Credit: Photo: City of Baltimore

A team of 77 customer service agents provide round-the-clock access to Baltimore's 311 call center.

Credit: Photo: City of Hollywood, Fla.

Hollywood, Fla., makes sure citizens can get information. The environmental services phone number is printed on every garbage cart, and drivers like Charlie Demontegnac are equipped to answer questions.

Public works departments spend considerable resources handling requests from constituents—answering questions, fulfilling service orders, resolving complaints. To streamline the process, more and more agencies are implementing sophisticated customer relationship management (CRM) systems to process and track requests. At the same time, these agencies realize that by aggressively disseminating information they can avoid problems before anyone has to field a call. Combining these strategies produces cost savings and satisfied customers.

Last year, the 311 call center in Bal-timore, which has a population of 650,000 people, fielded 586,450 phone calls, according to Elliot Schlanger, the city's chief information officer. Schlanger said those calls ranged from requests for bulk trash pickup to questions such as, “Who are the Orioles playing tonight at Camden Yards?” In 2001, Baltimore set up its CitiTrack CRM system, starting with the public works department, to record, assign, track, and report on all service requests.

The city identified more than 300 service request types and developed a script and a service delivery process flow for each. The 60 most popular services were placed on the city's Web site. Each link leads to the scripted questions for that service and gives a specific timeframe for response; for example, 24 hours for sewer water in the basement, 17 days for grass mowing.

“One database collects both phone- and Web-based requests,” said Schlanger. “A constituent could create a service request on the Web, receive a tracking number, and then call a 311 agent to discuss the status of the request.” About 11% of the service requests come through the Web site, he said.

Based on the service type and location, CitiTrack automatically creates a work order and transmits it electronically to the appropriate agency. “Operational crews or their supervisors update the work progress in as near to real-time as possible,” said Schlanger. “The crews do not receive credit for completing the service request unless the CitiTrack system indicates such.”

A component of the CitiTrack system, called CitiStat, provides performance measurement and management accountability. It also guides the distribution of assets and allocation of resources. An agency's CitiStat template covers all operational aspects, including labor deployment and agency-specific metrics such as tons of trash collected. Each agency has a report card that tracks new, open, closed, and overdue requests.

Like any 311 system, Baltimore's call center receives many requests for services the agency doesn't perform, and some callers don't take “no” for an answer. During a blizzard, for example, one persistent citizen called repeatedly, complaining that she was stranded in her house. “Of course, the agents explained that the city does not clear snow from private property, but the caller pleaded her case to every agent who had the fortune of receiving her call,” said Schlanger. Finally, one of the city's customer service agents lived up to that title by stopping by the constituent's house after her shift was over and personally shoveling away the snow.

In its first year of operation CitiTrack saved Baltimore $13.2 million in labor costs and reduced waste. For its efforts Baltimore received a 2003 CRM Excellence award from Gartner Inc., analysts covering the global information technology industry.