Toowoomba Regional Council gets smart on consolidation

Making eight fit into one created a huge challenge following the amalgamation of regional governments in Queensland

The 2008 amalgamation of local governments across Queensland saw the bringing together of Toowoomba City and Milmerran, Clifton, Cambooya, Pittsworth, Jondaryan, Rosalie and Crows Nest Shire Councils into the one ‘super council’ servicing more than 160,000 people.

In an instant, there were eight different ways for doing almost everything from registering a dog to paying bills. Aware that the public was concerned about the ramifications of a shift from local to regional management, establishing strategies for the delivery of consistent, helpful and efficient customer service quickly became one of the Council's highest priorities.

There can be only one

TRC's started by putting out a tender for a contact centre solution that would bring together and coordinate eight separate customer service operations. TRC also appointed contact centre specialist, Malcolm Angell as the new Manager of Customer Service. His first task was to identify the right solution for TRC.

“What we needed was technology that would allow TRC to manage service better, it had to be much more than just a switchboard,” Angell explains. “With around 60 or so people in our service centre branch, the scale of the Council is not large in contact centre terms but the complexity was most interesting. We were committed to maintaining the level of contact that residents and businesses were used to, and at that stage, this meant keeping a presence in eight separate centres. The challenge was to create one queue and at the same time manage front-of-counter interactions for each site”.

The chosen solution would need to work with an off-the-shelf customer service knowledge management system that TRC had selected to gather and store centrally the large amount of information which was previously held in various formats and locations across the region.

After reviewing a variety of options, Angell selected Customer Interaction Centre (CIC) from Interactive Intelligence.

In Angell's view CIC covered the basics such as call routing and the ability to configure the system to suit their specific needs. There were also some 'nice to haves' such as the workforce planning and customer feedback options. The modularised nature of CIC let them turn required functions on as and when they were needed.

In addition to creating the contact centre, TRC's plan was to move to a Voice over IP (VoIP) solution. This was done progressively with sites prioritised according to need. Those with older systems would move to VoIP immediately while others were to be switched across as time, technology and budget dictated.

TRC's IT Help Desk became a test bed for the new system. CIC components were installed and run there, allowing technical staff to familiarise themselves with the software. Angell describes this time as a “luxury” but believes it was essential for the smooth transition change-over of systems.

Here comes the rain

It was during the set-up period that Toowoomba and the surrounding regions experienced devastating floods. Difficulty receiving supplies slowed the project, putting it back two or three weeks. Despite this, Angell says, “deployment went like a dream - there were no hitches”.

A centralised, coordinated service response

Once the phone system and contact centre went live customers no longer needed to think carefully about how or where they contact the Council - a single, 24-7 telephone number offered a centralised contact point for any queries. Incoming calls are automatically routed to the next, most appropriate phone operator regardless of location. Counter staff in regional offices also use the system to manage and log queries. In all, there were over 60 staff using the system regularly.

As for the rest of the organisation, the most obvious effects of the change of phone system have been the move to a 131 phone number and the introduction of some friendly call management options. “We've had some quite positive feedback regarding the 'follow me' functionality and for the way we can conference and introduce calls to other parts of the organisation. Through a combination of the technology and our own processes we can explain a caller's query or their purpose for the call before handing them over to another staff member. Callers don't feel like they are being 'dumped' from operator to operator any more,” Angell says.

Hitting service targets

Contact centre activity reports show that call handling has improved markedly. "Eighty per cent of calls are answered within 20 seconds. And when it comes to the call abandonment rate, our target was to get it below five. Right now, it's sitting at between two and three per cent,” Angell explains.

TRC will also be turning on the auto call back option that allows customers in a phone queue to leave their details and hang up without losing their place in the queue. Once their message reaches the head of the queue, TRC staff automatically call them back and attend to their query.

“We've had a lot of good feedback but some of our customers are finding it difficult. They were used to calling their local council office and speaking to the same person each time. They'd say 'I always speak to Debbie' about such and such. However when you move from being a shire council of say 15-20,000 people to an entity with 177,000 residents, ratepayers and visitors, the scale is completely different. Not everyone can speak to Debbie but we still want them to have a good customer experience. That's why we're so concerned about delivering more consistent information.”

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