Here’s a city department that immediately attracted our attention – Office of Strategic Customer Services.

Unfortunately, it’s in the city government for Dallas and not our City Hall, but it manages a program that seems like an idea whose time has come – mystery shoppers for city services.

In the Texas city, volunteers are recruited and trained to evaluate the customer service of city departments, the most recent being a survey of Dallas’ 311 program. Of course, there’s another more basic reason why we won’t be doing that here – we still don’t have a 311 system.

Without Peer

Today, there are 60 cities with 311 programs, including some of the cities that we often cite as our “peer cities” – Charlotte, Louisville, Indianapolis and Birmingham. Nashville recently joined the ranks of cities that allow citizens to call one number for information and access to city services, and although its program is modest when compared to the standard for 311 – New York City – at least it’s a start.

While the Nashville version presently looks like a glorified information service, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has set up a 311 structure where its calls are used to analyze department efficiency and evaluate employee performance.

In the Big Apple, all calls are answered by a live operator and the service is available 24 hours a day. In addition, translations are available in more than 170 languages, and the information being given to callers is the most up-to-date, real-time data base in the city.

Nerve Centers

In the midst of crisis, the 311 program is the nerve center for citizens in the midst of a crisis. That’s why more and more, 311 is considered as a basic service for government. Here, it’s not even on the radar.

Back to the mystery shopper program in Dallas, the city government there uses these specially trained citizens to rank services and the performance of specific employees. The mystery shoppers rating 311 – a program receiving about 33,000 calls a month – are just the latest way that Dallas has used them. Previously, they rated operations of the city’s park department, and their reports are regularly used by city officials to evaluate services.

In Dallas, mystery shoppers not only evaluated how the calls were handled, but how well specific departments resolved the calls for services. The reports from the mystery shoppers are given to the Dallas City Council quarterly and are posted on-line.

Meanwhile, mystery shoppers are instrumental to Chicago’s performance management system, and Miami and Richmond are already planning similar mystery shopper programs.

Losing Streak

As we’ve said, it’s unfortunate that Memphis is 0 for 2 on both mystery shoppers and 311, but more to the point, City Hall shows little interest in customer relations. It’s too bad, because there’s so much room for improved service, and so many of the answers aren’t really that complicated.

We were thinking about simple solutions to better customer service recently as we stood in line in City Hall for 40 minutes to pay city taxes. All we needed was a receipt that the tax bill had been paid, and there were only six people ahead of us when we got in line.

But with computers failing and with clerks’ windows opening and closing with no apparent logic, you didn’t need a degree in hospitality from the Wilson School at University of Memphis to devise ways to improve things. In fact, that was a favorite pastime of the people queued up in the tax line.

A Different View

A mystery shopper program would go a long way to developing actionable recommendations for improving things, but a start would be if city employees actually stood in line in various departments.

It would be illuminating for them to see city services from our side of the counter.