Martinsville Bulletin, Inc.
P. O. Box 3711
204 Broad Street
Martinsville, Virginia 24115
Toll Free: 800-234-6575
Two local firms interested in taking city calls
Sunday, March 17, 2013
By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer
Representatives of two local call centers say they would like an opportunity to bid on a project to answer Martinsville’s utility calls for after-hours service.
“We would certainly love to talk to them,” said Al Blankenship, program director for ICF International, an office solutions center in Martinsville.
Randy Swift, branch manager of Faneuil, another call center in Martinsville, said “we would be glad to do it here.”
Their comments were prompted by a discussion Tuesday during a Martinsville City Council meeting. City staff said Martinsville is saving money by outsourcing calls for services after regular business hours to an Oregon-based call center.
AnswerConnect charges a per-minute rate to answer calls. The city has paid the company $7,500 since August, and estimates it will spend $14,000 before the June 30 end of the fiscal year.
Swift said Faneuil can meet the city’s needs if a price can be negotiated. He noted the company already handles after-hours and other service calls for Dominion Virginia Power.
“It’s sad that we are doing Dominion Virginia Power calls and our own city of Martinsville” has its calls going somewhere else, Swift said. “We’d love to get as many people from Martinsville employed as we can.”
Blankenship said ICF has a state of the art “24/7 area call center now (and tax dollars) should be invested locally if there’s an opportunity.”
No doubt, he said, city officials “are looking for the best value and the best customer service. If a local company can provide that, then” that option should be explored. “We are certainly open to talking to them about it,” Blankenship added.
Tuesday’s discussion included the possibility of issuing a request for proposals (RFP) to solicit bids from local companies for the after-hours service, but city officials first want to know if any local call centers can meet the need.
Martinsville City Councilman Gene Teague said he thought issuing an RFP for the service was the consensus among council members.
The city started using AnswerConnect after it had contracted with a local service provider to handle the calls, Teague said. However, some of the city’s utility customers complained they were not getting responses to their calls during major power failures or weather events.
Because the city had to do something quickly, he said its staff contacted other localities to determine how their calls were answered, and it learned about AnswerConnect.
In hindsight, “maybe we should have done an RFP” before contracting with the Oregon-based firm, “but at the same time, we were trying to move to address some issues that we were having,” Teague said.
Karen Mays, the city’s purchasing manager, said, “We did not do an RFP because it has a threshold of $10,000, and because this was new, we didn’t have any clue about how many calls we would get.”
She said the city did know how much the monthly fee would be, but it was less than the $10,000 threshold.
Like Teague, Councilman Mark Stroud is under the impression that an RFP now will be issued “for anyone locally or I guess anyone in the region to respond to.”
Stroud and city officials at the meeting Tuesday also brought up the possibility that a massive power failure could affect a local call center’s ability to respond to calls if it also was without electricity.
However, Swift said, “we’ll never not have power here. We have to make sure we are open and available to take calls for our client.”
Swift said he emailed Bowles on Friday morning after learning about council’s discussion and basically told the city’s utilities director, Dennis Bowles, that “we’d be glad to do it here if we can work out some kind of price.”
“I’ve reached out. That is all I can do,” he said. Now, “I’m waiting to hear” back.
The decision to hire a local answering service was made in 2010, after operations in the city water plant were cut back to 12 hours per day so its workers no longer were available to answer after-hour calls, Teague said. That decision came after discussions with both the 911 Center and the local call center.
J.R. Powell, director of the Martinsville-Henry County 911 Center, which handles the Henry County Public Service Authority’s after-hour calls for services, said the potential for heavy call volume prompted the 911 center to decline to answer the city’s calls.
Even though it does not handle the city’s calls, the 911 center “was overwhelmed with calls” after a June wind storm left 25,000 people without electricity, Powell said. “Unfortunately with electricity, there is nothing the 911 center can do at all,” and the calls related to the storm made it difficult for emergency calls to get answered.
The 911 center handles the PSA’s calls after hours because the volume is minimal — possibly two or three per month, Powell said.
Powell said he was asked to meet with city utility officials two or three months ago to discuss the issue again. But the center declined again because it is trying to figure out how to deal with its own high call volume and could not handle more, he said.