Dateline Minneapolis: At 311 center, calls run from cats to cars

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 4, 2011 - 11:54 PM

Using their own database and in-house contacts, Minneapolis 311 agents steer city residents toward solutions to vexing problems.

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Sarah McGinty does her best to help Minneapolis residents, but sometimes she has to tell a 311 caller that nothing can be done.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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She's only a quarter of the way through her shift, but Sarah McGinty already has led more than a dozen Minneapolitans through the thickets of city bureaucracy.

She's connected contractors with the inspectors who will sign off on their work. She's linked a tenant with rental licensing inspectors. She's clarified the law covering minimum temperature in apartments for another renter. It's all part of her job as one of the city's 20 agents handling 311 calls.

Then she hits one call where the city has to say no. A woman insists that the city dispatch someone to bring down a cat that's been up a tree for two days. McGinty is pretty sure of the answer, but she checks with the city's animal control folks anyhow.

Offline, an animal control agent tells her that's not something that the division does. "The age-old line is you don't ever find a cat skeleton in a tree," the agent tells McGinty. It's not a line she repeats to the caller, but she does offer some reassurance: "If a cat goes up there, they can usually get back down." McGinty also suggests putting out a tin of tuna.

That's life in the city's 311 call center -- a mix of brisk efficiency with a dab of TLC.

McGinty is one of four workers who punch in by 7 a.m., and the center is fully staffed by 10:30, allowing 311 to cover 60 hours a week. It's the state's first 311 center, and only Mankato offers another.

Agents field calls from residents who are sometimes confused, sometimes upset and sometimes just want the facts, ma'am.

It's a job where agents like McGinty greet callers with a problem-solving attitude. They take reports on unlit city streetlights, file reports on lower-level crime for police, check whether a vehicle is in the impound lot and tell the caller how much the vehicle's ransom will be.

Some callers zero in on specific information they need. Some call with lists of 20 unshoveled sidewalks. Others ramble, seeking someone willing to listen to their tale of travail, even as McGinty tries to guide them back to answering questions that allow her to pinpoint how the city can help. Her most satisfying calls are those where she feels she's satisfied the caller's need.

And on rare occasions, agents get the kind of calls they recall later with wry smiles. Like the gent seeking a dentist. He had glued his ears, which he felt were too protuberant, to his head using super-strong glue. He was doing OK until he popped the glue applicator into his mouth so he could press his ears to his head. He was able to speak sufficiently to tell the 311 operator that he'd glued his mouth partially shut.

Many agents are veterans of call centers run by companies such as Macy's or other retailers. They say they appreciate the flexibility of the 311 workplace on the third floor of the Third Precinct police station at Lake Street and Minnehaha Av. S. For example, three operators are set up to answer calls from their homes, with two more set to join them. Some operators work four 10-hour days. The flexibility goes both ways. Supervisors monitor call waiting times and will ask agents to delay breaks to handle a crunch.

Perhaps the most notable example of flexibility is that agents can take turns answering calls while walking the office treadmill. They keep the speed low enough that there's no heavy breathing and so they can use their computer keyboards. About a third of staffers sign up for half-hour treadmill shifts daily, while another third use it at least weekly.

The 311 call center is a data-driven place, so it's no surprise that it has a statistical comparison of people's productivity on the treadmill vs. at their desks. It shows most staffers notch higher productivity -- measured by the number of calls handled -- on the treadmill than when doing desk-based work.

That comes partly from the endorphins from exercising, and partly from feeling more focused, according to Nancy McGrath, an agent who also bikes to work. It's good for people who like to multi-task, said co-worker Dawn Misencik. The treadmill is one of three being tested in city offices on a pilot basis, funded by a tobacco settlement grant.

The public has caught on to 311 after five years. Two-thirds said in a city survey last year that they're familiar with the service, up from 59 percent in 2008. On a recent Friday, 1,169 calls were placed to 311, although 58 hung up during their average of 27 seconds on hold. Another 28 e-mails came in from the 311 website, where common problems can be reported on a self-service basis. Another eight people left voice mails overnight when the line wasn't staffed. Don Stickney, 311's director, hopes to launch a smartphone app by the end of the year for 311 that will allow people to also send in a photo of conditions they're reporting.

The Web and voice options help to offset a 2010 cut of 20 hours weekly in an operation that used to be staffed until 11 p.m. on weekdays, a reduction mandated by City Council budget cuts. The $3.1 million operation has been slated for another $91,000 cut in 2012.

One reason that agents can keep callers from exceeding 20 seconds on hold most of the time is that 311 workers have developed their own in-house searchable database that allows them to call up information with keywords. "It's like Google on steroids for city operations," Stickney said. Agents continually update the information or add more topics.

That's something the city lacked before 311. In those days, a resident with a problem had to hunt through 180-some phone numbers in the blue pages of the phone book in search of the right place to call. Or they rang a council member's office or tried one of three city operators who lacked specialized knowledge about the services provided.

And in those days, the kind of link-up that supervisor Lisa Good recalls with pride might not have happened: One caller reported a lost dog the caller described as a best friend. Maybe 45 minutes later, another caller reported finding a lost dog. The agent who took the first call overheard the second report being taken and the dog was quickly reunited with its owner.

Stickney recalls another episode that left 311 agents feeling particularly helpful. A girl on her way home from school dropped her house key in a storm sewer catch basin. By calling 311, as she'd been instructed to do, she was able to mobilize a sewer crew to retrieve it.

Sometimes, in special circumstances, it's all hands on deck. The center was flooded with calls when the I-35W bridge collapsed, and again after the north Minneapolis tornado last May. Snow emergencies bring a flood of callers wanting to know about parking restrictions or where their car has been towed. Street sweeping brings a similar surge.

The 35W bridge episode brought one of McGinty's most memorable calls. It came from a man frantically seeking information about his girlfriend, whose last words before her cellphone went dead were, "I'll be home soon. I'm just getting on the bridge." Several days later, he called back to 311, seeking information about recovering her car, and by coincidence got McGinty again. He told her he was sitting next to his beloved, still picking glass out of her hair as she recovered in her hospital bed. After the call ended, McGinty put her head down at her desk and wept in relief.

Another one bites the dust

For those keeping track, the number of departed aides to Third Ward Council Member Diane Hofstede has reached 26 in less than six years in office.

Council assistant Pat Taylor is the latest to submit her resignation, effective later this month. She joins a long list of people who have left the Third Ward office, which has two aide positions.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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