What if there was a massive government bureaucracy whose primary focus was helping you, the citizen?
Novel concept, right?
For Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, creating a customer service culture among the 4,500 or so county employees has been a top priority since he took the job on an interim basis more than two years ago.
Merrill has hammered home in meetings with employees and supervisors the concept that achieving results for taxpayers in a fast and friendly manner is the job of county government.
“We’ve gone out of our way to train people, to coach them, to encourage them,” Merrill said. “I think a lot of people in the organization have grabbed onto it. … And the people who didn’t want to, they’ve moved on.”
Merrill started with a “shopping center concept” two years ago. He wanted the Frederick B. Karl County Center to feel like a Lowe’s or Home Depot, a place where employees spring to help customers when they walk through the door. Merrill set up a desk in the lobby where employees direct people to the departments they need in the 28-story building.
The next big step in Merrill’s customer service crusade will be a central call and information center similar to those used by large U.S. corporations.
Now, when residents see a scary-looking dog wandering their neighborhood, they have to call Animals Services. A pothole that needs fixing means a call to Public Works. Leaking water main? Call Utility Services.
But when the county’s new Information and Service Center comes on line by the end of the year, residents will be able to call one easy-to-remember number. The employee who answers the phone will be able to dispense general information such as the date of the next county commission meeting or where to get a building permit.
If the question takes more expertise, the “tier 1” employee will pass the caller onto someone with more detailed knowledge.
“As the problems become more complicated or require more expertise, then they can elevate it to another tier,” Merrill said, “but always holding that customer’s hand through the process, not just transferring her somewhere else.”
Mike Clarkin, vice president of marketing for Sykes Enterprises, has advised the county on the nuts and bolts of setting up a call center. Heading the effort for the county is Buffy Heslin, who once set up national and international call centers for Verizon.
Heslin retired from Verizon and was working in the county’s Utility Services Department.
“The guy from Sykes helped interview this lady and she was hands down the unanimous choice,” Merrill said. “Plus, it helped that she could start right away. So I snatched her out of the utility system.”
The county still has to locate the hardware for the call center as well as recruit and train employees, said Helene Marks, the county’s chief administrative officer. Marks said the center eventually will have the capability of taking requests for service via emails and possibly text messages.
The county will follow up with phone calls or emails to make sure problems are resolved, Marks said.
In a separate effort to improve customer service, public relations coordinator Jennifer Hall recently completed a survey of the county’s five neighborhood social service centers and the homeless program recovery office.
The centers help low-income residents pay late utility bills and rent or find transportation to jobs, but they also offer case management and classes on money management to help clients become self-sufficient.
Hall said the survey looked at what services residents used most, where the clients came from to get help, and how they got there. The county will also be doing a community needs assessment to find people whose incomes qualify them for county services, but who are not applying for them.
“This is really strategically looking at what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and how we can do it better,” Hall said. “It’s all based on what the customer needs.’’
Merrill said he’s happy with the progress the county has made with improving customer service, but there is still more to do. For instance, the county’s building department has reduced turnaround times on permits from weeks to two or three days.
But Merrill said he still hasn’t seen the progress needed to make the entire development process seamless from the first zoning application to final inspections. The county is recruiting someone who will oversee all phases of development. That person’s goal will be “helping a customer to get to where they need to be.”