John McMahon, Product Director at IEG4, an enabler of digital services in the public sector, discusses how austerity in local government is, by necessity, driving a revolution in customer service delivery
Traditionally, the term “customer” was more commonly associated with private sector consumers. In recent years, we’ve seen changes in the way the public sector perceives, refers to and engages with the public.
Local councils now talk about “customers”, “customer centricity” and the delivery of genuine “customer service”. This change is significant, implying two-way engagement; a desire to deliver a quality service, albeit with ever-decreasing budgets; and an approach that is closer to how private sector businesses operate, spanning industries such as banking, telecoms, and retail.
In addition, the perception of a local council as a physical entity has changed. As far back as 2009 there has been talk of councils becoming more like online brands, recognised more for the services they provide, rather than the town halls and buildings of their inception.
It’s certainly true that austerity has led to many councils collaborating and sharing services while updating and automating customer-facing channels to deliver operational efficiencies.
While cost savings in any sector are often associated with a decline in customer service levels, the reverse can and should be true.
Digital leading the revolution
As with many private sector organisations, digital is fast becoming the easiest and preferred method of communication for both citizens and councils. Customers recognise when the convenience of digital outweighs or improves upon face-to-face or telephone interactions.
As consumers, most of us will choose the quickest and easiest route to interact with service providers, whether that’s via online banking or our engagement with telecoms or utility suppliers. For many online businesses such as PayPal or eBay, digital is the only obvious means of communication. Customers are presented with frequently asked questions (FAQs) and a series of options to help address specific queries or resolve issues quickly and easily.
Is this the future of local government?
Citizen accounts that automate and integrate with the back-office
Councils deliver multiple services to a diverse demographic, from refuse collection to processing council tax payments and housing benefits. Customers may need to contact their council to report a missed bin, appeal a decision on a benefits application or change their personal circumstances.
With an online account, citizens are now able to perform what they previously would have done in person, or most likely via phone, in a much more effective and efficient way; a way that is consistent, and automates and integrates, with the council’s own back-office systems to avoid staff having to re-key that data. (This sounds like a no-brainer but many councils with a customer-facing portal fail to fully integrate this with the back-end.)
Customers are also able to review the status of previous activity, along with the lines of Amazon’s “track my order” and are therefore decreasing the amount of unnecessary contact with councils.
Personalised, out of hours and via mobile
We’re already seeing more and more councils, both large and small, engaging with customers in a more personalised way, out of hours and via mobile. Customers are able to create and sign-in to their online account in seconds using email or social media platforms such as Google, Facebook or Microsoft accounts. And it’s not just young people that are embracing these changes and benefitting from this channel shift.
Figures from 6 local councils that have adopted our OneVu solution reveal that up to 62% of accounts are personalised (e.g. Council Tax or Housing Benefit information presented is specific to individuals); a large number of accounts are opened via Facebook, Google or Microsoft accounts; at least a quarter, and in some cases up to 43% of accounts, were created out of office hours; and in at least 2 councils the over 65 age group represented the highest sign-ups.
Answering questions before they’re asked
Forward-thinking councils are adopting solutions that minimise avoidable and costly face-to-face or phone interactions by answering expected and previously asked questions via a personalised set of FAQs based on analytics.
For example, the most commonly asked question in the context of a benefits claimant is “when is my next payment due?”
By pre-empting these types of questions and presenting the answers, councils are able to avoid follow up enquiries and customers benefit from a more user-friendly and tailored service.
In the future , e expect to see smarter chatbots that enable conversational interactions with customers, not only in terms of answering queries but also supporting the completion of online forms.
Think customer service experience before technology
At IEG4, we believe that an online or digital-first approach is essential for any organisation that wants its services to be embraced by customers. If, as a local council, you are not offering digital as a means of communication, you are likely providing a service that doesn’t meet the demands of your citizens.
However, it’s important to put customer experience before technology. In the drive for “digital transformation” or “digital by default”, local government often thinks in terms of technology first, but we believe it should be less about technology and more about providing the best possible service and identifying the most appropriate solution; technology is simply the enabler.