Best Practices for 311 Call Centers Begin with Understanding Processes
There has been tremendous growth recently in the number of government agencies that rely upon dedicated call centers to provide citizens with a single point of contact--accessible through the Web, phone or by email--for non-emergency issues. In the United Kingdom, for example, the central government issued a mandate that by this year, all municipalities must deploy centralized eGovernment call centers to deliver better service to citizens by simplifying their interactions with municipal agencies.
While no such mandate exists in the United States or Canada, pressures on elected officials to manage costs have led many cities and counties to focus on this objective. In fact, citizens in many areas in the United States and Canada can now dial 311 to reach their local eGovernment support departments, which are now generally referred to as 311 call centers. What results do they get when they make that call or go online for assistance? That depends on how prepared agencies are to respond.
Making the Concept a Reality
While showing great promise in reducing costs and increasing service, government agencies must address a number of challenges when establishing a 311 or eGovernment call center:
Determining what services should be included in the call center and when they should be deployed
Maintaining momentum under changing administrations
Training agents to take a wide variety of calls, yet still enable them to handle calls efficiently and answer questions correctly
Getting the public to use all the new services--especially less-expensive channels, such as the Web and email
Process Improvement Is the First Step
The most important issue that must be tackled, and the one that is most often overlooked, is determining which support processes must be changed to work within this new structure. Processes that were effective in an individual agency must generally be modified to support a centralized call center, and different processes must be integrated to work together.
Call centers often spend too much time focusing on the actual handling of customer or citizen calls. However, successful call centers are not just about automating and managing interactions. The processes must be in place to support the overall resolution of citizen issues from start to finish. Successful call centers focus on closed-loop, automated resolution of customer issues that eliminate dropped issues, increase throughput (productivity), and improve overall service.
Focusing on how to automate the problem-resolution process is critical. The commercial sector, for example, has realized that the return on investment of deploying customer support automation comes from resolving customer issues more proficiently.
311 or eGovernment call centers face the same issues as commercial businesses. While many questions or issues can be resolved utilizing knowledge management tools and other productivity support features at the time of the call, other requests must be transferred or escalated to operational departments with separate systems and distinct management activities for resolution. These handoffs add complexity and can result in dropped issues, delayed responses and other maladies of poor customer service.
Answering the Call
The solution lies in developing processes that meet individual support requirements, getting information and buy-in from the people who understand them, and then implementing the technology to automate close-loop activities for issue handling, tracking, and resolution. What can governmental departments do to make this happen?
Look at existing call center processes from the citizens' perspective. Do they make sense? If not, they will need to be modified.
Design new processes without a specific technology in mind and then focus on technology to implement them.
Utilize people on the frontlines to help determine the best way to manage requests, an important component of call center process improvement.
Perform a technology audit of all systems that will affect the overall solution. Can these systems be leveraged in a new solution? If they can, overall investment and implementation times can be reduced.
Finally, processes need to be transparent to the customer. Agents must be able to deliver accurate, informed updates and provide exceptional service on the status of a 311 issue, no matter who owns it. This objective requires process monitoring, updates at all times, and a focus on support that extends well beyond the call center itself. When these challenges are overcome and the right processes are combined with the right technology, answering 311 will become as easy as 1-2-3.
About the Author
Ken Jochims is senior product marketing manager, Remedy Customer Service and Support, BMC Software.