January 16, 2013 at 10:23 AM EST
City's first live chat goes…live
"Do I need a license to buy or sell gold?" "How often do the scales at a supermarket need to be inspected?" "Can the Home Improvement Salesperson license be taken in Spanish?" (Yes; annually; and yes, are the answers.) These are some of the questions business owners are posing on the city's first live chat service , which was posted online Christmas Eve for a "soft launch" and is getting the official red-carpet roll out and advertising campaign from the Bloomberg administration starting later this month. The live chat, accessible via the Department of Consumer Affairs website, provides restaurant, laundromat, garage, bodega, supermarket, clothing store and other business owners with experts on hand Monday through Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., prepped to answer questions about previously inscrutable regulations in real time. When a business owner signs in with an email address, a DCA staffer working at 48 Broadway and identified by his first name and last initial pops up on the screen: "How can Consumer Affairs help you today?" The format looks like a Gchat or an AIM chat. The new live chat is part of a citywide push to have small businesses save time by conducting the bulk of their interactions with city officials online. Any business owner confused on the minutiae of the regulations for their industry can chat it out with an expert. "Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for New York City businesses to access everything they need to know to do right by their customers and avoid violations," said DCA Commissioner Jonathan Mintz. At the same time, the Bloomberg administration is working toward a goal of having 80% of applications for business permits and license applications online by the end of the year. That number right now is at 19%, according to the city's chief Business Operations Officer, Tukombo Shobowale. On the DCA live chat, confusing rules that could result in a fine can be answered instantaneously by one of three trained professionals currently manning the lines. Laundromats, for instance, are prohibited from having different pricing for men's shirts and women's blouses. Fake guns can only be sold in bright red, orange, yellow, green blue pink, purple or clear, according to city regulations. So far, the live chat is staffed by three current employees at the Department of Consumer Affairs. Commissioner Jonathan Mintz said hiring more workers will depend on the volume of incoming calls once the program has been publicized with a planned 2,000 ads on subway cars, bus shelters, and telphone kiosks. Most of the chats last no longer than 90 seconds, Mr. Mintz said. "The irony is that our phone lines are still down, post-Sandy, but the live chat works," said Mr. Mintz. About 150 businesses have live chatted for help since the link appeared unannounced online. The Department of Consumer Affairs currently licenses more than 78,000 businesses in 55 industries in the city.
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