Just a few days into the job, Michael Radoff sat in on some calls to the city's customer service line.
Radoff serves as the city's first customer care director, a recently created position. He started work in Tulsa in August, arriving after a career in the business world, including time handling customer service call centers as part of a post with media and newspaper company Gannett.
"The folks that I watched and observed and listened to the calls on, they were outstanding," Radoff said of his time observing city call takers. "They knew the answers; they knew the phone numbers on a lot of different departments right off the top of their head."
But he sees room for improvement. The goal for Radoff is a 311 system, a "one stop" number for citizens to call whether they're paying utilities or reporting potholes.
"You want to give the citizen a place to call where they can get the answers for anything they're looking for, for most everything they're looking for," Radoff said. "I think that's really the long-term goal for a 311 center, is call in and get that answer right away so they don't get transferred around or have to go anywhere to get that answer."
Before Radoff's hire, the city had already taken steps to consolidate departments in preparation for such a service. For now, citizens have separate numbers to call for utility payments and for problems like nuisance complaints. Last year, about 124,000 calls came into the general hotline formerly known as the Mayor's Action Center; about 363,000 calls were handled by the city's utilities services division.
But both are now a part of the same department headed by Radoff. Already, call takers who handle nuisance calls, for example, can access the utility payments system, he said.
But he added that training remains incomplete. No timetable exists yet for converting to a 311 system. Radoff said he'll be "going to take a look at the various departments that will be rolled in" to "determine which parts of what they're doing can be handled with 311." The city's customer care department has 40 workers, including Radoff, who will earn a yearly salary of $102,716.
His experience in the business world has given him ideas about improving the experience for citizens calling in. While citizens can use email or transmit information via forms on the city's website, Radoff said the goal is to provide even more ways for citizens to get in touch with their government.
"They should be able to use chat ... they should be able to use walk-up ... and of course phones and apps. You know, it would be nice if there was some kind of app on a phone that would allow citizens to communicate with us through that app," Radoff said.
City spokeswoman Michelle Allen said the city has been working on a website for mobile phone users. An early version of the yet-to-be released new website has a "Report" button featured prominently in the menu seen by visitors.
It's unclear exactly how many cities have 311 systems. A 2008 report from the International City/County Management Association stated that among cities that responded to surveys, about 15 percent had a centralized system for customer service calls, though it noted that not all of these cities used 311 as the number for citizens to dial.
That number has likely risen, with Philadelphia, for example, starting 311 service in 2009. However, Detroit began 311 operations but shut them down this year, with Government Technology reporting the move was done to cut costs.
Radoff said having such a service can actually end up saving money based on his experience with consolidating customer service operations elsewhere.
"I'm thinking we're going to see the same thing in the city, that we'll be able to see some reduction in some of our expenses as we add the technology to make transaction processing easier and more efficient and allow for those other channels, the self-serve channels where people can do other kinds of things," Radoff said.
To ensure quality, Radoff said he wants to build feedback into the system, giving citizens the chance to answer one or two questions to describe how they feel about their interactions with the city.
Ultimately, Radoff said a big part of customer satisfaction has to do with how complaints are handled or resolved -- for example, how long it takes for the city to respond to a report of a neighborhood nuisance like a neighbor's unkempt property.
"I think the turnaround time in the field is a little long," Radoff said. Asked if such turnaround time might be moving beyond his role in dealing with customer input, Radoff answered, "Not really."
For various departments, "we need to sit down and mutually agree on what some of those expectations are for closing the loop," Radoff said, adding, "I don't know what the workload is out there." For the week of Aug. 12-18, the top reason for calling the general helpline involved nuisance complaints, followed by animal welfare calls and reports to the city's solid waste department.
Callers already are given an estimate for how long it will take for an appropriate city response. Radoff said he plans to improve the system to keep better track of calls and to let callers know when their problems or complaints have been addressed.
Such efforts have proven difficult in at least one other city. The Philadelphia Research Initiative, a part of the Pew Charitable Trusts, reviewed records and concluded in 2010 that thousands of service requests for a newly installed 311 system were mishandled, while nearly a quarter of calls did not get a response within the promised time frame.
Tulsa city leaders have voiced a preference for the 311 system, and Radoff clearly has plans to move forward with 311 in Tulsa. However, he stressed the importance of building a sturdy framework for 311 before inviting people to call in. To succeed, he said the city must "have great people, great technology and great processes, and probably in that order."
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