TAMPA — Government workers suffer loads of stereotypes. One of the more enduring involves the surly, unhelpful phone answerer.
You call your government with what you think is a simple question. The bored receptionist transfers you to another person before you spit it all out. That person turns out not to have the answer, then transfers you to yet another unhelpful government employee. Soon you're back at square one.
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill realized after taking over his job on an interim basis more than two years ago that his government was living the stereotype too often.
"I recognized that we needed some help in that arena," he said.
In the coming months, the county plans to roll out a new phone answering system for the main line that residents call with questions and complaints. Merrill hopes it will function like a well-run, private-sector call center.
He turned to one of the largest call center operators for help.
Merrill was talking to Chuck Sykes awhile ago, when Sykes was chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. He was telling Sykes about his interest in improving the way the county interacts with residents.
Sykes is president and chief executive officer of Sykes Enterprises, which operates call centers and customer contact management systems for companies around the globe, with more than 40,000 employees.
Sykes volunteered to donate some of those employees' time to analyze how the county interacts with its residents and suggest ways to improve it. They've been on the task for several months.
"You and I can imagine what one good phone call sounds like," said Michael Clarkin, global vice president of strategy and marketing at Sykes, who has been working with the county. "It's a science to make it work 1,000 times a day. It takes a lot of science and methodology to do that very well."
The county has operated what it has called a citizens action center, now referred to as the Hillsborough information line, for years. Most recently, it has largely been run out of the county's main downtown library and has functioned as a call center of sorts.
It has undergone several transitions in recent years as the county has grappled with cutbacks. County commissioners have heard enough complaints, from rude to unhelpful, to instill a sense of urgency on making it work better.
One of the first tasks, said county communications director Lori Hudson, is making sure the right people are in the job and that they get training in how to consistently and helpfully respond to sometimes angry phone calls.
"To do it with a smile in your voice is a very challenging task," Hudson said. "It's certainly not something everybody can do."
As part of the analysis, the county is identifying the most common types of inquiries it faces. The employees fielding the calls should have answers ready to those questions, such as, "What time do the libraries open?" or "Where can I register a pet?"
When the questions get too technical, the county is lining up employees in each department who are subject-matter experts and can also interact well with the public, speaking in plain English rather than bureaucratic jargon. So if you want to know if your loose pet is at the animal shelter, or how to submit a building permit, the original phone answerer should be able to get you to the right person.
In the past, an incoming call might have been patched through to a general department number, with the person placing the call left to hope someone picks up and has answers.
As the new call system is implemented, the person who initially fields the phone call may stay on the line to ensure you've gotten to the right person and have your questions answered sufficiently and in a timely fashion. Clarkin calls that a "warm handoff" and said it's critical to make the experience of calling the county satisfying.
The county has been revamping its website so residents can better access services it offers, and increasingly people who call are being directed there.
To make the change complete, the county plans to invest in upgrades to its phone system. Not all of its employees use the same one. With the upgrades, the county hopes to be able to track where phone calls are routed and how long a resident has to stay on the line to get an issue resolved.
It is likely the county also will have the means to record conversations, much like your credit card company or many private businesses already do. Those calls will be used for training employees.
The county hopes to have the new system mostly in place by the start of the new year. It is also contracting with a company to serve as a sort of answering service late at night, fielding questions and making sure they are directed to the right county employee so they can be addressed at the start of business the next day.
"I tell people that before it was like we were making our own clothes," said Library Services Director Joe Stines, who supervises library employees who field general county questions now. "Now we're going to have store-bought clothes."
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387