Behind the scenes at the 311 call center

“Minneapolis 311, this is Nancy. How can we help?”

“Hi. The streetlight on my block is making a funny, buzzing noise.”

“I’ve been on hold with the Minneapolis impound lot for over 15 minutes. Is that normal?”

“Why is my utility bill so high?”

As a customer service agent for 311, the city’s nonemergency information line, Nancy McGrath has heard it all. Five days a week, she sits in front of four widescreen monitors with a headset on her ears, answering call after call from Minneapolis residents. They ask about traffic detours, zoning, unkempt houses, stolen bikes, graffiti, unleashed animals and pot holes — anything pertaining to the City of Lakes. Through a series of mouse clicks and lightning fast multitasking, McGrath has all the answers.

“We’re trying to make government easier for people to use,” said Assistant Director Don Stickney. The city’s goal is to whittle down calls to two numbers — 911 and 311 — for all municipal needs, he explains. “We’re on the road to that.”

311 operators have answered 450,000 calls and e-mails since the beginning of the year — 32 percent more than all of the calls received in 2006, the program’s first year.

The Federal Communication Commission created 311 in 1997 for nonemergency police calls. According to documents from the center, Minneapolis’ 2007 311 budget is $2.6 million, a combination of money from each city department. The funds were reallocated after officials looked an analysis of calls to different subdivisions all over the city and decided to direct them to one central number.

Minneapolis is one of many cities and countries around the world that use the three-digit number, Stickney said. From Chicago to Baltimore and Argentina to Ireland, directional towers only let in calls from a particular area. Hence, St. Paul residents would have to use the long number (673-3000) to reach Minneapolis’ 311.

Unable to get the budget for 24-hour service, the call center has 21 bodies manning 12 queues from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Friday. On an average day, they receive 1,800–2,200 calls that can take anywhere from a few seconds to an hour each. The most common questions are about public safety, housing and the impound lot.

An inside look

On a sunny Wednesday morning, I visited Minneapolis’ 311 call center on the third floor of the 3rd Precinct Police Station on Minnehaha Avenue and Lake Street. It looked like any bland corporate office, with inspirational posters on the walls and co-workers chatting across beige cubicles.

On the south end of the room, a whiteboard boasted “Applause Awards” that thanked employees for working extra hours. Flat-panel TV screens loomed overhead in corners and on pillars, flashing CNN and local news. The room was relatively quiet, a rumble of voices speaking into headsets and clacking on keyboards.

I was assigned to observe McGrath, a St. Paul resident who’s worked at the center for six months. She had helpful numbers tacked to her cube wall and a file organizer, but I quickly learned that all an operator really needs is a phone, computer and a gift for multitasking.

The moment a caller began to describe his or her problem, McGrath was on the case, searching license plate numbers, looking up land parcels and/or finding phone numbers of city officials. 311’s step-by-step program guided her through each scenario, starting with the nature of the call, and ending with “Thank you for calling the city of Minneapolis. Have a good day.”

“I love to help people,” she said. “There’s never a day that’s the same.”

What’s the point?

311 serves three main purposes. First, operators respond to requests for information, which is typically 60 percent of all calls. From directions to City Hall to park hours, many of the questions can easily be answered using the city’s website, but some residents don’t know how to use it or lack Internet access, McGrath explained. That’s where 311 comes in.

Secondly, operators take service requests. These typically occur when residents call to report things in the city that need maintenance, such as pot holes or a vandalized street sign. Every caller gets a tracking number and time frame for how long it will take until the problem is fixed. Graffiti reports are the most common type of service calls.

Lastly, customer service agents will transfer calls that are out of their areas of expertise, often to Hennepin County, and occasionally to 911.

People have complained in the past about being rerouted through too many departments, Stickney says. 311 operators try to act as “ambassadors” for their callers, which means that sometimes they have to take down a name and phone number to return calls that require deeper research.

During my “ride along” with McGrath, I listened as she took a call from a barbershop owner in Northeast who wanted to get one-hour parking outside his salon. She looked up the property information online, discovered that the caller wasn’t listed as the owner and decided to call him back. Since barbershops are licensed through the state, he would’ve had to go through zoning before becoming the business owner, McGrath explained, and that should have addressed parking. She decided to look into the matter and return the call after lunch.

Navigating the city

In addition to surfing the city’s website, customer service agents can also assist callers using sites and programs that aren’t technically within Minneapolis jurisdiction. For example, McGrath received a call from a woman who was driving around South Minneapolis and noticed some burnt-out streetlights. With a few quick clicks, McGrath found the intersection, determined that the light was Xcel property, entered the outage on Xcel’s website, and gave the caller a confirmation number.

Stickney hopes to someday partner with other companies like Xcel. He would also like to improve 311’s website to enable attachments and let residents check the status of reports. “We’re not as far along the process as we’d like to be, but we’re working on that,” he said.

Operators can answer a limited number of state and county questions, take police reports for low-level offenses, and access information about independent city entities such as the Park Board.

There are more than 170 different service request types, said Stickney, and agents need to be able to navigate them all.

Reach Mary O’Regan at [email protected] or 436-5088.