Recently, water service went out for residents in a north Forsyth neighborhood due to county work on the waterline. That community’s attempts to get answers from the county highlighted the need for a change to the county-wide customer service policy.
At a recent work session, commissioners voted to speed up the process to add a new customer services module to the county following a discussion on the county’s customer service policy. The new system, known as a 311 system, would be a non-emergency number and associated software for county residents to use.
“It’s centralized issue management, so we have one place for everything for citizen requests that are coming in,” said Brandon Kenney, the county’s chief information officer. “Citizens will be able to report and receive status updates on their service request based on how they want to receive it. We will also have automatic routing, so if we get service requests that we know we need, based upon the type of problem that is being submitted, to be submitted to code enforcement or roads and bridges.”
Using the program, callers would call one number instead of the county departments’ individual lines. The county had planned to roll out the software later this year but approved moving the timeline up.
“There’s a human element, and that is this has to be designed with as much artificial intelligence – to use a buzzword – upfront so it can self-direct inquiries based on the terms people use,” said County Manager Eric Johnson. “At the other end, we have departments that have people answering the phone and dealing with issues … this is more centralized, more visible.”
Frank Zimmerman, president of the Hampton homeowner’s association, said an example of why the service might be needed happened when residents of the Hampton subdivision had issues with the county water department.
“Our issue was communication,” he said. “We had a leak at the end of our subdivision, the water department came out and told us that the valve was bad, it had to be ordered and the work would be scheduled and when it was scheduled, we would be told because there would probably be some of the homes that would not have water. We were never called back and told it was scheduled.”
Zimmerman said, conversely, a nearby townhome development had signs saying the water would be turned off. The day after, several homes had weak or no water and did not receive information until late into the day.
Zimmerman expressed concerns with communication from the county to let customers know what is going on.
“I had nothing to tell the residents, and we have strived as a community to communicate,” he said.
District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills said she spoke with Zimmerman during the ordeal and said she felt it was the responsibility of county staff, rather than commissioners, to get the information out.
Johnson said the county used the incident as a learning experience.
“Some of it is organizational, some of it is specific to programs,” he said. “The challenge there was that it was a crew that was working after hours that had some of the information that you and I weren’t able to get and [water and sewer director Tim Perkins] wasn’t able to get. Tim had a staff member reach out to the community around 9:30. Unfortunately, she didn’t have all the information and actually conveyed bad information about which streets were affected.”