Improved communication and better customer service were at the top of commissioners’ minds last weekend as they gathered in Wendell Falls for the town board’s annual planning retreat.
Commissioners told their staff they wanted to increase communications options for residents. The focus on increased communications for residents comes despite all six of Wendell’s elected officials reporting they haven’t received a single communication from residents through one of the most popular forms of mass communication – email – in the first month since this board was seated in December.
While commissioners say they have not recived any emails from residents, they are looking for other ways for residents to communicate with them and with town staff. Commissioners expressed concern that some people weren’t comfortable speaking to board members in the formal setting of a meeting.
“It takes a lot of courage for some people to stand up in front of that microphone,” Commissioner Ben Carroll said. “Maybe that will change as people see a younger, more diverse board. People will realize you don’t have to be a 70-year-old to approach the board.”
Mayor Ginna Gray asked town staff to look for ways to make the town’s website more informative for residents. “Can we look at some of the other things people do and put that on the site,” she said. And commissioner Jon Lutz hopes the town can make the website more interactive. “Are we making sure we are staying up to date on our technology? Can people get on line to pay bills and can they access the mobile site? The fact that we are a small town allows us to have the ability to do more,” Lutz said.
Commissioners also want to make it easier for residents to communicate in other ways too. IT director Tamah Hughes said the town has already received requests to expand the public WiFi network built last year by the town to cover the downtown area. She also said fiber telecommunications infrastructure – which allows for the transport of large amounts of data in a short period of time – continues to be a focus for town staff as they try to find ways to access existing lines that run in Wendell.
“There is a real need for fiber,” Town Manager Teresa Piner said.
Other ideas commissioners discussed were allowing people to make comments online about public hearing matters, but Piner expressed concerns with that idea, telling commissioners it would be difficult to police who was using that tool even if names and addresses were required of those who use it.
Customer-friendly? Or nah?
Board members also discussed the need to be more responsive to residents’ requests.
Commissioner Jason Joyner said town employees need to be on the lookout for positive responses to citizen requests.
“The mindset should be that every person in every department needs to be a citizen advocate. Even if something they want to do is not possible, we should be sure to look for other ways to accomplish what they want,” he said.
Carroll said town employees can be facilitators rather than roadblocks. “Let’s come up with reasons why we can do something rather than being so quick to think of reasons why we can’t,” he said.
But not everyone was convinced that customer service levels are too low.
“We may not have a customer service problem at all. If we did surveys and the come back and show we are doing wonderful, we may not have a problem at all,” Lutz said.
Commissioner John Boyette said working to find original solutions to problems brought by customers could impact other priorities the town board sets for staff. “While it is not mutually exclusive, being helpful is going to cost you efficiency. There’s a balance between good customer service and efficiency,” Boyette said.