New Yorkers dial 311 for routine info

New York City CIO Gino Menchini spearheads the consolidated 311 call center for nonemergency questions and comments.

Seldom known for their shy, retiring ways, New Yorkers now have a central place to voice their complaints, questions and comments about city services'all day, every day. And all they have to remember is three digits: 311.

As recently as last year, New York City had 45 call centers staffed by 850 employees with a multitude of interactive voice response systems and automated call technologies.

Some centers relied on green-screen mainframe interfaces. Others used more modern computers. Employees had to leaf through a 14-page phone book of city services with more than 4,000 entries. There was a tremendous inconsistency in service levels, city CIO Gino Menchini said.

He consolidated 12 of the city agency call centers into one by March 9, and three more will follow by July 1. The 311 service center is now staffed by 200 workers who handle 12,000 calls a day. They took seven weeks of training in telephone etiquette, city geography, computer skills, use of a knowledge base and how to handle, for example, a stray 911 call.

The 311 system should relieve some of the 911 workload, he said, because by some estimates up to 90 percent of city 911 calls result from nonemergency situations.

And if the city never sleeps, why should its call center?

Always working

The center operates around the clock, seven days a week, Menchini said. Callers connect to a live person within seconds, after a brief recorded message telling them to hang up and dial 911 in case of emergency.

Menchini said he used to work for a city agency that handled complaints about the cable industry. City employees answered from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. After-hours calls went to voice mail.

Now that live city employees are available 24 hours a day, cable complaints have gone up 55 percent, Menchini said. Most people watch cable TV after 5 p.m. and on weekends, and they prefer to talk with a live person rather than leave a message after the beep.

Accenture LLP of Chicago was the systems integrator for the 311 call center. The center uses Siebel Call Center software from Siebel Systems Inc. of San Mateo, Calif., with a browser interface. Agents can access New York's geographic information system to verify caller addresses.

If agents don't know the right answer, they can route a call to the appropriate department. They also can assign a case number to track a complaint.

The center also keeps lines of communication open with the state governments, Menchini said. For example, it receives many calls about issues that fall under the jurisdiction of the state's Motor Vehicles Department, and employees can transfer calls directly there.

'People don't distinguish between levels of government,' he said.

Noise complaints are among the most common 311 calls. About 2,000 city police officers use the service to map where noise complaints come from, spot trends and take enforcement action if necessary.

Other common complaints are about blocked driveways, potholes and burned-out streetlights.
The center can handle 165 languages, Menchini said. Transfer time to connect a caller to an employee who speaks a requested language is about 90 seconds, he said.

Callers from outside the five boroughs can dial 212-NEW-YORK or 212-639-9675.

Menchini said some reporters recently decided to test the center by asking implausible questions, such as 'How do I get a stagecoach permit?'

The call center met the challenge without a hitch, he said, routing the calls to the appropriate licensing agencies.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.


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