Unseen City: The 311 Toronto Call Centre
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Unseen City: The 311 Toronto Call Centre

A large digital display board helps 311 employees track performance throughout the day. Photo by Michael Chrisman.

311 Toronto celebrated its first birthday this week. The always-on City information service has made significant gains during its short existence, but, like any one-year-old, it’s still finding its feet. So says Neil Evans, 311’s project director, as he walks us along the promenade above the former Metro Council chambers, where 311’s call centre now resides in softly-lit luxury.

Evans has spent the past year gently tweaking the call centre’s daily work routines to match fluctuating inquiry volumes. (There are other ways to get in touch with 311, besides calling, including email, fax, and regular mail.) During an average week, 311’s phones ring something like 19,000 times, but that number can vary significantly. “Most of the winter activity is driven by snow,” he says, “and we didn’t get much last winter.” This made the colder months quiet, at least in comparison to summer, which was busier.

“It caught us a little off-guard because we didn’t have a previous plan,” he says.
Inquiry volume also varies throughout the day and week. Evans says that experimentation has taught him to put about 65 to 70 operators on duty during peak periods—generally weekdays, from mid-morning to early evening.

During times when there are fewer inquiries, fewer operators are necessary. Late at night, there are sometimes only three on shift. Weekends are also generally light on calls. This could have to do with the fact that many Torontonians don’t realize that 311 is available seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. It is. Now you know.
Of course, publicizing the availability of 311 on nights and weekends creates a conundrum. It could cause a spike in calls during those times, making the ebb and flow of Evans’ staffing patterns obsolete. In that case, he’ll have to readjust. Don’t fret; he will.

Evans is a lover of efficiency. He talks quickly. He can quote stats relating to 311 Toronto’s performance in comparison to call-centre industry standards without consulting notes. And he refers to his employees collectively as either FTEs or CSRs, presumably because saying “Full-Time Employee” or “Customer Service Representative” would be a waste of time.

And so, naturally, the first thing he points out to us as we gaze out over 311 Toronto’s deluxe cube farm is the board.

The board is about the size of a large blackboard, or a small movie screen. It’s a brightly lit digital display, mounted on a wall high above the call-centre cubes, where every FTE or CSR can see it. It displays the time and the date, as well as several columns of vastly more specialized data.

One column shows the total number of calls answered by 311 CSRs since the previous midnight. Another column shows, in minutes, the maximum amount of time anyone has presently been on hold, waiting for a 311 operator to handle their call.

But the two most important figures on the big board are a pair of percentages, which track what proportion of calls 311 CSRs are able to answer before callers have been on hold for more than seventy-five seconds. The officially mandated goal of 311 is to address 80 per cent of calls in that amount of time. When performance slips, the numbers automatically turn from go-light green to blood red.

“We’re very performance targeted here, so we have service levels that we’ve committed to the public and that we’ve committed to the City to do,” explains Evans.

The Metro Council chambers have a high, domed ceiling, buttressed with metal supports. Long windows along the sides of the room admit natural light.

As a leftover from the pre-amalgamation GTA’s Metro government, the chambers had been underutilized before 311 took them over, though not totally abandoned. “There was actually an X-Men movie scene shot in here,” says Evans. Which is true.

There are business reasons for having a call centre in such spacious surroundings.

“We did that for two reasons,” says Evans. “One, it’s a good thing to do. But secondly, call centres are known for their churn rate. In fact the industry standard for call centres is about 80 per cent. So in one year, about 80 per cent of your staff will turn over, or 80 per cent of your positions will turn over.” The nicer the workplace, the less the employee turnover—or so the theory goes. This is important, because training new call-centre employees is expensive.

“It’s about $10,000, industry standards say, taking someone from the day they leave, until the day someone’s back in their seat with the same expertise,” Evans tells us.

Even the cubes have amenities. Since 311 operators work in eight-hour shifts, each desk can be shared by as many as three people. Because of this, each workstation is equipped with a stack of three drawers, with locks on them, one for the personal effects of each CSR.

Some thought was given to the emotional needs of operators, as well. On the call centre floor, off in a corner, is a tiny chamber with a cushy love seat inside. The sign on the door says “quiet room.” It’s a place for employees to recover after emotionally taxing conversations.

And there are also more subtle creature comforts. “Do you hear that sound?” Evans asks us, at one point.
It’s a dull whooshing sound, like air circulators.

“It’s not air circulators,” says Evans. He points out white discs mounted to the tops of the metal columns that hold up the ceiling. Each one is a speaker. The whooshing is actually specially calibrated white noise, designed to mute the sounds of sixty or so simultaneous phone conversations.

The employee retention rate for 311’s first year was 94 per cent, which, as Evans points out, is well above the industry standard.

In some respects, 311 is only beginning to deliver on its potential. CSRs can already handle service requests for certain City departments—including Solid Waste Management and Toronto Water—without transferring calls, meaning 311 is the only point of contact necessary for notifying the City of missed garbage pickup, a broken water main, or any of a host of other service-related issues. But the plan is to expand this functionality significantly in coming years. Someday, it might even be possible to pay parking tickets or utility bills through 311’s website. Currently, such online services are spread across disparate City webpages. A fully realized 311 would concentrate everything onto a single web portal.

“Our plans in the future are to bundle services,” says Evans. “So, you live in the City of Toronto. You might want to go onto an [online] account type of thing, and you might want to see your dog license, your utility bill, your tax bill, your parks and recreation bill, or your registration. And you might want to either pay them, monitor them, or change them.”

This would be a service along the lines of the online account systems many universities use to enable students to access, on a single page, all information pertaining to their academic career: grades, class schedules, billing information, and so forth.

It’s already possible to make certain simple service requests on the 311 website, mostly to do with missed garbage collection, or malfunctioning street fixtures.

Another promise 311 holds out to future Torontonians has to do with data. The call centre keeps records of all the inquiries it handles, and there are plans to allow outside software developers to mine that trove of information as they please.

“We’re moving towards open data,” says Evans. “So we’ll start to publish this data out there. And developers through an API will be able to mash that up and create new things.”
“I can only envision the applications that can come out of that kind of thing and the way that that information will move us in the future, both as a city, and as a division.”

311 Toronto Year-End Statistics:

  • Total calls: 906,284
  • Total emails: about 70,000
  • Average call length: 220 seconds
  • Target call length: 151 seconds
  • Busiest Weekend: June 26 to June 27, when 311 received almost 7,000 calls. A normal weekend would see something like 1,900. Evans attributes the spike to the G20.
  • Percentage of calls answered in 80 seconds or less: 72
  • Target percentage: 80

CORRECTION: SEPTEMBER 30, 2010: This article originally transposed two numbers: 311 strives to answer 80 per cent of calls in 75 seconds or less, rather than 75 per cent of calls in eighty seconds or less.