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Minneapolis dials up a central call center

Minneapolis is one of the many cities moving to one centralized 311 system, bringing disparate city departments together.

Minneapolis, like Baltimore, New York, and Chicago before it, has implemented a centralized hub for citizens to call when seeking non-emergency services and information.

For Minneapolis, deploying 311 was an easy decision. In the city, with its population of 400,000, citizens used to call a series of different departments to access city services. Calls were difficult to track due to a lack of technology and harder for its existing agents to resolve. In 2004 satisfaction surveys revealed what the city had already suspected: Twenty-five percent of residents who called city departments to obtain information expressed dissatisfaction.

Don Stickney, the 311 call center manager for Minneapolis, wasn't surprised.

"If you look at the Blue pages, there are 275 different phone numbers. We wanted to change that perception," he said, noting that those myriad numbers led to substantial confusion among residents.

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As a result, the city decided to improve the way it tracks citizen requests, establish a management accountability tool for citizen follow-up, and measure departmental effectiveness. In the spring of 2005 the city council voted 14-0 in favor of implementing 311. The council established an annual operating budget of $2.6 million and $6.2 million in project costs, consulting, hardware, CRM, networks, and contracts.

The idea of 311 conjures centralized information and immediate and targeted responses to citizen requests. The challenge Minneapolis faced was merging data from the 16 different government agencies and departments and indexing the information -- a process that is still ongoing. Collecting and merging the data involved reengineering the city's business process documentation. To support those efforts the city deployed Lagan's Frontlink CRM solution across all 16 departments and built more than 150 different request types to help agents quickly facilitate requests, ranging from animal control to public works. The system also tracks interactions with each constituent and builds a history for each one for improved responsiveness and accountability.

The city held a job fair to staff its new call center, and received 900 applications for the 26 customer service positions.

"We looked specifically for agents who have problem-solving skills and have the capabilities that would allow them to be ambassadors for the caller," Stickney said. The people hired entered an eight-week customer care academy where they were trained on the CRM system and educated about the inner workings of the city.

Once the technology and staffing were in place the city assembled a communications plan to stir awareness for the January go-live date. Through a multifaceted educational approach that included advertising at train stops, communications in billing inserts, and a 311 magnet mailer, Minneapolis began encouraging its citizens to call 311.

Stickney hasn't yet quantified results, but expects that the system is paying off for the constituents who call (the number increased from 900 calls per day when first launched to 1,600 daily today), as well as for the city.

"The savings are coming in two forms for the city: the savings from consolidating calls in one environment and the savings that the back office sees," he said.

The city responds to requests more proactively because it can easily collect and access complete and quantifiable data. For example, if the 311 center receives multiple pothole requests about the same street, rather than randomly fill the potholes, the city may approve a complete road resurfacing for that street.

"It helps us make better decisions," he said. "It sets the baseline as we go forward." Reprinted with permission from 1to1 Media. (c) 2006 Carlson Marketing Worldwide.

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