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GRANT ANDERSON senior marketing manager, BT Global Services, government and health
Let’s tap in
It’s time that local authorities actually harnessed new technology effectively, says RICHARD GRICE
ver the past decade we have witnessed significant advances in how communities access councils and council services. Councils have invested time, effort and resources in their technology and in ‘professionalising’ and consolidating their contact centres. For many of us, our communication with councils has changed out of all recognition from what it was a few years ago. But there is still a long way to go. Too often a channel shift ‘strategy’ is little more than shorthand for implementing a range of new online and telephony technologies and sitting back and just letting change ‘happen’. That is not good enough any more; it never was. Moreover, while, yes, people can now probably contact their authority in different ways, many councils have yet to see any commensurate transformation in customer experience or, equally importantly, substantial, cashable efficiencies. While there have been undeniable improvements in customer service performance, this has not been matched by improved customer satisfaction. So, why is this and what can councils do about it? Access is nowadays much more than just offering a website with interactive tools or an efficient contact centre. The way people communicate with
We must tune in to all the new channels
All councils and other public sector organisations are recognising the importance of ‘channel shift’ within the current austerity and efficiency agenda. In fact I can’t think of a single council I have spoken to recently that has not said it wants – needs – to go down this route, and rapidly so. Managing demand and shifting customers to different (whether cheaper or, ideally, just more appropriate) service channels is widely seen as a central element not only of any corporate cost-saving approach, but of creating more modern, connected, in tune local authorities. But customers are actually shifting themselves in many ways of communicating and perhaps councils will be catching up instead of leading. To put a human slant on this I have two teenagers, one of each gender, one at university living away from home and one at school living at home – a clear certainty here is that they are the future citizen who will pay council tax and want to interact in the way they choose. Again, using myself as a mini case study, as a busy parent I have already noticed they do not use the landline, and only email if they have to, as that is seen as for ‘older’ people and perhaps business necessity. I have to tell my kids when I have sent them an email! It’s online, 24-hour instant messaging along with Twitter and less so Facebook, Facetime and other stuff I have not discovered yet that are more important to them. These trends are changing even probably as I write. On the other hand my 80-year-old mother, whilst climbing hills and rambling, has no desire to own any device apart from the telephone and a writing pad. Without wanting to sound too morbid, it’s the teenagers, not my mother or I, who will drive the future, as they always have. As Richard Grice highlights opposite, access is nowadays much more than just offering a website with interactive tools or an efficient contact centre. People are now used to ‘agile’ digital service, but are using different tools and channels at different age stages. The case studies overleaf also illustrate how communication and access are rapidly evolving. We are in a period of rapid change and our councils need to be very fleet of foot or even ahead of the game to match the engagement citizens will increasingly expect. FOREWORD SUPPLIED BY
each other and expect to communicate with organisations, the way they ‘consume’ communication, has changed utterly, and continues to do so on a massive scale. People are used to agile digital service – the Amazons, Tescos and iTunes of this world – and now expect councils to be equally responsive, and flexible, to their needs. In a climate where services are increasingly being delivered not by councils themselves but a range of partners with varying approaches – almost akin to an Amazon-style marketplace – it is going to become more and more important for
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to ‘channel shift’
councils to build platforms that consumers and providers can ‘plug into’ and use in one place. Make life easy for customers and they like you more and contact you less; satisfaction and savings.
There often appears to be little correlation between what is on a local authority website and what people are looking for
The core message, then, is that councils need to adjust their sights, stop talking just about ‘channel shift’ and start talking more about the citizen’s experience. In most cases that means people being able to contact an organisation when they want and, above all, for that interaction to be easy. As we highlight overleaf, the experience of BT Retail is
that ‘channel shift’ needs to be seen as something fluid, almost organic, where dialogue is conducted via multiple channels in a myriad of overlapping and complementary ways, whether by that we mean via social networks, conventional or mobile phone, online, via email, instant messaging, blogs, forums and, sometimes, old-fashioned face-to-face communication. Take mobile access. SOCITM back in April estimated that around a quarter of contacts with council websites are now made through mobile devices. Yet how many council websites are genuinely geared
towards a mobile interface or enable self-service via mobile? More widely, and more worrying in the context of channel shift, there often appears to be little correlation between what is on a local authority website and what people are looking for. Our notion of channel shift needs to stretch beyond enabling citizens to fulfil a single transaction unaided to helping customers help themselves solve more complex problems. For example, ask yourself, if someone is interested in finding out about schools admissions in their area – gathering all the relevant information, linking through to Ofsted reports, gauging through discussion forums what other parents say locally, being able to access and fill in application forms with webchat help – can they do it easily via one interactive hub on your website? Thought not. Or how about when someone contacts the council about getting a new bin? That, superficially, sounds prosaic
and a very simple, transa– ctional communication. But much as when you book a flight online for a holiday and all sorts of offers come up – buses, hotels, taxis, trains and so on – ‘booking’ a bin could mean someone has newly moved into a house in the locality. Being able therefore to direct them to help or advice with council tax, setting up direct debits, neighbourhood council services, social care, housing benefit and (as per above) schools’ admissions is a) excellent, proactive service and b) can reduce the need for future, successive contacts with the council. Councils, finally, could do more to use the vast and often untapped local service user knowledge out there. Our customers are often more expert than those of us in local government. At BT we have found public forums can be an extremely effective communication and advice tool, with as much as 70-80% of problems solved by customers communicating on forums themselves rather than by BT staff. People also often trust more the information and advice that comes from their general public peers, meaning there is at least the potential for a reputational ‘win’ for councils that invest in this space. The potential benefits of this platform approach to public service are huge. Richard Grice is head of citizen services at BT Global Services
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CASE STUDIES: A ‘VIRTUAL COUNSELLOR’ AND NE
