THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

City wants to ring in new era of satisfaction

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / April 27, 2010

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Boston’s top transportation official donned a telemarketer’s headset yesterday and set to work, delivering his pitch in an upbeat, bulletproof voice.

“My name is Tom Tinlin, and I’m the transportation commissioner of the City of Boston Transportation Department,’’ he said from a cubicle on the eighth floor of City Hall. “How are you today?’’

Tinlin was not selling anything, though. It was his turn at the city switchboard, one of many Boston leaders following up with residents who report problems to the mayor’s 24-hour constituent hotline.

Tinlin worked from a list of several dozen people who had placed calls earlier this month to report potholes, scattered trash, burned-out street lights, a fence that needed mending in a city park, and a faulty push button at the intersection of Chestnut Hill and Commonwealth avenues.

“We just want to make sure it got fixed and that all is well with you,’’ Tinlin said in a voice-mail message he left for resident Anna Nikolaevsky, who had called about the broken walk signal near her home in Brighton.

So far, 16 department heads have taken turns at the phone bank, starting with the mayor’s chief of staff, Mitchell Weiss. Others have included Parks Commissioner Antonia Pollak; Elderly Affairs Commissioner Eliza Greenberg; and Bill McGonagle, administrator of the Boston Housing Authority. The police and fire commissioners are scheduled for later this week.

The inspiration for the new customer-service initiative came from Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who recently bought a new mattress from Jordan’s Furniture. A customer service representative called Menino’s home a few days after the purchase to make sure he was satisfied and asked how he had been sleeping. The mayor asked his staff why city government did not do the same.

“First we want to thank people for taking the time to call,’’ said Justin Holmes, the city’s director of constituent engagement. “But then we also want to ensure that the issue they raised has been resolved.’’

The call from Jordan’s had nothing to do with the fact that the customer’s last name was Menino, according to Heather Copelas, the company’s public relations manager.

“We have thousands and thousands of customers every week . . . and our customer service department makes random calls,’’ she said, adding that the company did not realize that they had called the mayor. “We do want to hear the good and the bad, because that’s what’s going to make us better.’’

The city call center has existed in some version since at least 1986. It never closes, with at least one person working the graveyard shift 365 days a year. The staff of 13 fields 500 to 600 calls a day, of which roughly 70 percent are requests for information about street closings, parking restrictions, permits, or even driving directions, according to Janine L. Coppola, director of constituent services.

The other 30 percent of callers report things that need attention: potholes, abandoned vehicles, unplowed streets, missed trash pickups, and more potholes. The call center logs each case — the word “complaint’’ is consciously avoided — and routes the information to the proper department.

Tinlin and his fellow commissioners are following up to make sure the city fixed the problem, phoning about 500 callers so far to ask if they are satisfied.

For the most part, the callers Tinlin reached yesterday said their issues had been resolved. The abandoned vehicle blocking the fire hydrant on Spencer Street was gone. The “no parking’’ signs had been put back up on Ernst Street. The trash had been cleaned off the stairs in East Boston, though this came from a repeat caller who had another issue.

“You’re a frequent flyer; that’s great,’’ Tinlin said. “Lay it on me. We’re two for two with you. Let’s try to go three for three.’’

So the commissioner took note of dogs running off the leash at a local park and forwarded the information to animal control. In fact, many people who dial the hot line, 617-635-4500, are frequent flyers, including one regular from Hyde Park who habitually calls between 6 and 6:30 a.m.

“When it’s that early and that number comes up, I say, ‘Oh, that’s probably the mayor,’ ’’ said Rose Marie Thompson, the lone employee on duty at that hour.

A famously early riser, Menino’s recent calls to the hot line included details about a shattered bus stop shelter on Blue Hill Avenue, a question about why new solar-powered trash cans are hidden behind a public works yard, and a gripe about an event at a park that lacked portable toilets.

But he always starts with the same joke.

“Every time I answer the phone in the morning,’’ Thompson said, “He’ll say, ‘Rose Marie, what are you doing there so early?’ ’’

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