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Marion considers automated phone system

News editor

Real people will still answer a decade-old phone system at Marion city offices, even though the system has capabilities for menu-based operation and voice mail that have never been utilized.

Parks and recreation assistant director Josh Clevenger knows something about such systems. He once was an installer of Norstar systems like the one the city obtained in 2006, he said.

“Those systems were being completely phased out in 2009 when I started installing,” Clevenger told council members Monday. “But because you have that separate call pilot, there are a lot of options with that.”

One unused feature is menu-driven automated answering.

“It has capabilities of being a receptionist of sorts,” Clevenger said. “If we were to use the auto attendant when they called they’d be greeted by an automated system. They basically would be given a choice of where to go from there.”

Clevenger laid out numerous other capabilities that he said would cut down on time spent on phones and make operations more efficient, including the ability to route incoming calls directly to on-call phones for utilities issues.

However, council members and staff appeared uncomfortable with any move away from personal contact with customers.

“As far as the initial contact, is it perceived to be a problem with the current call volume?” council member Melissa Mermis asked clerk Tiffany Jeffrey.

“I wouldn’t say it’s an issue now; there are always at least two people there to answer the phone,” Jeffrey said.

Reconfiguring voice mail could cause messages to accumulate when an employee is absent, Jeffrey said.

“My concern is that someone is gone and they come back to 15 voice mails that could have been answered throughout the day,” she said.

Clevenger said the system could be set up to give callers an option to connect with someone for “immediate assistance.”

Jeffery appeared concerned that more automation could short-circuit efforts staff have made to improve customer service.

“In years past, before I even came to the city, there were times where people were scared to come in to the city office because whoever was in there was mean,” she said. “Those certain people would never come in. In current years we have worked very hard on bringing that back up. We get a lot of customers monthly who come in just to see us because we’re the only ones they see throughout the month.”

Mayor Todd Heitschmidt was skeptical of automated call answering.

“I’d rather not start with the automated first,” he said. “I think we need to update but keep the personal side.”

Provided callers could reach an operator immediately, council member Chris Costello said he could support a menu-based system.

“When I call somewhere I don’t want to go though a whole menu just to find out zero gets me to the operator,” he said. “When you have an immediate opportunity to say I want to talk to a live person, that eliminates some of that.”

No action was taken.

In other business:, a trash collection rate increase of 50 cents a month for all customers was approved. Proceeds helping to defray the costs of replacing the city’s aging garbage truck. A 5-cent increase in the base monthly water rate also was approved.

Last modified Dec. 22, 2016

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