Alibi V.20 No.1 • Jan 6-12, 2011 


The Hub

The eyes and ears of Burque

Esther Tenenbaum in the 311 call center
Esther Tenenbaum in the 311 call center
Eric Williams

A lonely woman used to call 311, the city's information hotline, in the dead of night. She said her husband was a doctor, that she was home alone and just wanted to say hi. Operators got to know her on a personal level, says Esther Tenenbaum, division manager. "That's great, but that's not why we're here."

On this freezing Thursday afternoon, she's fielding calls herself. Fat flakes of snow began falling in the morning, which means the phones are ringing. Will there be trash pickup tomorrow? Are the buses still running?

That's the business of the 52 employees of 311—providing information, directing phone traffic and listening to Burqueños. "We really are the eyes and ears of the city," Tenenbaum says. The majority of the calls are about bus schedules, trash collection and animals. But the call center is often the first to hear about complaints and concerns. If something comes in for Mayor Richard Berry—say, an opinion on red-light cameras—it's either noted and sent along, or a caller can be transferred to his office.

Though operators may still hear from folks who just want to chat, they don't get those calls in the middle of the night any longer. In April, the call center abandoned a 24/7 schedule due to budget cuts. Less than 2 percent of the call volume was coming in during the night, and many were for situations that had to be handled by the Albuquerque Police Department. Tenenbaum worked closely with 911 to make sure the decrease in hours wouldn't affect the emergency line.

Oddest questions for 311

  • What color are penguins' feet?
  • When does my marriage license expire?
  • What is herringbone?
  • What time does trick-or-treating start?
  • How far is the ocean from Albuquerque?
  • Did aliens really land in Roswell?
  • Can I send in my tax return for you to review?
  • Is Diet Dr Pepper really made with prunes?
  • Can you give me the number to the Rapid Thunder Rail Express?
  • I am making a quilt. How do you spell “La Cueva”?
  • Is this where I register to become a platinum member?
  • Can you help me get the police to apply pressure on my neighbor?
  • Who makes the best pizza in Albuquerque?
  • I am supposed to pick someone up at a pay phone, and I have been driving around and can't find them. Can you tell me where this pay phone number is located?
  • How many tablespoons in a third of a cup?

When the info line was being developed, one of the goals was to help 911, she says. "We went out there and listened, and they were getting calls like, What's the best place for pizza? What time does the zoo open?”

Six years ago when the service was launched, operators heard from about 150 citizens every day. Now that number is more like 7,500. In the summer, it spikes to between 8,500 and 9,500.

A couple of large flat-screens are mounted to the walls surrounding clusters of cubicles. "Anything that happens anywhere can impact the calls we get," Tenenbaum says. But agents can't simply report information seen on the news. Everything has to be verified before it enters the 311 dialog. In fact, if an operator has individual knowledge that might pertain to a question asked over the line, she can't share it unless it's part of the 311 lexicon.

Operators try to settle every question they're qualified to answer, but others are referred to government entities outside of the city. Queries about immigration and passports are directed to Citizenship and Immigration Services. Concerns about police are sent to APD or to the Police Oversight Commission.

Before a separate Efficiency, Stewardship and Accountability hotline went into effect in July, 311 also heard from people reporting theft, abuse and fraud committed by city employees. That information is protected to avoid tipping off the accused. The occasional tip still comes to 311, and it falls to Tenenbaum to have the sticky conversations with department heads. "I become the least popular person with the directors, but I'm here to do right by the citizens," she says. "I'm not going to jeopardize taxpayers' money."

“Anything that happens anywhere can impact the calls we get.”

Esther Tenenbaum

At least eight calls per employee are monitored each day. Feedback and scoring are returned within 24 hours. "I'll listen to calls all the time," Tenenbaum says. Even if a citizen is being disrespectful to an agent, operators are not allowed to volley back. "You've got to be respectful."

Most of the agents have worked at private call centers for collections, credit or telecom, she says. In those industries, clients regularly shout over the phone line. "This is a nice change," Tenenbaum says, and most people are grateful for the help. "But when they get bad, citizens can be pretty abusive. Not just citizens, but humans, when they talk on the phone, have a lot more courage than when they're face-to-face."

After a rough call, agents can take a break and go into the “chill room.” Dimly lit, quiet and furnished with comfortable chairs, it's designed to be a soothing environment. No cell phones are allowed.

At the end of every call, operators are required to finish up with 311’s now-famous tagline. If they think it could fuel an angry situation, they don't say it. But other times, Tenenbaum says, it turns a call for the better. The feeling is genuine, she says, and her staff gets satisfaction from being helpful. “These people really love what they do,” she says.

If Tenenbaum tells it right, for six years, it has been their privilege to serve you.

311 takes calls Monday through Saturday from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. On Sundays, agents only answer questions about transportation and animal control. You can also submit a question via Twitter to CABQ.