A call from Gaithersburg resident Stuart Helfman — about a dead deer in his backyard — was a routine service request for Montgomery County 311 operator Tamara Tyler. But the Jan. 24 conversation marked a milestone for the call center — its two millionth inquiry since it launched on June 17, 2010.
For MC311, the milestone serves as a positive measurement of the call center’s relevance in the Montgomery County community.
“[MC311] began as a call center consolidation effort by the county,” said MC311 Director Leslie Hamm. “They wanted to take all of the smaller customer service hotlines in the county’s bigger departments and bring them together.”
The call center, with 43 customer service representatives, takes calls for all 37 of the county’s departments. That adds up to an average of 40,000 to 50,0000 calls a month from Montgomery County residents.
Allen Mitchell, a customer service representative for nearly three years, said the type of calls usually depend on the time of day.
“In the morning, I mostly get Ride On calls for buses,” Mitchell said. “As the day goes on, we get a lot of permitting service calls and a lot of health and human services calls, like questions regarding food stamps.”
Mitchell, who works from 6:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., said he gets about 70 calls per day, which is about average for most customer service reps.
In special circumstances, such as the chain of snowstorms that recently hit the Montgomery area, the call volume increases. Mitchell said he always is prepared to stay later.
During a snowstorm in early February, “I volunteered to stay overnight ...,” Mitchell said. “It was the first time I did that since the derecho storm in 2012. I always have a blanket and a change of clothes in my car, just in case anything happens.”
Even with all of the training for common inquiries and the help of a state-of-the-art database, customer service reps sometimes field calls they aren’t necessarily prepared to answer.
“There was this one guy who wanted to go out and walk his goat,” Mitchell said. “So he called and asked if it was legal for citizens to own a goat in the county.”
Mitchell said one of the joys of the job is learning about the county, its government and how all of the departments work. He found the answer with relative ease.
“It is actually legal for someone to have a goat in Montgomery County,” he said. “Just as long as they are not making a profit off it, like giving kids rides or selling its milk, it is legal to own a goat.”
Cornelius Lungociu, a customer service rep since the launch, will never forget one call he received when he started.
“I had one person call to tell me that workers who were excavating a piece of land near his house were releasing ghosts from the ground and felt the county government should do something about it,” he said.
“I first asked if it was a cemetery,” Lungociu continued. “But the caller said no, it was just a lot.”
Uncertain how to respond, Lungociu told the concerned caller that he would see what he could do, but if the workers had permits, it was not likely they were doing anything wrong.
Customer service rep Uriel Guadamuz of Silver Spring said he has received some out-of-the-ordinary calls.
“During Hurricane Irene, someone called at 3 a.m. to see if it was safe to go out for a jog,” Guadamuz said. “I told him of course not, and that county officials did not say the storm had passed yet. So I advised him to stay inside until the storm was officially over.”
He said he once received a call from someone who just wanted to know what time it was.
“The job is always changing,” Guadamuz said. “You never know for sure what you will get on any given day.”
MC311 boasts that almost all calls are answered by a live representative within 20 seconds. A customer service rep who cannot answer a question transfers the call to a person or office that can.
A recent report by the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight showed that MC311 is as efficient in helping Spanish-speaking callers as it is with those who speak English.
All calls are recorded and stored in a database that is easily accessible by the county’s departments. The stored data lets county officials see where calls are coming from and why.
MC311 handles calls for the following:
• Department of Transportation’s Highway Services and Transit Information.
• Department of Health and Human Services.
• Department of Permitting Services.
• Department of Finance.
• Department of Environmental Protection’s Solid Waste Services.
• The Office of the County Executive’s information line.