Transforming Customer Experience

by Daro Mott , Chief Innovation Officer

What is most gratifying is that we accomplished what the public should expect from its government: Utilizing the combination of resources and human capital to solve challenges – Large or Small.” 
Treasurer, Chris Murray 

If you want to improve government services you have to tackle complex issues. Sometimes even something as seemingly simple as a long line can be a challenge to overcome. 

As leaders in county government we have made a promise to ourselves and to the residents of the county that we want to improve government services. We want to make them faster, more accessible, better. 

Which is where our tax collection experience comes in. Twice a year our fiscal department is charged with collecting real estate taxes. 

While our real estate tax collecting process includes seven different ways to pay: there are still many property owners who choose to pay their taxes in person.  Each year Cuyahoga County collects about $2 Billion in property taxes for more than 500,000 parcels. Based upon data for the 2014 and 2015 tax year, we anticipated processing about 4,000 property tax payments during the last four days of the July 2016 tax collection period. That’s one thousand individuals a day! The revenue we collect is crucial for the support of our 59 municipalities and their school systems. 

Last year we saw our residents who came downtown to our County Administration Building experience limited space in our lobby, system outages, unclear communication about the process, stressed out county staff and lines that extended outside the County building -- all these factors contributed to a customer experience comparable to waiting in line at the airport during Thanksgiving. Not good! 

We knew that our real estate tax collection experience was broken. It should be noted that when we began to investigate other county tax collections systems to look for best practices, we found that this is a national issue. 

Sharon Sobol Jordan our Chief of Staff and our Treasurer, Christopher Murray pulled together a team of senior leaders to address our customer experience. The Office of Innovation and Performance in our role as facilitators and partners in improving processes was charged with facilitating the session and helping to project manage throughout the work. 

First though, we had to define the problem. Interestingly, in our first meeting, we found that there was not consensus regarding the problem. How long is too long to wait in line? Ten minutes? One hour?   

The group decided that our main goal was to improve both the employee and customer experience and ensure that no taxpayer waited outside of the county building at any point in time. 

Here’s what we did: 
  • The Fiscal Office created a separate station for credit card payments.
  • The Cuyahoga County Treasury established separate stations for handling cash and checks.
  • The Public Works department designed rope lines to ensure for the smooth flow of our residents through the line.  
  • The Communications Office created easy to read frequently asked questions (FAQs) and partnered with the Department of Consumer Affairs to advertise the FAQs via social media.  
  • The Department of Senior and Adult Services provided volunteers who answered questions.  
  • Youth Opportunities Unlimited sent youth to the county to serve as customer aides and direct the flow of people.  
  • The Department of Information Technology ensured that the printer stations were working properly for tax bills and IT staff were available for any potential system outages.  
  • The Department of Human Resources provided volunteers and worked to address staffing issues.

The results were impressive. 

Transaction times were reduced dramatically. People who paid by credit card were in and out of the building in less than a few minutes. People who paid by check were in and out the building in five minutes or less. Those who paid by cash had the longest wait times but some finished with county business in 15 minutes or less on average. 

One customer brought lunch to the County Administrative Headquarters expecting a two-hour wait time based upon prior experiences; she did not eat lunch. Another customer brought a book and did not read it. Surprised by the short lines, other customers did not believe that they were actually in the County Building.  

These great results required significant teamwork. Very importantly, we had a leader in our Treasurer Chris Murray who was willing to step up to the plate and open up his process and staff to a larger team. “In my 27 years of public service, this has been the most successful partnership between county agencies.  This project received full executive support and the resources necessary to ensure completion,” says Murray “any initial cynicism was quickly eliminated once I realized that the team only cared about one goal, providing the best experience with County government with every taxpayer.  Based on the comments that I received over that 3 day period, mission accomplished. What is most gratifying to me personally is that we accomplished what the public should expect from its government: Utilizing the combination of resources and human capital to solve challenges – Large or Small.” 

Overall, taxpayers were highly satisfied!