Customizability, demand offer good fit for any size locality
Americans encounter customer self-service portals in dealings with banks, hospitals and doctor’s offices. At the municipal level such interactions are becoming almost as common.
Leesburg, Va., has a population of approximately 48,000. Sherri Jackson, utility office customer service supervisor, said the city arrived at using self-service portals a couple of years ago.
“Our portal is a combination of our municipal billing software, our automated meter reading system and the work of a private programmer that we hire especially for his knowledge and ability to complete complicated interfaces.”
Leesburg’s costs for implementation were limited to programming since the first two components were already in place. The city’s decision to implement the portal with the specific offerings of online bill pay; daily, weekly or monthly consumption information; and high usage alerts, such as an email or text when usage exceeds a customer requested threshold, was driven by the availability of the data. Two stand-alone databases were combined to educate and meet requests for more information.
In an entity the size of Leesburg, what was the usage data for the service?
“We service approximately 15,600 accounts,” said Jackson. “Since we went live, we have had 4,862 visitors, 24,444 page hits and 308 customers sign up for high usage alerts.” Demographic information on users is not collected.
In terms of the effect on the municipal employees, Jackson said they have found the service to be a valuable one.
“It’s great to be able to refer customers to their current usage data. We can take the mystery out of high water bills by showing them exactly what days or weeks they used the water. Customers can also enjoy the ‘self-service’ options when it suits their schedules, not the typical 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday- Friday. We refer customers to the self-service options whenever possible.”
Jackson found that her team spent extra time with customers at first, educating them to the benefits of using the information at their fingertips. “They assist our less technologically inclined customers through the programs so they, too, can benefit from the additional information.”
Leesburg received special recognition for its customer portals at the 2015 Virginia Municipal League awards programs. The VML judged its entry as the best in the category for its particular population threshold. The entries were evaluated on criteria that emphasized innovation, efficiency and entrepreneurship.
Inverness, Fla., is much smaller than Leesburg, with approximately 7,000 residents; but it, too, has made significant use of customer self-service portals since the option was rolled out 24 months ago.
“Approximately 15 percent of the customer base utilizes the self-service portal at this time,” said Cheryl Chiodo, finance director. We anticipate the usage to increase over the next one to three years as we add self-service functionality.”
The city provides water and sewer utility customers inquiry access to their billing and consumption data and provides online payment options. Customers can communicate with utility personnel through an email portal. Capability will be added soon for customers to apply for building permits, request building inspections, inquire on pending building permit applications filed with the city no later than July 1; and a citizen transparency module providing revenue and expense data inquiries went live in early April. A portal that will allow businesses to apply for and renew businesses licenses online and should be in place by July 1.
Inverness experienced a decrease in customer service calls after the portal’s launch, as well as a reduction in the number of over-the-counter customer payments processed by customer service. Any savings in staff time has been redirected to water loss prevention: primarily in services related to customer water leak notifications, Chiodo said.
Despite its small size, the cost for Inverness to off er the portal was minimal. The town hosts its portal, so expenses were limited to software license acquisition, minimal implementation costs and annual software support fees.
Code for America is a nonprofit organization that partners with local governments to improve key services and build healthier, more prosperous and more just communities. Representative Nicole Neditch has worked with municipal entities specifically to convert their websites into a “digital front door” to city services. Her initial advice is normally to conduct user research and build the site out iteratively, based on user needs.
Neditch concurred with Chiodo that moving services online doesn’t necessarily add work, but it does require some upfront investment to restructure how they are delivered. She operates under the belief that there is a bottom line.
“In the 21st century, residents should be able to conduct their business online and not have to come into city hall.”