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.
Not Just For the Big Guys

A municipality need not be as large as Baltimore to benefit from CRM. In Golden, Colo., a city of 17,000, a single administrative assistant is assigned to field all calls. The city's Golden Info program eases the burden on that employee and makes it easy for citizens to get information and submit requests via the Web site or recorded messaging on a dedicated phone number. Golden Info covers 450 topics, each with its own Web link and telephone extension. The information on the Web page and the recorded phone message is identical for any given topic. When staff updates the Web page, the phone message is automatically updated as well. All residents receive a four-page brochure listing the extensions; this brochure also is available on the Web site.

The Golden Info files provide general facts and contact information for each topic so people can call or e-mail the right office. In addition, many of the Golden Info topics allow constituents to request materials or report problems on the spot. One of the most requested forms, according to Carrie Vogt, administrative technician for public works, is the Water and Sewer Tap Fee Schedule. “When a citizen calls that extension, they enter their fax number and the form is faxed to them automatically,” said Vogt. “Or, if they're using the Web, they can download and print the form.”

For some topics like repair of traffic signals or potholes, citizens can request service or file complaints by entering information online or leaving voice messages. Potholes can be a sore point in any community, but Golden discovered that one way to avoid disgruntled customers is to solicit complaints and make it fun—hence the Pothole Hotline. “Every year we run a contest for five weeks during March and April for the citizen who calls in the biggest pothole,” said Vogt. “We measure and patch all the potholes within 24 hours and award a prize to the winner for each week.” Local businesses donate prizes, such as stadium blankets from Coors Brewery or free oil changes and tire rotations from auto service companies. Winners also get their names in the local newspaper.

Golden recently upgraded its system with asset management software that will track requests, generate work orders, record response by field crews, and automatically send a report to citizens who made the requests.

A Different Approach

Rather than scripting each pre-defined service category, Hollywood, Fla., has an open Request for Action form on its “Help me Hollywood!” Web page. Users choose a category, describe the request and location, enter any applicable reference numbers, upload photos or documents if they choose, and provide their contact information. All requests go through the public relations department, which enters the work orders and forwards them to the appropriate department for action.

“Some people find the Web site convenient, but others want to talk to somebody,” said Wade Sanders, assistant director/environmental services manager for the Hollywood public works department. Two trained customer service representatives handle around 200 to 300 phone calls per day. “Half of the calls involve assisting the callers to get to other areas within the city,” said Sanders. The rest are mostly typical requests—a missed trash pickup, a low-hanging branch blocking a stop sign—that is, until hurricane season.

When storms hit, the office is flooded with calls for information: Where do I go to get gas? Is the city boarding up its facilities? How long will it take to restore power? When do I put out the garbage? “We explain that our No. 1 priority is to open up main thoroughfares for emergency vehicles,” said Sanders.

To minimize the scramble for information, the city takes a preemptive approach. “Preventing problems—that's the key,” said Sanders. “We usually know within 72 hours if a storm is coming. There may be a power loss and it will be hard to communicate. We try to anticipate and get the word out for the procedures: this is what's happening, this is what to do, this is when normal service will resume.”

In addition to running updates in the local newspapers, on a city government cable channel, and on its Web site, the public works department works closely with the police department and emergency operating center (EOC) to maintain a reverse 911 system. This system phones all residents with a recorded message explaining possible service interruptions and giving safety instructions.

Public outreach is not limited to storm conditions. Public work representatives attend homeowner meetings; the department holds annual workshops with information displays; and all new residents receive an information package explaining services, refuse instructions, and how to get answers to questions. The environmental services division distributes its award-winning instructional video, “Clean City Hollywood.”

The Web site gives answers to most routine questions and also includes an array of streaming videos, including a video covering the five public works divisions, a piece on hurricane preparedness, and “Clean City Hollywood.”

City manager Cameron Bensen is behind the impetus to keep citizens informed. “He has empowered everyone to communicate to residents,” said Sanders. “The garbage collectors have the same information as EOC.”

— Granitto is a contributing editor to Hanley Wood.