By County Manager, Chris Coudriet
Through the doors. Down the hallway. Past the fish tank. Look for the signs.
There’s no way of knowing just how many times sentences like those were used by New Hanover County employees while helping visitors navigate their way through the old Government Center complex.
The search for a department could be confusing, especially given the non-linear path between the door someone walked through and the place they were trying to reach.
That was one of the biggest points of discussion as we worked to design and construct the new Government Center facility that opened earlier this year – creating a space that was customer-focused and made doing business with the county as simple as possible.
Since opening to the public on April 3, the customer service desk at Government Center has been a one-stop site for all customer needs, helping visitors take care of business with the county efficiently. The desk can handle anything from payments to paperwork, and help customers get connected with staff they need to answer questions.
While her primary role is with the Tax office as the Fiscal Support Supervisor, Cala Blondin has been responsible for overseeing the protocols that guide our newly formed unified customer service desk, making sure staff have the tools to answer questions and provide the highest level of assistance possible, no matter the department or service they typically work with.
For this month’s public service profile, I asked Cala about the collaboration that has taken place across multiple departments since transitioning to this new way of doing things and what visitors can expect when they come to the Government Center. That conversation is below …
Not that long ago, people had to go to multiple departments – Tax, Register of Deeds, Planning, Permitting, etc. – to get their questions answered when they came to the Government Center. Now, all those inquiries come to the same desk and are handled from there. Take me through how this new way of doing things has evolved from the planning stages to actually being in operation.
The vision for the new Government Center was to have a customer service counter that would serve as one point of interaction for anyone visiting the facility. Then, if a customer needed further assistance, staff could connect them with a subject matter expert from the associated department. The Tax Department and Development Services teams have previously worked with the bulk of customers visiting the Government Center, so those two departments were tasked with leading the unified customer service counter once we relocated.
Early on, workgroups were formed to discuss methods of integrating department practices as part of consolidation. These groups met more than two years prior to moving into the new building. From those meetings, best practices were crafted according to what was anticipated at that time. We had the chance to test out how consolidation would work at the former Government Center with a temporary unified customer service counter. This enabled us to see the plan in action and make adjustments before moving into the new space.
Once we relocated to the new Government Center, the full concept was put into practice, which included receiving all walk-in traffic for all departments. Minor adjustments have been made, but the overall concept has been successful thanks to the forward-thinking of those workgroups and the opportunity to practice prior to moving.
I know you did a lot of planning ahead of time, but obviously there’s no way of knowing every scenario that would take place at the customer service desk. Have there been any unforeseen challenges your team has faced early on and what response have they made to those?
During planning, there was a lot of thought around potential challenges and opportunities for improvement. The internal workgroup has continued to meet to address these. Initially, this group consisted of Finance, Tax and Development Services staff, and it now features representatives from Tax, Development Services and Register of Deeds.
Some of the challenges we faced included things like:
- Working with departments to make sure a subject matter expert was always available to assist a customer.
- Increasing communication between departments and the customer service team so they would be aware of scheduled visitors and how best to help them upon arrival.
- Developing more general knowledge of what each department does so our customer service team can be better informed.
I am so thankful for how the staff has adapted and adjusted during this transition. Many changes have taken place over the last year and changes continue to happen even now. This team has done their job with grace and professionalism as they understand the vision is broad and that at the end of the day, it’s the customer experience that matters most.
The calendar will soon flip to 2024, and with that, we’ll almost certainly see an influx of visitors who will be coming by to pay their property taxes for the year. What should people expect when they come to the Government Center this year?
When tax bills were sent out, they included a slip that showed the new front entrance, as well as the location of our new drop box. Our goal was to reach as many people as possible ahead of time so they would know what to expect and I think we achieved that.
We have worked with Facilities Management to make sure clear signage is in place so people can easily navigate where they need to go.
Additionally, Tax implemented an updated payment platform. We now have a system that is very well suited to county operations and improves the customer experience in making payments online. We have seen a 42 percent increase in the usage of the new platform compared to our previous platform.
While we have a lot of great improvements, it’s important for our customers to know that they will experience the same excellent service that they are accustomed to, even though we’re in a new space. At the end of the day, we are here to serve and meet their needs and that will always be done with a warm greeting and a smile.
We are certainly grateful for Cala’s guidance of our customer service team, and we look forward to helping all visitors as part of the county's mission to provide exceptional public service. Learn more about these services and more by visiting Tax.NHCgov.com.