5 months after launch Edmonton 311 service fields 5,000 calls daily

Edmonton has become the latest Canadian municipality to hook up residents directly to the whole gamut of city services through a 311 call centre and is the first in North America to do so with SAP AG’s software.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) approved reserving 311 as the number for accessing to municipal services Nov. 5, 2004.

The number was set aside after a joint request by the cities of Toronto, Calgary, Halton, Gatineau and Montreal. It promises to provide answers to almost any citizen inquiry – from what time the recreation centre pool is open, to when is garbage day, or for non-emergency police services.

The three-digit pneumonic had originally been launched in the U.S. in a bid to decrease the non-emergency call volume received by 911. It’s evolved to become a convenient citizen gateway to municipal government services, and 311 numbers have gone live in a range of municipalities across Canada.

Edmonton launched its service halfway through last December and now takes about 5,000 calls daily at its 311 call centre, says Chris Moore, chief information officer at the City of Edmonton.

“It goes up and down based on what’s happening – weather is a big factor, or when there’s city events,” he says. “It was one of the best, if not the best implementations I’ve ever seen. We took advantage of SAP’s ramp-up service they offer for new products.”

As the first city to use SAP CRM 7.0 for its 311 centre, Edmonton got a boost from the Waldorf, Germany-based company’s early adopter program. A couple of SAP experts provide on-site help to integrate systems and get the software up and running the way it should.

Edmonton was already using SAP CRM 5.0 and that helped make the integration smoother, says Mark Aboud, president and managing director of SAP Canada Inc.

“We worked with them to develop a roadmap and the sort of services they wanted to provide,” Aboud says. “A lot of companies or organizations have many niche solutions that solve a problem but don’t pull together very well.”

Having a one-point access for all city services usually requires pulling together many disparate computer systems from across very different city departments and must also be capable of receiving service requests. It’s a complicated process, and if Moore regrets anything about the implementation, it’s that he didn’t ask the SAP specialists to stay on hand a bit longer.

“On hindsight, we let them go too soon,” he says. “We ran into performance issues from an information architecture perspective early this year. It’s the sort of thing that could have been remedied by their onsite experts.”

Edmonton isn’t the only city faced a challenge in pooling together information from across many different city departments. Complex systems and vast stores of information must be pulled together into a repository that’s can be navigated by a single call centre employee to find answers to any question that may be asked.

A simple user interface that’s driven by searching key words is usually the gateway developed.

Toronto has been developing its 311 call centre for five years and now is ready to take it public next month. June 19 is a possible date that the service will go live, says Neil Evans, 311 project management director at the City of Toronto.

“We’ve got about 15,000 questions and answers in it,” he says. “It has searchability to that agents will be able to answer 70 per cent of the calls at first-point contact.”

Toronto is using a CRM application developed by enterprise case management software maker Lagan, headquartered in Belfast, Ireland.

The software has the same capabilities to search through city services by keywords to provide answers to call centre workers. It also is integrated with Toronto’s backend system through an in-house enterprise application interface so work orders can be issued from the same interface.

“This hasn’t been an easy step for us, it was a whole internal realignment,” Evans says.

Other Canadian municipalities using Lagan include Winnipeg, Vancouver, Oshawa, and Durham Region, Ont.

Two-thirds of large Canadian municipalities are running SAP ERP systems, Aboud says. Edmonton may be the first to use its CRM software to run a 311 call centre, but it likely won’t be the last. SAP is in discussions with other municipalities at the moment.

“You can provide a much better service delivery through a system that is integrated instead of fragmented niche systems,” he says.

Running its 311 centre on SAP made sense for Edmonton, as the vendor’s applications were already being used for other processes, Moore says.

The city avoided having to create or buy any middleware to link the new software and existing systems. It made it easier to bring together several different call centres.

“Citizens don’t care whether they’re calling one department or another,” he says. “They just want that one number on the phone … it’s like the front doors of city hall.”

But the CRM’s interface isn’t all roses, Moore adds. Call centre staff sometimes find that more complex questions or service requests can be tough to record in the system. There’s a linear path to answer questions or enter information, and if it’s not followed exactly, there can be problems going back and forth down that path.

“They have something they refer to as they happy path,” Moore explains. “But we’re finding the happy path is not always happy… If someone is midway through the reporting of their information and wants to add more information, we have to leave another window open so we can go get that and bring it back.”

The staff has been creative about how to keep things running smoothly, he says. SAP has also been responsive to the concern and is working to make the path a happier place.

As 311 crops up across Canada, it joins other popular three-digit phone numbers that citizens can use to access various information and services. Each of these numbers is set aside by the CRTC for a specific purpose:

  • 011 and 111 are for making international calls
  • 211 is a non-profit run service that provides community and referral services
  • 411 is for directory assistance
  • 611 is for repair service
  • 711 is a message relay service for the hearing impaired
  • 911 is for emergency services
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