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Grand Rapids' 311 system becomes national model


Results of a recently completed independent audit of Grand Rapids’ 311 Customer Service System identifies “amazing” accomplishments made since its launch and shows that the system is quickly becoming a business model for 311 centers across the country.

City Manager Greg Sundstrom says the audit marks the completion of phase two of full implementation of the City’s 311 Customer Service System. The transformational 311 project began in June 2013 as a means for the City to improve customer service, lower costs and improve productivity. It officially began taking citizen inquiries and concerns through phone calls, e-mails, mobile app requests and walk-ins to the 311 Center on Oct. 1 of last year.

“The audit showed that the system, one that really is largely home-grown and developed here in Grand Rapids with Grand Rapids City employees is one of the leading 311 systems in the country and is focused on customers. It not only has transformed and vastly improved customer service here in Grand Rapids, but its best practices are being copied and adopted across America,” Sundstrom said.

Calling it “one of the greatest customer service improvements we’ve done in decades,” Sundstrom boasts that GR311 is your “One call to City Hall.” He explains that, no matter why you need to call a city department, you can get your answer by calling 311.

The GR311 Customer Service experts assist customers with nearly all City services, including Pay As You Throw (PAYT) refuse accounts, setting up new refuse and recycling services, water/sewer services, voter registration, property tax information, City electrical permit and inspection updates, and other services. Additionally, the GR311 Customer Service Center logs and facilitates responses to reports of potholes, broken street and traffic lights, and sewer and trash concerns such as a clogged catch basin and illegal dumping. (Note that 911 remains the number to call for emergencies).

Eight full-time GR311 Customer Service Representatives answer calls from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays in a centralized call-taking center on the fifth floor of Grand Rapids City Hall, and in a first-floor service center on the Monroe lobby that also accommodates walkup business. The GR311 system has more than 2,000 pre-loaded scripts that call-takers use to respond to caller inquiries and conduct City business.

During his first review of the system in 2014, James Sullivan, a national expert and advocate for 311 services, said that Grand Rapids had a "world class system and a world class team." Sullivan has set-up or improved local government 311 centers across the United States, including New York, Miami-Dade, Newark, Philadelphia and Cleveland.

Results of his second audit justified his continued praise, telling the City Commission that, “when I conducted my first audit after about the end of the first year of GR311 implementation…I witnessed amazing things happening in a relatively short period of time. I’ve now come back and you continue to amaze me with what you’ve accomplished. When I compare what Grand Rapids has done with other 311’s that I am working with, Grand Rapids’ 311 needs to be a business model. Interaction with GR311, I.T. and the backend departments is tremendous and the work that you have accomplished is amazing.”

The FY15 audit showed that the City of Grand Rapids is well on its way to 311 maturity.

  • City departments report that 311 has transformed operations beyond their expectations
  • Billing and allocation from 311 to departments is now based on “real time” activity
  • 100 percent of departments have Tier 1 calls handled by 311
  • Up to 40 percent have some Tier 2 calls handled by 311 with a goal of 100 percent of all departments having Tier 2 calls handled by 311 in the coming years
  • 311 technology is planning further integration between its CRM and other city technology such as Cityworks, Accela and the 311 Mobile application.

Sullivan recommended that the City continue its journey to expand GR311 services by adopting industry “best practices” such as moving to a responsive design to put the GR311 technology in the hands of all customers with seamless integration; producing external dashboards for improved transparency of available city information, exploring multijurisdictional opportunities and also possibly expanding staff by hiring or evolving existing staff into business office representatives and assigning a chief customer service officer.

According to Mari Beth Jelks, managing director of administrative services, statistics show that GR311 “continues to revolutionize how citizens are able to communicate with local government, easily and conveniently.”

Fiscal year 2015 statistics show 265,692 citizen interactions—a 42 percent increase over the previous year. While increasing its work load in FY15, 311 customer service representatives also improved services reducing the average service time from 3:42 to 2:59 and reduced the average time to produce a resolution or answer nearly in half; from 41 seconds to just 22 seconds.

Jelks also pointed to other service accomplishments over the past year such as reducing the number of City of Grand Rapids phonebook listings from 266 numbers to just 61; adding geo-spatial content to customer service screens so that GR311 experts can provide city service points of interest associated with one’s address such as trash and refuse days; development of GR311 dashboards and performance statistics which help drive change management decisions; and finally, service enhancements such as offering fire home safety assessment appointment scheduling and other departmental services.

Grand Rapids’ 311 Customer Service Manager Becky Jo Glover is pleased with the progress that GR311 has made in the past two years and says that, “the success of the system is due to the enthusiastic support and participation of the City Commission, City management and fellow employees who strive everyday to refine and streamline processes to improve service for our customers. City staff has made more than 200 backend business changes to department processes to streamline its services through GR311. I’m excited to lead this team and to expand our services in the future.”

Glover said that while all departments have benefitted from its participation with GR311, the Treasurer’s Office and Water Department have experienced transformational advantages from their partnership with GR311.

City Treasurer John Globensky said that 311 and its walk-in center has transformed its tax collection services.

“We’ve coordinated and consolidated services with 311 which has truly improved customer service and improved our responsiveness. By funneling our calls into the 311 channel, we are able to better serve our customers and are now able to implement a tracking mechanism to boost service to taxpayers. Since implementation, we’ve turned our focus on internal improvement. I’m excited to where it is headed.”

Joellen Thompson, water system manager, also said that the transformation journey that Water Department has gone through with 311 is remarkable and can best be described by the term ‘partnership.’

“GR311 created a platform on which we have been able to become better partners with other departments, citizen groups, customer groups, other cities, and more, but also among staff within our own large department,” she said.

“Our next goals in our Transformation Partnership are to improve both the Customer Experience and the Worker Experience on an electronic platform. Adopting a responsive design will allow users to access bills, make payments, request account changes and service orders, find information updates, water outage information and more, on any electronic platform.  With 80,000 customer accounts, it is important that the solution provide options and be user friendly for everyone to be able to further improve customer service and the overall customer experience.”

GR311 Customer Service Center’s partnership with the Water Department earned national recognition this past May when the Customer Service Week Conference recognized each with the Expanding Excellence Award for Innovation in Customer Service at its annual gathering in Charlotte, NC., stating their efforts “far exceeded the ingenuity, success and commitment we envisioned when this award was created.”

Sundstrom said he is proud of the national award and audit report and is encouraged by the success departments have experienced by teaming with GR311. “I look forward to the plans to significantly improve the City’s 311 system over the next several months. To know that we’ve had this independent evaluation showing that we’re not only on the right track, but we are already blazing new trails in this service… it’s very exciting. I can’t wait to see what we can do with a little more time and energy invested in our 311 center.”