A project with counselling service Relate and innovation at BT Retail both provide models for how local government could in the future reach out more effectively to communities, writes NIC PATON
Back in 2008, a partnership of BT and relationship and counselling service Relate won backing to the tune of £560,000 from the Department for Children, Schools and Families for a two-year project to develop a new web-based ‘family mapping’ tool. Scroll forward to the present day and the tool has become an invaluable internal resource for Relate. More widely in the context of local government, this type of tool – and this sort of partnership that fostered it – could work as a model for councils looking to use technology to enhance traditional methods of working with families, communication and support in traditionally resourceheavy areas such as children’s services and adult social care, argues Relate relationship counsellor Lin Griffiths. “For local government I think there is an opportunity there to develop similar tools,
especially in areas where there is a need to work with family members,” she explains. The tool uses visual representations to help parents understand the dynamics of family relationships; how the relationships are working (or not working) now and where they want or need to be. A ‘virtual’ counsellor guides people through the tool, prompting them to adjust and make changes to the family dynamic as they move through different stages of the map. Users are also encouraged to reflect on the visual representation of the family situation that emerges. Ms Griffiths says: “For example, an object can be chosen to represent the user and the tool encourages other objects to be selected to represent significant people or family members in their life. “This gives you an immediate visual impact of the family system and relationships. The technique
The mapping tool helps to make sense of dynamics within families
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has been used for years in face-to-face counselling but, as we had an opportunity to put something innovative together online, we thought how people could make use of this technique, but without needing the physical counsellor intervention. “If the visual family map raises questions for the user, there is supporting information and an opportunity to use live web chat to discuss the dynamics with a counsellor. Some people used it, printed it off and then brought it in to talk with a counsellor. And sometimes without any changes or further intervention they could immediately see what needed to change, and had done it by themselves.” It has also proved to a valuable adjunct to face-toface counselling and support activities, Ms Griffiths argues, something that again could prove valuable in the local government setting. “Counsellors often find having a PC in the room with them can be helpful for information, booking appointments, showing video clips and so on. “It is often just about
Sometimes people could immediately see what needed to change and had done it by themselves
Lin Griffiths, Relate relationship counsellor
more information, contact jessica.faulkner @relate.org.uk
normalising things, showing someone, for example, that they are not the only people with a teenager they cannot talk to,” she says. When it came to the partnership itself, while BT obviously led on the technology side and Relate on the behavioural and therapy techniques and counselling, the key was simply ensuring everyone understood each other clearly. In terms of development, storyboards were created to enable all parties, including end users, to visualise the requirements of the application, after which a working prototype was built. A weekly delivery schedule allowed regular feedback to be collected and acted upon rapidly. “Our relationship with BT pre-dated this work but when you have teams of people, or even different organisations, working in partnership, it helps to be able to understand the relationships, the way people are working together. For us it was about developing something innovative but also sustainable,” adds Ms Griffiths.
Sponsored by BT, whose experience extends across the public sector – from local authorities and other organisations to national ‘giants’ such as the Department for Work and Pensions, the MoD and the NHS – that deliver vital services in communities across the UK. The case studies were agreed in partnership with LGC, which independently commissioned and edited the report.
EW CHANNELS FOR CONSUMER FEEDBACK
Over a three-year period, BT has reduced costs by 40% and complaints by more than a third, largely by removing unnecessary contacts from its ‘customer journeys’. Its BT Retail consumer and small business division has, in particular, transformed the way people access and interact with it in a way that, according to general manager Joanna Howard, could hold useful lessons for local government. “People are demanding new ways of communicating with service providers, including the public sector. It is about delivering what your customers want,” she says. Its approach has seen it introduce channels but also research closely how customers prefer to interact and then design in new processes. Consumers looking to get in touch with the business can do so via email, live chat, through Facebook and Twitter, via community forums, by post and through BT.com. The company also monitors public forums for comments about BT and its products using a tool called Debatescape. These comments are then channelled to BT advisers who, in turn, will often get in touch with the customers to dig deeper into the issue that has been raised. Customers can report faults online, track orders, receive technical help and view their
bills online. That’s, of course, all relatively standard for a big organisation these days. More innovatively, the company has invested heavily in webchat and customer-led online forums, arguing solutions are often now found by ‘the crowd’ as much as they are by BT intervention. “You also need to make sure you can measure it effectively. It may be a case of taking small steps, looking at
your resources, your systems, your voice-based services and what customers are saying. You need to get feedback about people’s experiences of working with different media and the different ways they are conversing,” advises Ms Howard. For example, its research has found customers choosing to access lower cost channels – webchat, Twitter and forums – often record the
Twitter has now come to the fore in BT’s methods for handling customer issues
The focus has to be giving the customer an easier way to resolve an issue
Joanna Howard, general manager, BT Retail
highest customer experience scores, especially on the key measure of ‘was it easy?’. The company’s Hubbub forum, a forum for users of BT’s HomeHub and Soft Phone products, has helped to deflect a significant number of calls away from the contact centres. Twitter has become an increasingly powerful channel, too, with some 32,000 people now following its customer service account @BTCare. Customers are often encouraged via Twitter to speak more directly to BT through a tailored eform or private webchat or email. Similarly, there is a service channel into BT from its Facebook page. “The focus has to be giving the customer an easier way to resolve an issue. But there also, of course, needs to be a consideration of what is the most efficient, as well as the cheapest, way to get something resolved, something that inevitably will be high on the council agenda. “The challenge for councils is to say ‘what do customers want but how can we deliver within the cost constraints we have?’. There has to be a marriage of efficiency, cost and experience. Are you doing it for cost reasons or for the customer experience? The worst reason for doing it is just because everyone else is,” she adds.
l For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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