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Vienna leaders work to improve business-owner experience

'Simplicity is extremely important,' Council member says

You have to admire the pluck.

Seeking to experience the town of Vienna’s business licenses and permits, consultant James Patteson assumed the role of “secret shopper” and attempted to open a tattoo parlor in the building directly across from Vienna Planning and Zoning Director David Levy’s office.

Patteson found the experience generally favorable and praised the competence of town staff members, but had some suggestions for improvement.

Patteson and Kristi Dooley, his colleague  at the firm of True Purpose Leadership, outlined their recommendations at the Town Council’s Feb. 5 meeting. The company’s objective was to strengthen the town’s status as a welcoming place to do business, Dooley said.

As part of its work, the company mapped and documented Vienna’s processes, talked with town staffers, interviewed business owners and members of the Town Business Liaison Committee, and compared the town’s business-licensing methods with those of surrounding localities.

While business owners gave high marks to town staff for efficiency and friendliness and liked Vienna’s “boutique” customer service, they found the town’s paper application process inconvenient compared with the online option. They also wanted clearer information about various town processes and said they were confused and frustrated by Vienna’s and Fairfax County’s various requirements.

Business owners suggested the town should designate an ombudsman or liaison to help them navigate the licensing and permitting processes.

Dooley and Patteson were impressed by the city of Alexandria’s checklists, pull-down menus and one-stop business processes and liked Arlington County’s paperless methods and helpful instructional videos to help new business owners.

Fort Collins, Colo., was the consultants’ favorite because its business process was so customer-friendly. That city also helpfully provides references to relevant state and federal requirements, they said.

Patteson underscored that every jurisdiction is unique and cannot simply adopt other localities’ systems and processes.

The consultants recommended that Vienna officials create a dynamic online business-license application form.

Business owners “want the Amazon experience,” said Patteson, who recommended a one-time information application with consistent messaging so that users would not have to fill out their names and addresses multiple times.

Council member Charles Anderson agreed.

“The town’s process now is mainly paper and personal,” he said. “Amazon’s whole philosophy is to reduce friction, eliminate the number of steps to make it easier for the applicant or buyer to conduct business. Simplicity is extremely important for that new business owner.”

Vienna officials surveyed business owners in 2021 and heard back that regulatory processes for licenses and permits could be improved, said Economic Development Director Natalie Guilmeus. The Council in February 2022 included such streamlining efforts among its five economic-development priorities, she said.

Town officials now have formed a work group – with representatives from the Economic Development, Information Technology, Finance, and Planning and Zoning departments – that meets monthly to tackle those tasks.

Officials hope to have a dynamic, online business-application process up and running by year’s end, Guilmeus said. Vienna officials also will examine the inter-compatibility of town Websites and Web pages and ensure they have clear and consistent messaging, she said.

“We need to improve our internal process,” Guilmeus said. “We want to make sure we are making sustainable changes.”

Council member Roy Baldwin, who served for years on the town’s Board of Architectural Review, recommended that information for businesses should include signage requirements, so as to avoid unpleasant surprises later.

Council member Ray Brill Jr. suggested having town staffers walk new business owners through the various required processes.

“You can learn a lot by doing,” he said. In an effort to boost cybersecurity, the Vienna Town Council on Jan. 29 unanimously agreed to have Tyler Technologies move its software for the town’s financial system to the “cloud.”