The voices at the end of the line

WHEN you raise a glass to toast the arrival of 2011 spare a thought for the thousands of people up and down the country working to ensure services run smoothly.

Included amongst that dedicated crew are staff at Falkirk Council's Customer First contact centre, who provide a round-the-clock lifeline between the public and the local authority.

They'll be answering calls throughout Hogmanay and Ne'erday, just like they did at Christmas when the rest of us were ensconced in family celebrations.

Their main role at the centre based at Callendar Business Park will be to answer emergency calls from householders, as well as provide the vital MECS (Mobile Emergency Care Service) cover for around 6000 elderly and vulnerable residents who may need assistance.

Those working are keeping their fingers crossed that things will be a bit less hectic than they have been during the rest of December when the arctic weather conditions led to an unprecedented rise in the number of calls.

Parents anxious to find out if schools were open, householders concerned about bin uplifts and numerous calls about the clearing of snow and ice, saw staff deal with a deluge of calls, as well as e-mails, which the council aims to have responded to by 5 p.m. the next working day.

Lorna Bryson, contact centre co-ordinator, who is in charge of over 50 staff who work on a shift system, said that the calls for this month were up 15 per cent on the same period last year with 83,000 received in the last four weeks alone. Already this year there have been 566,000 calls with 85 per cent answered within 20 seconds, 10 per cent more than the set target.

She said: "The Customer First team is all about providing the best possible service for the public. It was set up about five years ago with just one 'pod' of people answering enquiries and has grown steadily as we have taken on more roles, including the merging of the MECS controls.

"People would probably be surprised to learn that although they dial different numbers, the calls are answered here. Staff training probably takes about a year, but after that time they are able to answer a wide variety of calls, everything from bin uplifts to taking payments for services, antisocial behaviour issues to pest control.

"It makes sense to have the contact centre as it frees up officers from having to answer enquiries directly and lets operational staff get on and do the work. It's multi-purpose and allows customers' enquiries to be answered efficiently. However, unlike commercial call centres there are no targets and staff can take time to answer an enquiry so the customer feels the issue is being taken seriously."

There are also Customer First staff in the one-stop shops across the district, so as well as calling and e-mailing, the public can pop in and speak to someone face-to-face.

The busiest time of day is between 9 a.m. and 10.30 a.m. but the 17 staff who are answering calls at any given time have little opportunity to sit back.

Lorna described the influx of calls this months as "manic", but said everything was logged and would be reviewed as quickly as possible for future planning.

She added: "It has been difficult for everyone because of the weather, but most of the staff live in this area so we have been sharing the pain – we've been struggling to get into work to answer the calls."

One of the longest serving members of the Customer First team is Linda Randalls. The Grangemouth mum has worked for the council since 1989, originally on the switchboard, moving to the contact centre when it opened.

She loves the variety of her role, but in particular working so closely with the public.

In the short space of time we listened in to her calls, she dealt with someone making a payment for homecare services, a man unhappy that his bin had not been collected and some Good Samaritan who at the start of the heavy snowfall allowed the ploughs to pile up the snow in front of his garage to clear the street ... but three weeks later was wondering if they could remove it so he could get his car out!

All were dealt with efficiently and pleasantly with assurances given to those with complaints that they were being noted and passed on immediately to the relevant department to handle.

She also took a call from a Polmont woman who, the previous evening, had spoken to one of Linda's colleagues about her blue bin not being emptied. By 10.30 a.m. the next morning it had been dealt with and the satisfied customer wanted to pass on her thanks.

Linda said: "It's a great job that I love doing. There's lots of variety and you don't know what the next call is going to bring. It's very satisfying when you can help someone, particularly if you are dealing with a welfare benefits call where someone is destitute and you can provide information they desperately need."

Staff may be the ears of the council but they are also its 'agony aunts', taking an interest in the callers and providing advice where needed.

The work they do is appreciated by the local authority and Karen Algie, head of human resources, said: "The contact centre team deliver a great service and are very skilled at being able to help the public with a multitude of different enquiries.

"Clearly they have been very stretched over the past few weeks because of the poor weather. However, they are dedicated to delivering a high quality service and have made every effort to continue to support residents throughout this difficult period along with their colleagues across all services."