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City of Seattle modernizes applicant support

Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) updated its support channels and now connects customers with SDCI experts using Zendesk. Adopting modern omnichannel customer support allows SDCI experts to not only better serve customers, but the increased efficiency has improved reporting. And as a result of the upgrade, SDCI continues to see sky-high customer satisfaction scores.

City of Seattle - SDCI
“With Zendesk, we’re now able to serve all of our customers online—whether it’s a member of the public who has a question about a construction project next door, or a first-time applicant who is having a hard time understanding our complex code structure.”

Nathan Torgelson

Director of SDCI at City of Seattle - SDCI

“Our customer satisfaction score is something we really take pride in here, and we’re up in the nineties very consistently—it's pretty amazing.

Jason Walker

Zendesk Technical Administrator, SDCI at City of Seattle - SDCI


Seattle, Washington

Population served


SDCI employees


Started Using Zendesk

December 2021


Average CSAT

< 5-6 mins

First-touch response time with chat

Chat <1 hr

Full-resolution time


Monthly ticket average

Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) issues permits, inspects construction projects, enforces the building code, and regulates rental rules for the people of Washington State’s largest city. The department’s stated mission is to “help people build a safe, liveable and inclusive Seattle.”

After implementing the virtual applicant service center, the department received the Washington Association of Building Officials’ 2022 Jurisdictional Outreach Award, an honor that “recognizes a jurisdiction that demonstrates a commitment to its customers through the successful implementation of a program designed to expand the awareness of building codes and safety in the community.”

SDCI initially used Zendesk products to create a knowledge center in 2018. In late 2021, the SDCI team expanded their Zendesk offerings to make it easier for customers to connect with SDCI coaching staff and technical experts. The service center is made up of 163 experts across 20 groups. Support requests range from simple questions, like how to submit a public comment, to connecting architects with city planners about reviewing site plans for a hockey arena.

Personal conversations with experts continue online

For many years, SDCI relied on an in-person Applicant Services Center. When mandatory lockdowns began in early 2020, SDCI Executives realized that they had an opportunity to better serve Seattle’s customers. They asked their new Customer Experience Manager, Lisa Perrin to explore options for a virtual applicant services center. Lisa and her team sent out a survey, asking customers about what types of customer support they preferred.

“The survey confirmed that people really miss the conversations that they had with expert staff and have a strong preference for on-line options,” Perrin explained. “We set out to bring back the human connection but with a modern offering that better matches customer expectations.”


Finding solutions with experts over chat

In 2021, SDCI implemented Zendesk, which allowed SDCI to conduct real-time chat conversations.

“Zendesk has really revolutionized how we do customer service,” Nathan Torgelson, Director of SDCI, said. “During the pandemic when our offices were closed, we implemented Chat. And with Chat, we’re now able to serve all of our customers online—whether it’s a member of the public who has a question about a construction project next door, or a first-time applicant who is having a hard time understanding our complex code structure.”

With Zendesk, SDCI is now also able to consolidate email requests and enhance their ticket-tracking capabilities.

“Before Zendesk, we had questions coming in from all over the place and it wasn’t centralized. Questions were going to staff, supervisors, managers—everyone,” Andy Higgins, Engineering Services Director, SDCI, explains. “Now we’re able to centralize all of those sources of input. So, if I get a request via email now, I can just put the request into Zendesk, so that it’s tracked and somebody on the frontline staff can respond.”

The advantage of video

At SDCI, conversations are important. And Microsoft Teams for Zendesk allows for the feeling of an in-person conversation—without the hassle of visiting downtown Seattle.

“Our staff likes to be able to offer an applicant the choice of a face-to-face video conversation,” Higgins says. “And now our customers don’t have to drive all the way downtown, find parking, find what floor we’re on, sign in at our front counter, and then potentially wait for hours for 20 minutes of service.”

And with Teams, SDCI experts can have virtual collaborations with customers. Microsoft Teams for Zendesk also allows staff to provide on-demand video coaching. For example, multiple architects can be on Teams sharing a screen to refer to a plan set.

“We provide free virtual coaching services,” says Higgins. “It’s great for people who have kids or who work at jobs that they can’t leave for a full day. With video coaching, we’re able to provide more equitable access to our services.”

And because of the fast response times and the platform’s ease of use, SDCI’s CSAT scores are up—-way up. “Our customer satisfaction score is something we really take pride in here, and we’re up in the nineties very consistently,” Jason Walker, Zendesk Technical Administrator, SDCI, explains. “It’s pretty amazing.”


Improved feedback and reporting

Before upgrading to Zendesk, the SDCI team had difficulties tracking customer feedback.

Now, SDCI is able to centralize all of those sources of input, so when a staff member gets an email from a customer, they can put the information into Zendesk to create a ticket–keeping track of frequently asked questions and recurrent topics.

“That way, somebody on the frontline can review the ticket and respond,” said Higgins. “So, it’s a simplified path for getting answers to the customer’s questions.”

Equitable opportunities

SDCI’s applicant services center is now humming online, and the support staff is focused on continuing to provide the knowledgeable and friendly service they were known for providing in person. And now that many support services are virtual, it’s important for the SDCI team to create a human connection online.

“We replaced the physical downtown Seattle counter and created a digital one with Zendesk,” said Walker. “We were forced to go virtual because of the pandemic, but it really became an equitable opportunity to improve services for our customers.”

Customers who do not speak English can access the translation tool, so their requests can be translated and addressed quickly. SDCI Zendesk currently supports Spanish and two frequently used versions of Chinese—and is looking to add more languages to support a wider range of customers.

SDCI has also made it easier to get support without traveling to downtown Seattle, improving the experience for customers who may prefer to stay at home. The SDCI staff also appreciate the hybrid work model.

“It’s been really eye-opening for our staff,” says Higgins. “It’s like it’s an added benefit to their job, because it allows for that additional flexibility.”

And for customers who struggle with technology, SDCI will be implementing limited in-person options via supported kiosks that would take advantage of Zendesk at the downtown location. This way, staff can help customers if they have questions about the platform.

“We’ve been really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with Zendesk,” adds Higgins. “And we’re not done yet!”