A staff request for a special pre-recorded message on the Vernon city hall phone system to deal with unruly customers has been put on hold by council.
Cindy Barker, manager of revenue services, said in a report to council that over the past few years, city employees have noticed a “significant increase in demands from customers.”
“This is primarily a demand for quicker response times,” said Barker. “It’s believed that is due to the easy availability of information from the internet and social media.”
The city’s finance department hires temporary workers every year from mid-May to late July to help during peak property tax season. The additional staff are trained to assist with all routine customer inquiries that occur. As Barker pointed out, some customers can become difficult and rude despite the best efforts of staff to address their concerns.
“This creates unneeded stress to the staff person, customers listening and other staff working in the immediate area,” said Barker.
A pilot project utilizing respectful counter signage and voice message has been operational in Finance since July 2018. This pilot project has proven to be very successful, said Barker, as staff has noticed increased customer respect resulting in a less stressful working environment and, ultimately, a safer work environment.
Because the pilot was successful, staff wants to roll out a new front-counter safe work procedure policy that would go into effect Friday, March 1 and the initiatives included professional signage throughout city hall’s front counters, lobbies, meeting rooms and public areas.
And the initiative that got council buzzing?
“New messaging on incoming calls at all switchboard locations having a similar respectful workplace message that customers listen to prior to a staff person answering their call. The respectful voice message is a short 14 seconds long to keep customers engaged while getting the respectful workplace message across.”
“So every person that phones the switchboard gets that message for 14 seconds before they get a ‘hello, how can I help you?” asked Coun. Brian Quiring, to which Barker replied, “That is correct.”
“I get the signage, I’m all for it, but to make it every person that wants to buy a dog licence, or every time I phone I get 14 seconds of that, I don’t know. It seems like we’re trying to communicate something has happened and now we’re reacting.”
Quiring added he has a fundamental problem with customers getting a recording when they call.
“We’re open for business here,” he said. “I appreciate the fact that most of the time someone answers the call and not a robot. “But right out of the gate, telling someone that we’re not going to tolerate disrespectful behaviour, I just don’t think that’s very welcoming. This is pretty over the top. It’s doing our community a disservice.”
“I think this is going to infuriate more people,” added Coun. Scott Anderson. “I think this is going too far.”
Coun. Kelly Fehr likes the idea behind it and asked if it was something that was used in other municipalities.
“There are a couple of other municipalities that we found that do have an initiative like this,” said Barker. “We did a poll throughout B.C. A majority of municipalities are waiting to see what our program is going to be like because they all agree something is needed in a municipal setting.”
Barker said during the pilot project there have been a lot of calls and every customer directed to finance since July 2018 has listened to the message.
“The response has been very positive,” she said.
Coun. Akbal Mund said he would support a shortened message.
“Fourteen seconds is maybe a little long,” he said. “We need it. A lot of people who do call in are yelling and screaming right off the bat and staff doesn’t get the opportunity to say ‘How can I help you?’ I know it happens. I’ve witnessed it. Lots.”
Council voted unanimously to support the policy but reconsider the 14-second phone message. Coun. Dalvir Nahal was absent from meeting.