The need to improve customer service at the City of Red Deer was discussed on the first day of the 2020 operating budget process.
Coun. Lawrence Lee said he’s heard complaints about city residents getting the “run-around” when they call City Hall with a question and are passed between departments.
Sometimes citizens receive conflicting answers to their questions because they aren’t talking to the right people, he added — or callers don’t like the tone or delivery of the response from city workers, who haven’t been trained to deal with the public.
City council debated on Tuesday whether to spend about $100,000 to explore better customer relations — such as installing a 311 non-emergency customer service system.
Lee considered it money well spent, saying “I would probably pay ten-fold if it would mean better (dialogue) between our staff and citizens.”
Julia Harvie Shemko, director of the city’s communications and strategic planning department, said 311 systems have proven very effective in other municipalities and could certainly improve customer service here.
All public calls about city services, complaints, or reports of vandalism would be routed to a central call centre. The phone lines would be answered by people specially trained in customer relations, who know where to transfer calls so citizens get prompt help and accurate answers to their questions.
Shemko said looking at 311 and other ways to enhance the city’s customer service have been considered for some time.
But some councillors questioned whether this year — the fifth in a recession — is the right time to spend that kind of money.
Coun. Vesna Higham said having a 311 system would likely be valuable, but she feels it’s “a nice to have, instead of a need to have” item.
Since members of the public have asked her to keep this year’s tax increase as low as possible, she added she couldn‘t support the cost at this time.
Coun. Ken Johnston agreed that customer service was important — but he also questioned the timing of this request.
“Would we fail our residents if we didn’t (approve the funding)?” he asked rhetorically. “It think it might impair us, but wouldn’t impede us.”
But Coun. Dianne Wyntjes argued that the spending was a worthwhile investment for the city’s future.
Red Deer is no longer Alberta’s third largest city, having been eclipsed in population by Lethbridge — which already has a 311 system. “We need take some learnings from that…. we are a growing, changing organization and this is an important investment,” Wyntjes added.
The majority on council voted to spend the money and explore better customer service.
Budget deliberations will continue on Wednesday.