Hot Monthly Info 2017

December – Digital @ Scale

This new book by Anand Swaminathan and Dr. Jurgen Meffert struck a real bell with me. Zucker Systems continuous to analyze the process and organization of planning and related departments throughout the United States. We normally complete four or five studies each year which has resulted in over 170 cities and counties in 33 states. Each contract, I am amazed to discover how slow most planning departments are about making the transition to the digital age. One of our current clients asked us to take a look across the U.S. to find the best in class or Best Practices. What we found is that most places are talking a good game, but few are performing. Even those who have purchased a multi-million-dollar permit system have yet to fully transform to Internet plan submittals and electronic plan check. Although we have not surveyed the use of social media in planning and development, we believe we will find the same slow trend of arriving at the digital age.

The authors suggest:

  • Everybody talks about digital. But few talk about scaling a full-blown transformation and what it takes. This is no longer about how to quickly grab the attention of the customer or clean up the back office. Organizations need to unlock the full value of digital to reap its true benefits. Companies (including government – my addition) need to rethink their entire business models. The entire ecosystem of the company is affected, including employees, customers, suppliers, and partners. Digitization thus changes structures, processes, and IT as well as the people who live and work in this new reality.
  • Customer behavior had dramatically changed in recent years. Consumers want everything, anywhere, anytime: In 2016, 83 percent of consumers possessed a smartphone. Speed is the hallmark of the digital world.
  • To switch your business to digital, three fundamentals are needed: (1) recruit a team that’s as enthusiastic as it is technically proficient and (2) that values speed above perfection, and (3) introduce milestone-based project management. The new culture may include flexible working hours, an office landscape in which teams feel at ease, and technical equipment that is not only up to the task, but is fun to use.

How are you or your city or county doing? Please share your stories with me and our readers.

The Management Doctor 

Reader Response

The City of High Point NC (112k) bit the bullet and made a complete transformation to electronic in August 2015. We went from several legacy systems dependent upon paper plans & permits to total electronic submittal, plan review, permitting, and inspections. We have modules for board cases (zoning, special use variance, etc.) land development (site plan, subdivision), permits, and code enforcement. They are all processed digitally. Customers still have the option to walk-in, submit paper applications, and obtain approvals; however, we convert all paper submittals to electronic form and all staff reviews and approvals are in electronic form. Customers have an on-line portal to submit, monitor progress, and obtain approvals. Inspections can be requested through the on-line portal or through an IVR. Inspectors use laptops & Ipads in the field to research inspections and pull up electronic documents when needed. Permits and COs are issued electronically and pdfs are attached to the record for the customers to download. Customers can submit applications, request inspections, and view approvals 24/7.

We totally restructured and streamlined processes where possible. Where it used to take 5 permits (building, electrical, mechanical, plumbing & fire) to construct a commercial building, it is now accomplished with one record and one permit. All the inspections are added to the one record. When the customer obtains their permit, it states the required inspections on it.

Overall, we condensed the number of different permit types to limit customer confusion. A number of approvals were moved to an over-the-counter permit process where a contractor submits on-line and a permit specialist reviews the application to validate the contractor and insure the application is complete and then requests fee payment for the permit. This internal review and request for payment only takes a couple of minutes. Once the contractor pays the fee, the permit is automatically issued and inspections are automatically assigned to the permit record.

These changes not only resulted in improving process times, they resulted in savings for customers. No longer do they have to make multiple sets of paper copies and have a runner to go back and forth…or have someone come down to City Hall to submit and come back to obtain a permit.

To say the least this was a huge culture change for us. The biggest learning curve was with staff and motivating them to change. We are not where we would like to be with changes, but after 2 years it is continually improving. We created a webpage ( to guide customers and we are continuing to look at ways to improve it. Internally, our conference rooms were equipped with monitors and each staff member has dual monitors to improve performance and limit paper. Our walk-in traffic decreased dramatically and we are re-thinking how to improve that internal space for the customer. With the data available in the system, we are focusing on reporting and measuring ways to improve workflow performance. With a recent software upgrade, we are looking at a smartphone app that the system provider has that will allow customers to monitor progress, access project contacts, and request inspections. We realize that process improvement is a continuous effort and it is never done. Amazingly, over 50% of our customers submitted on-line immediately after go-live. Now, after 2 years we are about 92% for on-line submittals…that is for all applications (rezoning, subdivision, site plan, permit, etc.) Overall, this has shown to us that the customer definitely prefers digital processes.


We are using Accela Automation with Laserfische as the document management system, with the plan review and mark-up conducted in Adobe instead of Accela’s document system.  We also have an IVR for customers to call in inspections, but the majority of customers use Accela on-line access which allows them to request a future date for an inspection rather than next day only.

November – Answer the &%!$# Phone

Have you ever been frustrated when calling a service company for your personal business or even another city or county department? You need to talk to someone in order to complete a task or get needed information, but instead, the phone rings and rings and eventually goes to an answering machine. You leave a message and either hear back in a day or two or never hear back.

Think how your customers feel!

