Article Features Scott SummerfieldSheri BenninghovenKaren George

How Technology Can Dramatically Improve Customer Service

Scott Summerfield is the former public information officer for the City of Newark and former communications director for the Oakland Chamber of Commerce. Sheri Benninghoven served as the first communications director for the League of California Cities, after working as public information officer for the City of Anaheim. Benninghoven and Summerfield, principals of SAE Communications, now consult with cities on their communications planning and messaging. Karen George is the former public information officer for the cities of Claremont and Fremont and now serves as public information coordinator for the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Anoka, Minn.

Your city probably has an impressive website – and maybe an advanced phone information system, too.  But are you using these electronic tools in a strategic way or just jumping on the “latest and greates” bandwagon?

Often lost in the clamor to roll out new technology, the real reasons your city should make communications investments are to:

  • Improve service to your citizens;
  • Make it easy for them to connect with city hall whenever it’s most convenient; and
  • Increase your city workforce productivity.

Several California cities have recognized that thoughtfully planning their technology initiatives can lead to some impressive — and unexpected — benefits. And these cities are realizing that the same tools that increase convenience for the public are also helping staff be more responsive.

Seeking Tech-Savvy Solutions

The City of San Ramon is a young-but-wise 23 years old. Like many 20-somethings, the city has grown up with technology and is always searching for new ways to use technological tools in everyday life. City Manager Herb Moniz says the city was deliberate with “early intentions for being a paperless electronic office.” At breakfast one morning, Moniz and a neighboring city council member (who’s also a technology professional) crafted a plan to bring Citizen Request Management (CRM) to San Ramon.

Citizen Request Management is the generic name for software that helps cities be as responsive to residents as possible. People can request a government service in person or by using the phone, computer and fax machine. Compared with the way many cities still handle citizen contacts (simple e-mail, handwritten forms or verbal messages), CRM offers a huge leap forward in efficiency.

San Ramon’s interactive system includes receipt acknowledgement and automatically routes a request to the appropriate staff member for action. Upon resolution it sends a customer satisfaction survey. San Ramon’s customized software includes a reminder notice for the supervisor to check on the status of the customer request.

“Citizens like it for the same reasons we like it,” Moniz says. “It’s quick, efficient and gets an immediate response. It allows them to feel connected to their local government, and that builds trust.”

The CRM program generates reports and categorizes issues. “The reports allow us to focus on problem areas and issues,” Moniz notes. For San Ramon, it’s a technology tool that can catch small problems before they become big, and helps with budgeting and decision-making when integrated with other city data.

Integration is key to using this technology for the greatest customer service improvement, and San Ramon staff uses the same CRM product to track customer phone inquiries. “This is a uniform response system,” Moniz emphasizes. The bottom line? When someone contacts city hall, through whatever method they prefer, they’re confident that their issue will be handled efficiently and they’ll be notified of its progress.

Moniz reports the response to CRM has been “phenomenal,” which has cut down on phone calls. “It used to be I would check voicemail,” Moniz says. “Now I check our CRM reports.”

Santa Monica Integrates Traditional Tools

“We’re all used to having access to anything via the Internet,” says Judy Franz, assistant to the city manager in Santa Monica. “And if customers can transact city business from home at 11 p.m., they avoid having to take time off work.”

Santa Monica’s commitment to technology innovation as a tool for citizen connection started nearly 20 years ago with its Public Electronic Network, an electronic bulletin board that was a pioneering effort to help both the public and the city get comfortable with nontraditional communication. “It was cutting-edge then,” Franz remembers. “We continue to offer a variety of ways to make things easy for citizens,” she says.

In the 1990s, Santa Monica moved online and has never looked back. The city website is now in its fifth version and features increased interactivity for residents and visitors. The site’s popularity raises issues of access and visibility, and city departments covet front-page status. “I try to mix it up so every department gets a turn on the front page,” Franz says. She strives to connect department actions to city council priorities and citywide projects. She also monitors links, and has established clear criteria for posting links from the city website.

Seven years ago, Santa Monica purchased a customer complaint tracking program but moved to web-based CRM in 2006. “It’s better, faster and cheaper,” Franz notes. As with the San Ramon system, it was constructed to get the citizen request to the right source for resolution and allow people to easily track their request.

While some may consider the telephone to be an antiquated tool, there is still a large segment of the public that is more comfortable using the phone than the computer to conduct city business. Santa Monica’s Integrated Voice Recognition (IVR) system — with recorded information about city services, answers to frequently asked questions and many other popular features -— offers the same message content as the website, CRM system and live city phone operators.

Santa Monica’s current technology focus is integration. Franz knows that her technology tools are merely a platform that must deliver consistent messages through many different communication environments:web, phone, written correspondence, public counter, fax and e-mail. This is important because as more tools are used to disseminate information, that information can become conflicting, redundant or outdated unless the city pays close attention to its content.

