Shelter from the storm

By GovTechReview Staff
Friday, 22 October, 2010

The Housing Direct Call CentreThe Housing Direct Call Centre

Libby Atkins is just a little bit afraid of storms.

“Storms are a dirty word around here,” she says. “We had the biggest storm in 50 years and that was an interesting experience.”

“Here” for Atkins is Housing Direct, a new contact centre the West Australian Department of Housing has established as a single point of contact for all public housing tenants.

“We are the landlord for approximately 39,000 properties,” Atkins explains. “Most of our work is managing responsive maintenance requests. We take reports on maintenance issues at properties, and arrange contractors to address those issues.”

A big storm can therefore shake the phones for Atkins and her team, as they prepare for a deluge of calls that can follow a deluge of rain.

But Atkins’ team has been designed to stem the flow. Housing Direct is not the sole point of contact for tenants, who remain free to contact local offices of the Department of Housing. But the new centre does have a remit to bring rigour and consistency to the process of assisting tenants.

“There are policies and procedures in place [across the Department] but [different] local procedures meant differences in client responses between offices,” Atkins says. “At Housing Direct, consistency is our aim.”

Better customer service is one driver, and Housing Direct’s aim of consistency should ensure that every inquiry from a tenant is met with the same quality of response, and the same assessment of needs regardless of location.

“Unlike the private sector, our customers don’t have another option,” Atkins says. “They cannot get the same service elsewhere, however it is still our priority to provide the best possible service and recognise that they all see an emergency as a different thing.”

Most, she adds, are patient, with remote area tenants recognising that it can take a considerable period of time to ship and install items like a hot water heater. But any issues not resolved within set timeframes can quickly be brought to the attention of members of parliament or ministers, a situation Atkins is keen to avoid.

Excellent, consistent service is therefore one way to ensure that customers are satisfied. The centre is also tasked with making sure the Department uses its resources wisely.

“We do not want contractors attending to a non-urgent situation while another tenant has a pressing need,” Atkins says. Incidents are therefore graded by their potential to impact tenants’ health and safety, and then by their potential for further damage to property.

“Urgency is determined by the Department’s business rules. We might have determined something is a 48-hour response priority, or there could be reasons it is a three-hour priority. Whatever happens, we never downgrade a job [to slower service]. If we make a change, it is always to upgrade the timeframe when there are extenuating circumstances.”

Greenfield contact centre

When Atkins arrived in West Australia in August 2009, few of these facilities were in place. “I came from the same job in Queensland,” she recalls. “I was Manager of the housing contact centre there for about 18 months. I had worked with Queensland Housing all the way up from the phones to being Manager, but the chance to start from scratch was too good an opportunity.”

When Atkins arrived in Perth, she found several challenges. The most significant of these was that none of the team selected to work for the new service had backgrounds in contact centres.

“When I first started, the staff had all been sourced from the Department’s regional offices and were temporary employees. I had to recruit every role in the contact centre. That was one of my first priorities.”

Atkins quickly resolved that the team that was in place when she arrived should be given every chance to apply for, and win, permanent positions in the open recruitment process for the new contact centre.

One step towards this goal was establishing Housing Direct as a contact centre rather than just moving existing services to be delivered from the same room. “When I first came here, it was newly established. I needed to work with the staff to explain what a contact centre is, what kind of processes we were going to implement, what kind of monitoring goes on inside one and the reasons for the monitoring and reporting.”

“Not all of them liked it initially, but it was important that they understood the environment we were creating to know whether or not they really wanted to apply for a permanent job.”

Eventually, these programs took root and once the formal recruitment process concluded, all of the temps who found themselves working in the contact centre applied for permanent roles. Seventeen of the nineteen applicants were deemed suitable for the jobs.

Wagging the dog

As part of the process of introducing the team to common call centre practices, Atkins also started to use tools like listening to recorded calls for quality control and training purposes. A common tool in the call centre industry, this tactic was new to the Department and again required some adjustment on the part of the staff.

“These are things the department had not traditionally done,” Atkins says, which has meant “one of our challenges has been to promote the value of the contact centre to the Department,” both in terms of its ability to meet tenants’ needs, but also to introduce it to new practices and skills.

“There was some hesitancy about whether it was a good idea, but the Department conducted a review of services and processes and recognised it was a way to introduce efficiencies.”