I have recently made (tried to make would be a better phrase) quite a few phone calls to former clients, potential sub-consultants for a major contract I am bidding, and a variety of cities and counties for an article I am writing. What I found was:

  1. Ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, and more rings, and eventually an answering machine.
  2. Answering machine messages that are never answered or answered in two or three days.

Many of these calls were to planning departments with a dozen or more employees. Couldn’t at least one person be assigned to answer the phone?

I have noted that a high percentage of my business is now handled by email and we get less and less phone calls. But, when we do get a call, we answer the #*! phone. I now have most of my calls go directly to my cell phone which I carry with me (and answer) at all times.

You will be amazed how the stature of your department will improve if you just answer the telephone. Try these ideas:

  • Direct lines to all employees with phone numbers and specialties listed on the website.
  • Pick up the phone in no more than three rings.
  • If a call goes to voice mail, have it go on the third or fourth ring.
  • Require all employees to answer their phones.
  • If there are lots of phone calls, designate one or more staff to be trained and assigned to answer the phone.
  • For large departments with lots of call and many people in a queue, purchase the software or equipment that allows the caller to leave a name and number and be called back without losing their place in the queue.
  • Have a policy that all telephone voice mails are to be returned before the end of the day. No one goes home at night until they have returned all of their voice mails.
  • Emails should also be returned the same day received.

We are in the information age, so let’s act like it!

I feel better already.

the Management Doctor

Reader Responses

You’ve stated my frustrations perfectly. Why is it that planning and development agencies, in particular, are so inept–and borderline negligent–when it comes to handling telephone calls?

Earlier this evening, I spent about 50 minutes on the Customer Support line with Tivo, to straighten out a tech service connection issue. I was immediately connected to a European or Middle Eastern call center and was speaking to a polite, qualified person within three minutes. He quickly put me on the path to straightening things out and stayed with me until everything was fixed. Problem solved.

Last week, I tried calling into the City of ****** permitting center and waited on hold with irritating background music and occasional recorded messages for 25 minutes. Then, exactly at the center’s closing time, the recording switched over to the standard message explaining the agency’s business hours–and to try calling at another time. Then a sudden hang up. WTF. I just wasted 30 minutes, but since I put it on speaker phone, not all that time is billable.

These two contrasting experiences left me with the following thoughts:

  • Companies like Tivo, Comcast, United Airlines, Lands’ End, etc. deal with thousands of repetitive daily calls for general information, order taking, and problem solving. Many calls deal with identical or similar issues. These companies maintain call centers with well-trained representatives that can handle the repeated requests.
  • These businesses rely on telephone service to sustain their operations. Long telephone holds, dropped connections, and impolite or uninformed representatives will result in lost orders or customer dissatisfaction and hurt their profits. Government agencies are not driven by profits or governmental satisfaction, and customer service is not their highest priority.
  • In my many years as a planning consultant, I had mixed feelings about answering my office phone. When taking an unexpected call from an unknown person, I always felt, instantly, a loss of control in my routine. Would it be it a wrong number or misdirection? Would it be a colleague? Would it be a complainer? Or maybe it would be new business opportunity. Or was it just an old friend? I would never really know unless I actually answered. And, usually driven by curiosity, I would answer. One thing for sure though was that taking the call would interrupt whatever I was doing.
  • The introduction of voicemail and email has changed the dynamics of telecommunications, usually to the detriment of the caller. I worked for a customer service-oriented firm 35 years ago when the earliest voicemail system was first introduced, and I had a few colleagues that would set their phones permanently to “DND” (do not disturb).  Others would simply allow their voicemail boxes to reach capacity. This kind of behavior was not tolerated in this particular organization, and they were usually branded as “jerks” and eventually weeded out. Today, this professional firm continues to thrive and has frequently been cited as one of the “Top 50” places to work.
  • Today our standards have changed with new technology. Email is king, followed by text messaging. Also, some agencies, especially those dealing with inspections, actually encourage the use of direct cell/wireless phones to staff, sometimes even to personal phone numbers. Land line calls to agencies are almost becoming quaint reminders of how business was once transacted. Nevertheless, it is still frustrating to “outsiders.”
  • As a sales manager for the previously mentioned consulting firm, we once received a $2 million no-bid contract because the client, after repeatedly calling our main competitor and leaving voicemail messages, never got a response from them on a request for urgent services. This client assumed that this company was no longer in business, and we got the work. That incident had a major impact both on my career and my personal life.

Paul, I agree with your “best practices” recommendations for phone call and email responses. Yet, my cynical side argues back and says that, from the agency staff’s point-of-view, “Who the hell cares? These stupid phone calls are just a waste of my precious time.”

My overall opinion is that it is better to over-communicate than to under-communicate. I’d like to hear what other planning and building administration professionals think, in general or specific, about responding to telephone calls.

And, yes. I feel better, too

Mac Birch

In my experience, listening to citizens is never an interruption but rather one of the essential primary responsibilities for staff at every level. Also, thanks for sharing the lengthy response from Mac Birch. I have a bias because Mac co-wrote a book with me several years ago, but I think he is the most knowledgable IT planner in our profession.

Bruce McClendon