Hartford City Hall gets a makeover with new call center

Last year, hundreds of phone numbers made calling a city department in Hartford, Conn., a nightmare. Today, constituent calls are all routed to a 3-1-1 call center, thanks to call center software from Lagan.

Trying to call Hartford City Hall last spring was a complex endeavor.

Not one but hundreds of numbers for different city departments were listed in the phone book. Worse, operators often incorrectly routed callers to the city clerk, who did not have the resources to handle questions about city taxes or trash pickup.

Now, one call center takes all of those calls. Hartford, Conn.'s 3-1-1 call center was designed to be a central information source for the city's 120,000 residents. The center takes calls for the Department of Public Works, the department of Environmental Health, and overflow calls for the tax office and the town clerk. Hartford went live with Frontlink software, specifically designed for 3-1-1 call centers, from Belfast, U.K.-based Lagan, on July 17, 2006, following a three-month implementation.

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Hartford hired consultants from St. Paul, Minn.-based EMA Inc. to help develop call center processes and software. The consulting team designed specifications for the call center and helped develop call center metrics and best practices goals. The city spent around $400,000 for the deployment plus $300,000 in services to get the call center running.

Susan McMullen, director of constituent services in Hartford, called it a "smooth rollout" but stressed that the up-front legwork that was put in to get all departments on board with the initiative and develop a process for logging all calls was vital.

"I didn't want to open for business without a back-office process in place," she said.

City departments are still converting to another system called MUNIS and integrating it to Frontlink. Eventually, all city departments will be integrated onto the Frontlink system.

"Right now, we're doing swivel-chair integration," McMullen said.

The call center is currently staffed with seven full-time agents taking calls in English and Spanish, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday. The center receives around 300 calls a day, up from 150 a day when it opened. As awareness grows, McMullen expects to hire more agents to handle up to 600 calls a day. The call center was designed with room for up to 15 stations.

Outside of the call center, most employees have responded positively to using the Frontlink system for daily processes. Brett Flodine, Technical Manager for the 3-1-1 implementation, points out that the DPW guys were used to using Post-It notes for their maintenance records. Today, eight DPW employees access the system remotely through laptops, and some use the digital photo feature to document issues on the road.

"Some of the people you thought would be the hardest [to convince], took to it the most," Flodine said. "They are years ahead of most DPW departments," McMullen added.

The Frontlink application also integrates with a geographic information system (GIS) that the Hartford center uses for DPW maintenance. If a constituent calls about a street lamp outage, a call center agent can access the system and see exactly which street lamp they are referencing. If the center gets a follow-up call, the agent can access the system and see, based on color coding, whether the maintenance has been completed. This feature will also allow them to keep more accurate maintenance records and reward the DPW employees who complete the work, McMullen said.

"They are able to get credit for a lot of work they didn't get credit for before," she said.

Looking back, McMullen regrets not taking advantage of Frontlink's KnowledgeBase feature.

"We may have overscripted a little," she said. "If I had to do it over, I didn't put as much thought into the knowledge feature. As our call takers get more experienced, I can see us moving more toward the KnowledgeBase."

Moving forward, the Hartford center hopes to take advantage of other functionality available with the Frontlink software. One of the plans is to expand self-service capabilities for constituents. This has been on the back burner because just 25% of city residents have Internet access, McMullen said. In the near term, the center is migrating information on driver's licenses and inspections to the Web. They also plan to include information on city taxes online to cut down on those calls. Eventually, they'll make the GIS system publicly available so residents can access the system to report such problems as street lamps that are out, utility poles that are down, or problem fire hydrants.

As more city employees are trained on the system they'll design customized daily reports for every department, replacing the canned reports they currently use, McMullen said. She also sees potential for certain departments to use the Frontlink dashboards; so the DPW, for example, could see the percentage of calls for frequent questions, like trash pickup.

Using daily reports and dashboards allows all departments to keep up to speed with their progress, McMullen said. Because of the information available through the Frontlink system, the Mayor's office is also able to provide comprehensive answers to constituent questions and complaints. Much of this is detailed in quarterly reports issued to the city council. McMullen feels that this has made city employees more accountable, and she's noticed a self-correcting system in place.

"It's a real change for staff to know there's this tracking capability," she said.

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