be reached at kbeck@destinationCRM.com.

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