Technology help

While Atkins was working with her team, she also started to look at making the most of technology to support their work.

“The contact centre had been set up and was running in a basic way. We needed infrastructure to support the focus on developing our people.”

The key tool that has boosted the centre’s ability to deliver a consistent service is the Livepro knowledge management product, iDirect, which guides agents so that they can ask callers the right questions to help them understand the kind of assistance that will be required.

“We don’t script everything the agents say; it is more about guiding them to the questions they need to ask so we can get the information we need for our maintenance contractors and to determine the priority. There is a lot of questioning they need to do in an average call.”

The centre is now reviewing the functions and content of iDirect as it heads into a second full year of operations.

“One of the other challenges has been our reporting,” Atkins says. “The Department never really had any hard data on the sorts of calls we were getting, or the time we would take to handle a call. A lot of assumptions needed to be made in the implementation of the contact centre, so it is good that we now have 12 months of data to work with.”

“As we introduce new services, we will know what to expect. Our reporting has not been as comprehensive as we would like. Now we are working on that.”

First year winners

Another thing the contact centre is working on is polishing the awards it won at the recent ATA awards. The ATA is the peak body for the contact centre industry in Australia and its awards are considered an imprimatur of true excellence. Atkins’ win as Contact Centre Manager of the Year is therefore a significant achievement, although she quickly mentions that staff satisfaction with management runs at 96 per cent and points out her belief that the centre’s win at State level – Housing Direct was named West Australia’s best centre with fewer than 50 full-time equivalent staff – is more significant than her own prize.

“The team award is better because the team has worked so hard. Every person has contributed so much to the success of Housing Direct. I’m not sure they realise how hard it is to win these things because they got it in their first year!”

Atkins, meanwhile, is very modest about her own achievement.

“The network of people I work with is so experienced; the experience of those guys in my award category is immense.”

“The biggest lesson for me has been to learn from people around you, learn what to do and what not to do. I am the accumulation of wisdom from the people around me. I don’t think you can ever think you know it all. And there are times when I still feel I am a team leader playing manager and someone will tell me to go back to my old job.”

GPS Link helps transport companies engage with passengers

GPS Link allows transport operators to connect with their passengers in real time with the display changing according to the vehicle location. Upcoming stops and points of interest can be displayed on screens while even location-based advertising can be shown. Meanwhile, waiting passengers can be shown a map of where the vehicle is, as well as the anticipated arrival time in minutes.

Omnivex Moxie’s newest release, GPS Link (due in November), works by sending GPS coordinates via a cellular network to the Omnivex server in real time, indicating the current location of the vehicle shown on screens. GPS Link is already fully functional at LAX in its shuttle service called ‘Smart Shuttle’.

This is an impressive technology enhancement for transport operators. Not only can they engage with their passengers in real time and provide them with feedback on the bus and the route and other location-based information on large digital screens, but the transport company can also gather telemetry of the vehicle at the same time – great feature for fleet management.

It’s a win-win situation for transport operators and the travelling public.

GPS Link provides increased security measures, so instead of lengthy waits at the bus stop in the dark, passengers can choose to go inside and wait in the confines of a well-lit building. In the US, this is proving to be a fantastic security initiative.

Gary Else, General Manager at Communitech (Australian supplier of Omnivex Digital Signage software), says: “Transport operators now have ways to engage with the travelling public. GPS Link provides the travelling public real-time, location-based GPS data such as where the bus is now, how long to the next stop, where other buses are as shown on the screen on the bus, and actual time of arrival. Transport operators can gather this information and also use it for better management of their fleet and, of course, it is not limited to buses. Anyone with a fleet of vehicles could gain efficiencies with the system.

"This intelligence-based digital signage assists with sustainable city initiatives. More efficient transport sectors save our precious resources, help make our cities more sustainable and deliver far more than getting people from one place to another, as it engages directly with the passengers and provides them with current useful information. So, intelligent digital signage moves to the next level; no longer simply digital signage, it becomes an important and effective visual communications system.”

Canadian company, Omnivex Corporation, has spent many years developing its newest software called Moxie. Omnivex Moxie is a complete digital signage content management system – from the preparation of content to its display and metrics. Omnivex is designed to manage digital signage networks in real time. In fact, Moxie is so good that it recently came second in the Microsoft Global Awards against all software types.

Call Gary Else, General Manager of Communitech on 07 3205 6188 to arrange a demonstration.

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