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Need help from the county? Dial 311 – preferably from a cellphone

A recently launched call center wants to make it easier and faster for St. Louis County residents to get information they need when contacting county offices. And while such a program can’t guarantee a 100% success rate, feedback in the form of comments from callers and detailed service measurement data suggest the center is making a positive impact.

Here’s how it works:

Let’s say you want to know if there’s anything going on at county parks this weekend but don’t know where to call to find out. Because the county has some 500 different numbers for its various offices, finding the right one can be a challenge. But all you need to do is dial 311, preferably from your cell phone.

Dialing 311 connects you with an agent in what is known as the Gateway 311 call center at the county office building on Northwest Plaza Drive in St. Ann.

Informally called “super subject matter experts,” call center agents have a wealth of information at their fingertips, both from the training they received and a computer linking them to a database covering the broad spectrum of county services and activities.

The goal is to answer whatever question a caller may have with that initial call center contact at least 80% of the time, thereby reducing or eliminating the need for transferring calls elsewhere.

The center handles only non-urgent calls and is not meant nor is it set up to be an alternative for 911 emergency services.

Takisha Strong, an agent in St. Louis County’s 311 call center, checks a database for information to respond to a resident’s question about a county program.

Call center manager Mike Hoffey describes the program as “an evolutionary step forward for citizens who may have had difficulty connecting with the correct department in the past or frustrating transfer experiences.”

However, the new set-up is not limited to the call center. It also includes self-service options that younger, tech-savvy generations often prefer.

A mobile app bearing the Gateway 311 name provides answers to common questions, lists details for popular family events and enables a resident to set up service requests for items such as pothole repair or a tree issue without making a phone call, Hoffey noted.

The app can be downloaded from the Google Play Store or Apple Store.

Similarly, new social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, also let citizens communicate with call center personnel to get answers without the need for a phone call.

On the horizon is the addition of artificial intelligence to the system’s knowledge base, a step designed to improve a resident’s ability to find answers for common questions across all county departments, Hoffey said. The ability for the mobile app to accept payments also is anticipated.

“We also have interest in partnering with municipalities to handle their call traffic or integrate their own unique brand on our mobile app,” Hoffey said.

The 311 concept has been adopted in a number of areas across the nation including Atlanta, Dallas, Kansas City, New York City and Denver among others.

The center operates weekdays from 8 a.m.-5 p.m.

A large LCD screen displays the status of incoming calls, agents on duty, those on break or at lunch, and other pertinent data, all of which can be printed out in a daily summary for management review and follow up if needed. Not surprisingly, some of the best feedback has come internally from departments where call volume has been reduced due to the center’s success in accessing information and providing answers to questions. 

Records show the heaviest volume of calls involves the county assessor’s office and questions about personal property assessments, although inquiries do vary according to department activities at any given time of the year. 

Fortunately, inquiries such as the one from a caller wanting to know the location of the nearest QuikTrip are few. But the center regularly receives calls that need to go to state or other governmental agencies. The agents also have that information available and direct callers accordingly. 

Information in the center’s database is updated frequently as programs, services, activities and procedures change.

Hoffey acknowledged that some callers do end up on hold during high volume call times. A call made by West Newsmagazine to try out the system resulted in being on hold for several minutes.

Told about the incident, Hoffey displayed a report on the system’s performance confirming the half-hour period during which the test call was made was the busiest of the day from the standpoint of callers’ time on hold. During most other periods that day, hold times were zero or just a few seconds, the report showed.

Another glitch in the system affects some landline customers whose calls to 311 go instead to a recorded message announcing that the call didn’t go through or couldn’t be completed as dialed.

“We do know that calls from cellphones go through OK,” Hoffey said. Though he acknowledged there can be a problem reaching the center for someone dialing 311 while near the county border and closer to an available cellphone tower in an adjoining county. However, caller feedback shows “a very high success rate” on calls from mobile devices, he said.

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