When you spot a pothole, when your trash isn’t collected, when a traffic light is blinking, when you need to confirm your court date – who are you going to call?
When something goes wrong – when the situation doesn’t require law enforcement, fire or emergency services – Houstonians call 311. The City of Houston’s 311 Customer Service center offers non-emergency assistance 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
A team of 75 customer service representatives, also known as agents, answer phone calls, respond to emails, 311 app requests, live chats and social media inquiries. Among them is Kimberly Carrier, a 311 master agent with 12 years on the job.
With an average call volume of 138 calls a day, Kimberly Carrier is among the city’s top ten performing agents. As a master agent assigned to the media team, answering the phone is only one part of her daily duties.
“Social media and the 311 app have really reshaped my job in recent years. These days, people have different communications preferences, and we try to make customer service as easy and convenient as possible,” Carrier said.
“We work efficiently to keep our call cue moving, but there are just some people who don’t like to communicate on the phone. It’s often easier to shoot an email or to take a picture of a pothole, post it on the app or email it to us.”
Carrier said the most common customer calls and complaints involve solid waste collection, potholes, sewer issues, traffic signal malfunctions, dog bites, blight and other neighborhood complaints and questions about birth and death certificates.
She also handles a high volume of calls for Municipal Courts where customers want to confirm and reschedule court dates, resolve tickets or check for warrants.
“You have to be well informed,” Carrier said. “We’re the intake center, the first point of contact, so we try to answer questions and resolve an issue on the spot without transferring the caller to another department or creating a service request.”
311 agents have access to a searchable databank of 2,400 frequently answered questions developed by departmental experts.
These resources enable 311 agents to resolve 85% of calls without transfer, service request or follow-up, according to department data.
“I love my job because I get to help Houstonians,” Carrier said. “This job is ever-changing just like this city. I get to learn something new every day about local government and how the city works,” Carrier said.
“Our departmental liaisons are constantly updating us and keeping us abreast of changes around the city like damaged water mains,” she said.
“They can give you the information and the tools, but they can’t tell you what to say for every call. Once you get on the phone you really have to listen to your customers,” she said.
The majority of calls are routine, but Carrier said some callers come from left field.
“We have one customer who calls almost every day to tell us that she has been abducted by Jesus,” Carrier said. “She knows most of us by and name and asks for a different agent each time.”
As with any customer service job, Carrier said she receives her share of unhappy callers.
“We just try to give the caller as much information as possible, and let them know that the departments are trying the best to rectify situation with resources we have,” Carrier said. “It’s a patience game. We just have to say, ‘We hear you, we are doing all we can.’”
“I just want to assure Houstonians that city employees are working diligently to resolve all the issues reported to 311,” she said. “Houston is a large city and it gets bigger every day.
We are here to help you, but you have to give departments a chance to work their workload accurately and safely. Please be patient as we work our way to you and through your service request.”
She advises residents to be proactive in reporting their concerns.
“If you see something, or if something happens, call us that day. Don’t let the issue linger. We can’t help you if we don’t have a record of your complaint. Report your missing trash collection the first time. Don’t let it go by for three weeks, call in angry and expect service today,” she said.
Learning the finer points of customer service takes time and practice, and a little help from team leaders like Carrier, who mentors new employees including Doris Trotter who sits at the next desk.
“Kim is a great employee, and I see a lot of leadership potential in her,” said Carrier’s supervisor, Shantel Doyle. “Her ability to mentor other employees is part of what sets her apart. I can count on her to come in early to help train new team members. When you first come on board, training is intense.There is a lot of information to absorb, but Kim is very helpful, knowledgeable and patient.”
Bobbie Darden, 311 administrative manager, also sang Carrier’s praises.
“Kim excels in almost everything,” Darden said. “She gets along with everyone, is a great team player and is always willing to go above and beyond.”
Carrier said she learned her work ethic, personal drive and dedication to public service from her mother, Carolyn Louis (formerly Carolyn Milburn), who retired from Houston Public Works after 30 years of service.
“My mom is my role model. She worked for the city for many years, so she instilled the value of public service,” Carrier said. “When I was little, she would bring me up to the job. I’m a mamma’s baby, I look just like her. I think that’s one of the reasons I work so hard, so I’m a good reflection of her.”
After more than a decade working in 311, Carrier said she continues to strive toward higher career goals.
“There is always room for improvement; I like to challenge myself. I think my biggest competition is myself,” she said. “I ask my supervisor, ‘Teach me what you do.’ I want to learn every aspect of the job, I don’t want to just be a call taker. If somebody asks me something, I want to know the answer. I don’t want to be stuck in a box.”