Your call to Envirocall (and anything else on 0191 278 7878)

March 8, 2015 4:20 PM

Like us, your heart probably sinks at the thought of ringing a call centre with an automated response. So recently we visited the part of the Civic Centre where Peggy (yes, the machine has a name!) receives 1 million calls a year, to see what happens to them.

Our second preconception was that Newcastle City Council's Customer Centre would be full of young underpaid people who are only there until they can get a better job. Nothing could be further from the truth in this case. The Centre is full of mature women and men, well trained and motivated, and enjoying their work of helping the public, responding to people who ring 0191 278 7878

Now, that machine. It's programmed to recognise sounds rather than words - and it "learns on the job". So while she isn't tuned to your voice, Peggy feeds your sounds into the memory banks to do a better job next time. She picks out the key words and puts you through to the first operator who has the right skills to answer you. This might be bins, grass cutting, Council tax, repairs, or even questions about voting.Peggy has two automated firends : Penny, for automatic bill payments, and Fleur is the environmental reporting line, dealing with requests for bin collection days, missed bins and requests for new bins etc.

Yes, there can be waiting for a real person, but managers use previous data to forecast peak calls, and staff adjust their breaks to make make the best use of their time. Oh, and staff don't have targets for the quantity of calls - it's the quality that counts. If operators consistently take too little time on calls, managers listen in to the tapes - all calls are recorded and kept - and advise them if they need to be more "customer friendly"

Any previous contact is recorded in a database, so you'll be asked your name and address to make sure they understand the history. As part of the continuing upgrade, in a few months operators will have a map on screen showing where your home is, so problems will be more easily explained.
At the moment they don't quite "close the loop" - that is, when problems are passed on to service departments, they don't always get feedback that the job's been completed. But that's changing too. The "bulky rubbish" teams have already been trained and given hand help devices so they can signal back "job done". (A bit like the people delivering parcels use) Not too far away will be bar code readers showing that each dustbin has been emptied.
Another thing that can annoy is the time you're told a job will take. The hope with this is that it's a maximum rather than a target - but it's something your Liberal Democrat councillors will continue to keep an eye on.
Well, that's all very well, but what about social media? We were fascinated to see that Twitter is watched in real time (@NewcastleCC) so the Council is aware of developing situations elsewhere in the City, and so can deploy resources or provide information as required.
There's EnviroCall Online, which when there's full feedback on jobs will enable not just the Council but Councillors to monitor progress - again, like parcel tracking. But how will we be sure that a job's really been done, not just being reported as such? Not too far away is the on-site photograph to prove gullies cleared etc!!
All this sounds too good to be true, but we were given real-time demonstrations. And it's not just Newcastle City Council that uses the Customer Centre. Every traffic light failure over the North East is reported via Peggy, and repair work directed from the Civic Centre.
There's a back up system in case of catastrophic failure (working mutually with Your Homes Newcastle) and the team is actively thinking how they can offer a service to other local authorities and public bodies in the region, especially when the upgrades are working. Newcastle's Customer Centre is actively demonstrating the benefits of shared services which we have been advocating at Council meetings to save costs and generate revenue. We wish them every success!
And what can you do to make your call more successful? Try to be short and clear with Peggy and friends - a few key words not sentences. If this fails, ask for "operator", although this could make for a slightly longer call. And try not to be anxious and take out your stress on the operators - they really are trying their best to help you!