“Citizens had to be able to get some help, and we had to have a way to answer their calls remotely,” says Oswaldo Mestre, Director of Citizen Services for Buffalo, N.Y.

Jul 12 2021

U.S. Cities Upgrade Their Call Centers for More Flexibility

Whether working remotely or expanding operations, city call centers have adapted to meet the demands of their environment.

When Buffalo, N.Y., closed its municipal buildings as part of a pandemic lockdown ın March 2020, Oswaldo Mestre had only two days to find a way to keep a vital line of communication open to residents.

As the city’s director of citizen services, Mestre manages Buffalo’s 311 contact center, which fields questions and complaints from citizens. Buffalo 311 includes an online portal and a mobile app, but its heart is a Cisco PBX call and resolution center previously run out of City Hall and staffed by workers who had been sent home for the ­duration of the city’s lockdown.

In the scramble that ensued, Mestre, his team and his partners were able to rescue 311 from interruption and get a glimpse of the future of the service. Today, contact center upgrades require technologies that are scalable and flexible, says Josh Streets, technology practice leader for the International Customer Management Institute. While Buffalo chose its solution to enable staffers to work remotely, similar technologies perhaps foretell the future of all contact centers. Contact centers are increasingly adopting Call Center as a Service and other modern ­communications solutions.

“Modern contact centers need systems that bring together all their customer channels,” Streets says. “You want customers to have the same experience across all channels and also have data from the channels connect, so that the person responding knows about all the interactions. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for the customer and for the staff.”

Contact center modernization should start with an assessment of the existing operation and of where it must go, Streets says. From there, managers need a procurement strategy that focuses on both operations and IT. An ­implementation plan should then set a realistic timeline and budget. The final step is creating an ongoing ­optimization strategy.

Buffalo Seeks to Provide 311 Service Remotely

For assistance, Mestre turned to the State University of New York at Buffalo, which also uses Cisco technology and had an infrastructure in place to support remote c­ommunications. UB runs the latest version of Cisco Unified Communications Manager along with the Cisco Expressway gateway for secure, scalable call control and session management and to facilitate remote collaboration. Using these tools, the university was able to connect to the city’s Webex Contact Center and then provide a link to the Webex application to city workers in their homes.

After a frantic 48 hours, which included Mestre and others hand- delivering new hardware to call-takers’ homes and training staff on the fly, Buffalo 311 was up and running. The transition was seamless even as call volumes increased, Mestre says.

“We didn’t want citizens to think the government had shut down,” Mestre says. “Besides potholes and parking, people were calling about the pandemic, about unemployment, about food insecurity. Citizens had to be able to get some help, and we had to have a way to answer their calls remotely.”

More than a year later, Buffalo 311 is still running as a technology partnership between the city and UB. As that arrangement ends, the city will likely begin to invest in the technology that made the remote call center possible, Mestre says.

Oswaldo Mestre

“We didn’t want citizens to think the government had shut down,” says Oswaldo Mestre, director of citizen services for Buffalo, N.Y.

“I don’t see a day when all our call-takers come back into City Hall,” he says. “This technology makes us nimbler while keeping us secure. We can scale up and scale down as we need to, and it reduces our carbon footprint. We’ll have operational efficiencies that free us to focus on solving problems for people.”

RELATED: AI and chatbots can help augment government call center capabilities. 

Montgomery, Ala., Upgrades Its Computer-Aided Dispatch System

Now the emergency communications director for the city of Montgomery, Ala., Melinda Shonk has three decades of firsthand experience with the evolution of technology in her department. “I started as a 911 dispatcher and have been involved in every level of operations,” she says. “A big part of my job now is to assess and maintain our technology and decide where we’re going in the next few years.”

The city has already taken major steps to modernize its emergency communications center. In 2016, Montgomery 911 upgraded its computer-aided dispatch platform, installed a CineMassive video wall and adopted the state’s P25 radio system to provide interoperability with other emergency agencies.

The upgraded CAD system provides enhanced mapping capabilities along with features such as a direct interface to building alarm systems, which cuts response time to an alarm and frees call-takers to handle other emergencies, Shonk says. Among other features, the video wall connects with traffic cameras around the city, displays a CAD map showing the location of police and fire units, and shows closed-captioned local and national news.

Montgomery has also moved to an IP-based Next Generation 911 system that enhances reliability and adds the potential for new channels — such as text, chat and video — for emergency communications.

EXPLORE: How can real-time data help enhance situational awareness for police? 

Johns Creek, Ga., Migrates Contact Center to Cloud

The city contact center for Johns Creek, Ga., once consisted of a single person, who funneled phone inquiries to appropriate municipal employees while also directing walk-in traffic at City Hall. 

That changed in February 2020, when Johns Creek moved to an Amazon Connect contact center based in the Amazon Web Services cloud, says Nick O’Day, the city’s chief data officer.

“We needed to increase efficiency and consistency in the way we responded to public inquiries without adding to our head count,” O’Day says. Johns Creek is a suburb northeast of Atlanta with about 84,000 residents.

In choosing Amazon Connect, the city leveraged a previous investment in an Alexa app that provided data about the city and its services through the smart speaker, O’Day says. The most arduous part of the contact center deployment was creating a complex flow chart to map calls to their correct ­destinations. This was then automated through Connect, which has embedded voice recognition, and linked to the data available on Alexa.

Moving to Connect resulted in more efficient delivery of information to residents and much richer, 24/7 service, O’Day says. Connect also provides the city with valuable data about where calls are coming from and which departments are receiving inquiries. “We want to get information as ­efficiently as possible to as many people as we can,” O’Day says.

Photography by Luke Copping