“We all have to view technology as the medium to deliver the message,” Franz says. “People still need to feel a human connection to city hall that is professional and friendly.” Even if that citizen contact is close to midnight.

Investing in Back-End Business Operations

Mention technology to Fred Cohn, Monterey’s assistant city manager, and he quickly recites two resonating mantras:

  • Use technology to efficiently transfer information to and from the public and staff; and
  • Use technology to wring out new capacity in workplace efficiency.

“It’s all about resources,” Cohn says. “As demands and expectations grow and re-sources shrink, cities need to figure out options. Work smarter, not harder,” he advises. Often, working smarter involves implementing new technology.

Monterey is investing in back-end systems support, which means re-engineering business operations to manage workflow, eliminate redundancy in data entry and retrieval, and automate data analysis for quick decision-making in the field. “The technology is 15 percent — and that’s the easy part,” Cohn emphasizes. “The hard part, and the bulk of our effort, is to design and integrate systems to meet public and staff needs.”

Monterey’s mature technology-supported operations include a public works maintenance database, a conference center facility use system, and online recreation class registrations. Systems in transition are human resources functions and a geographic information system for routing and mapping services. Soon to be implemented are electronic document management, agenda management and expanded use of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), which will enable the city to save money by making phone calls over the Internet.

Even with that impressive list, Cohn feels that Monterey is not that unique on the front-end or public side of technology. But the city has implemented its technologies in a way that satisfies both those who prefer traditional communications tools as well as new media. Even though the city website is packed with interactive information, it’s balanced with a continuing commitment to traditional printed publications. “There needs to be an array of tools used to communicate with citizens,” Cohn adds.

Monterey, too, now uses CRM in its communications arsenal, and Cohn notes that citizen inquiries were not previously tracked. “It’s the little stuff that adds up. It’s not only efficient, it’s good PR,” says Cohn.

But technology in and of itself does not yield efficiency. “The payback is cumulative. Little decisions, over time, add up big,” Cohn says. He describes how city employees can retrieve information from integrated technology systems to make day-to-day decisions, such as repairing or selling a police car and slurry sealing or resurfacing a road.

“Technology doesn’t save you money. It’s how you use the technology that saves you money,” adds Cohn.

Looking Ahead

“We used to have five-year technology plans that we followed,” says Keith Kurtz, Internet system coordinator for the City of Santa Monica. “We laugh at those now because technology changes so quickly,” Kurtz adds.

Kurtz imagines a future with more connection and no wires. “There will be a wireless mesh all over the city. That access will get people connected and drive new ideas for use,” he predicts.

That vision of the future is shared by Rick Guidara, information technologies director for the City of Davis and former president of the Municipal Information Systems Association of California. “Lots of cities are looking at this,” Guidara says. “It’s being driven by both technology availability and political will. What we’re waiting for is a decent business model to deliver and support wireless.”

“The more information sharing and public interaction there are, the healthier and more vibrant the community becomes,” Kurtz observes.

The wireless city is here now, with San Jose, Long Beach and many other communities offering free access in downtown areas. Wireless users overwhelmingly ex- press satisfaction with the systems, and these pioneers are helping raise public expectations for future service.

Research and Flexibility Are Essential

“You have to do your research,” cautions Jeff Hobbs, public information officer for the City of Bellflower and president of the California Association of Public Information Officials. “Discern the flavor of the day from what really works for you. Move slowly and carefully with the best interests of residents,” Hobbs adds.

Santa Monica’s Franz offers these tips for cities considering an update of their technology tools:

  • No system is perfectly suited for what you want. Be prepared to modify it before implementation.
  • Find people willing to work with you. Vendors who understand cities and their unique needs are more likely to develop winning solutions.
  • Don’t ignore training and ongoing support. Ease of use and knowledge of system benefits are critical to any technology program.
  • Know that there will be many surprises as you move forward. Expect to adapt the technology to your city and to get your city comfortable with a new way of doing business.
  • Tweak the system. As your city embraces the technology, modify it so that you get the most out of it, rather than simply accepting an “off-the-shelf” product.

“Focus on content and then make the technology work for you and your community,” Franz advises.

Agile Cities Win

“Time is people’s most precious resource,” observes Hobbs. “The cities that aresuccessful are going to be the ones that deliver services to residents faster and better, and technology is a tool to make that happen.”

Faster, cheaper, easier — these attributes are important when making a technology decision, and a smart city takes those qualities and applies them to the important goal of improving communication. Add the “cool” factor, and your citizens may actually think of you as a technology leader. But don’t let the flash of new electronic tools obscure what’s really important: your city’s constant drive to enhance customer service.

For More Information

Public Technology Institute

Municipal Information Systems Association of California  

California Association of Public Information Officials  

City, County Communications And Marketing Association

This article appears in the June 2006 issue of Western City
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