An all-purpose hotline to call, for just about any reason, at any time

Give members a direct line

What if there were an all-purpose hotline you could call, for just about any reason, any time? Everyone knows to call 911 in an emergency, but what if it’s not so life-and-death, or you’re just wondering where to park on Thursday?

In New York City, you can dial 311 any time day or night to talk to a live operator and get information, report problems, or just register a complaint. Anything that’s not an emergency is fair game, from noisy neighbors, bed bugs, and potholes to subway schedules, strange odors, and parking regulations. Operators are available in over 170 languages, and of course there’s an incredibly useful web site, complete with Twitter, an iPhone app, and Skype.

Obviously, NYC 311 is a fantastic resource for city residents and visitors. It’s expensive to run, but the benefits aren’t just one way — the city gains tremendously from having such a close connection to its citizens.

For example, the city learns about potholes as soon as they form, and can send out teams to patch them before they do more damage to the road and vehicles. Patterns of odor complaints lead the authorities straight to the chemical spill or sloppy neighbor responsible. Reports of noise or vandalism allow the city to target extra police patrols before more serious crime erupts. Taxicab drivers stay honest because they know that they can be reported. Most importantly, people who know that they can and will be heard take better care of their city — they keep a closer eye on things.

Most credit unions run call centers, of course, but what can we learn from the Big Apple’s success with 311?


The simple ability to have input that will be heard and acted on turns city dwellers into city owners — it’s an incredibly powerful way to create shared responsibility. How many CUs espouse this ideal, yet erect barriers between management and members? If a member calls for the CU President, can they get through, or at least get a prompt, personal call back? Do you hide or share the email addresses of your management team on your web site? How hard is it for your member/owners to exert actual influence?

Data Mining is Gold

Communicating with your members is an opportunity to be maximized, not an expense to be minimized. Every contact, no matter how routine or minor, is rich in valuable data. NYC has an elaborate system for tracking and mapping all sorts of contacts and relating them to one another.  CUs certainly don’t need anything that elaborate, but it’s very important to track contacts consistently in a way that allows you to at least perform searches. And, of course, it’s important to review and use that data every day — if it’s just filed away somewhere and never reviewed, or if data from different contacts is stored differently, you can’t get a picture of what your members are thinking and feeling. It’s also important to be creative and flexible — for example, emerging trends are hard to spot if your categories are too rigid, or if only certain metrics are reviewed.

Frictionless Availability

People can manage to remember “three-one-one”, but not a list of hours and holiday closings. A trusted resource must be always available and easy to use in multiple ways. A few large CUs have even set up 24/7 call centers. Even if you don’t go to that extreme, members have to know what to expect when they contact the CU — if they send an email or leave a message, can they be certain that they will get an email or call back the next morning?

Real Live Human Beings

When members call, email, send a message through the web site, start a chat, or whatever, are they greeted with an automated barrier or a real person? Whatever their reason for contacting the CU, your members usually don’t know how it fits into your internal organization or how to best phrase their question or input. In mechanical terms, human communication skills are still the best way to “translate” the member’s thoughts into clear, effective communication for an organization.

Brian Wringer

Email this article to a friend or coworker.