City fine-tunes customer service

City of Des Moines

Des Moines, Iowa, has come a long way since an internal study two years

ago revealed inconsistencies in the way the city handled and tracked service

requests and other calls from the public.

Employees used methods ranging from "sticky yellow notes" to Microsoft

Corp. Access to log or pass along information. Now, the city may well be

on the leading edge of using customer relationship management (CRM) tools

to help smooth interaction between government and citizens.

"I would say they're in the vanguard," said Denis Pombriant, the Aberdeen

Group's vice president and managing director of the company's CRM practice.

In a February report, Aberdeen called Des Moines' system one of the 10 most

significant CRM implementations of 2001.

The city, which has a population of about 200,000, went live with its

decentralized "citizen response system" — a modified version of an earlier

FrontRange Solutions Inc. software. The system enables employees at PCs

to track problems, provide service alerts and build a knowledge base "to

try to capture what essentially was in people's heads throughout the organization,"

said Michael Armstrong, the city's chief information officer.

It cost about $200,000, including a developer's salary for a year and

FrontRange's help to modify the software, Armstrong said. Without the company's

help, he said it would've cost $500,000.

"The goal was to codify enough information that no matter who answers

the phone, the citizen was going to get one answer," he said. To date, the

city has logged 1,250 different types of calls, such as complaints about

missed garbage pickups, and has about 450 users in the system. The city

has been logging more than 10,000 calls a month, and he said that about

80 percent of the answers to those calls can be found on the city's official

Web site ({http://www.ci.des-moines.ia.us} www.ci.des-moines.ia.us).

The system also alerts officials to problems. For example, if missed

garbage pickup calls go from 100 a month to 400, that indicates there's

a problem somewhere, Armstrong said. Or if the established standard for

filling potholes is two days, and the account is still open on the third

day, the system will alert a supervisor, he said.

The real problem in creating the system was not technology, but culture.

Municipal officials interested in the system have visited — including from

Japan and Denmark — and have inquired about the culture problem, Armstrong

said.

"First, how do you convince people to give up the knowledge and how

do you convince people it's a good thing?" he asked, adding that "wheedling,

convincing and sometimes using a hammer" are some methods. "As people begin

to use it, they begin to see it's making [their] job easier. Enthusiasm

tends to build a little bit."

Armstrong said cities such as Mobile, Ala., Hampton, Va., Houston and

Philadelphia have or are planning to implement CRM systems.

But Pombriant said it's still early in this country and "a number of

vendors have hung out their shingles and begun offering technologies that

are CRM focused for the government sector." In Europe, he said there appears

to be more CRM implementations on a national or regional level, but it doesn't

necessarily mean the United States is behind.

"And this is just a hypothesis, it could be that European governments

are more constituent-focused due to their more liberal situations or backgrounds,"

he said, citing social welfare and health care programs.

Pombriant added that he didn't think the flat economy here is going

to hinder CRM.

"I think the experience that we've seen in the broader marketplace suggests

that in leaner economic times, people don't abandon CRM concepts because

they recognize the inherent value in them," he said. "But what does happen

is that organizations of all kinds — whether they're businesses or governments

— look for different and better ways to achieve their goals."

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