Montreal improves call centre access with XML adoption

In a quest to treat all citizens equally, the City of Montreal has implemented a voice extensible markup language (VXML) solution in its call centre.

When the 28 municipalities on the island of Montreal amalgamated into a single city in January of last year, it became clear that a new system, able to process more calls at a faster pace, was desperately needed as the population doubled from one million citizens to two million.

“In the rush period, the middle of June until the end of July, you had to wait quite a long time for an agent to answer your call. It was close to a nightmare,” said Pauline Gelinas, Web content manager for the City of Montreal.

Rita Azrak, marketing director at Elix, said a major problem the City of Montreal was encountering was that thousands of calls that didn’t require an agent’s attention were clogging up the call centre, making it almost impossible for callers needing special attention to get through.

Gelinas said cases like this often happened in Montreal after a snowstorm.

“When we start removing snow from the streets, we have to tow 5,000 vehicles for every three days of snow removal. However, people would call too soon after the towing, before call centre agents would have the information. So these 5,000 people would end up calling back three times for information that didn’t require the personal attention of an agent,” Gelinas said.

To combat this problem, the city launched a Web site, providing answers to common questions posed by 85 per cent of the 100,000 residents who call annually – mainly garbage collection information and information about where to look for towed vehicles.

However, after launching the site, officials realized that if the Web was the only source for information, they would be creating a two-tiered society. Information would only be made available to those who could afford a computer and Internet access.

“But not all the people in Montreal have access to the Internet. So in order to serve our citizens in a universal way, we had to see what kind of tools people have in their homes….It seemed to us that the phone was the easiest way to do that,” Gelinas said.

However, the dual-tone multifrequency (DTMF) system, known as 87-ACCES, installed by Nuns’ Island, Que.-based Elix in 1995, was no longer useful to City employees. Specific information couldn’t be accessed, and citizens would ultimately bypass the interactive voice response system (IVR) and wait for an agent. Also, the system didn’t allow for the keying in of letters. With the population doubling, the technology of the old system proving to be limiting and the number of call centre calls increasing daily, DTMF was no longer a viable solution.

This is where VXML fit into the city’s plan.

Serge Harnois, director of research, development and products at Elix, said that VXML technology uses the same kind of tags used to form HTML, but they are adapted to voice technology.

“So, instead of putting things on the screen, [the programmer] asks [the tags] to either read text, or to recognize voice….VXML will use the same text that appears on the Web site, but read it over the phone.”

According to David Senf, senior analyst at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, the self-service angle of customer relationship management (CRM) is what’s at the heart of the City of Montreal’s decision to choose VXML technology from Elix.

“To be able to offer the capability for a customer to go in, seek the information they want, change information, or update information that corresponds to that customer will help reduce the amount of time and labour that the call centre would have to absorb,” Senf said.

Harnois said it is part of the XML system to support different languages, but it is difficult for the technology to decipher what language the person is using, if they themselves haven’t decided.

“It’s a problem when the person switches from one language to another. It’s a problem in Montreal because many people, while talking in French, will use English words,” Harnois said.

Gelinas said to combat this problem, a prompt will ask the caller at the start of the phone call what language they will be using, and to stick to that language.

Azrak said that in the beginning, the system will include three different phone numbers for three different services. The City is hoping to have the first service, info on garbage collection, fully implemented by the beginning of May, with towing information and general information to follow.