Rethinking Council Customer Service

It wasn’t that long ago that the leading edge of customer service thinking for local authorities was to introduce the latest Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. Helpdesks were dated, and CRM led the way towards faster and more efficient customer interactions, giving contact centre staff intelligence about customers and their past interactions when they made contact. Customer contact was centralised, filtered, and more easily redirected.

The pressures of austerity a decade ago demanded change, and technology offered the possibility to integrate systems and to introduce cloud-based automation and self-service.

Today, leading councils are fundamentally reviewing this model of customer service, and not just because of Covid-19.

Getting a grip on avoidable contact

Reducing ‘avoidable contact’ arguably remains the biggest challenge. A CRM system might increase case throughput, but there is still a significant avoidable cost created by a failure to join up the various different service components across the organisation.

Studies today show that, for many councils, as many as 90% of contact with a council can simply come from ‘failure demand’—e.g., if a customer cannot easily find the information they want, or they have not been updated on the status of a request, or cannot complete a simple transaction online. Even unclear communications lead to unnecessary contact, seeking clarification.

Understanding customer demand is, therefore, the first step in managing it better:

Digital functionCommon council transactional examples
Book a service or facilityVenue, births/deaths/marriages, social care placement, library books, equipment, waste collection, activity/tickets
Report an issue or a problemMissed bins, potholes and road issues, housing repairs, anti-social behaviour, pollution, blocked footpaths, fly tipping, change of address
Register or apply for a serviceLicences, register to vote, grants, volunteer, planning applications, jobs, tax discounts, benefits, parking permits, blue badges, buss passes, road closures, social care placements or support
Pay for a service or productBusiness rates, council taxes, parking fines, bookings, venue hires, planning fees, building fees, social care costs, travel tickets, buying goods and services, parking, sports facilities
Complain or appealAbout councillors, services, benefits, fines, council taxes, neighbourhoods, pollution
Receive a benefit or paymentHousing benefits, council tax rebates, social care support, universal credit interventions
Enquiries and requests for helpWhen an activity/service is happening, what services are available, who can help, where to go, how to get help
Voting and consultationsElections, school closures, road closures, planning, cuts or changes to services

It is the challenge of the sheer breadth, range and number of services offered that makes it hard for councils to build a coherent and digitally based customer service strategy.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

The problem with ‘implementing a CRM’ or targeting contact centre throughput was that the wrong things were being measured, and the result was usually to seek to improve existing processes. This rarely questioned whether the whole model of customer interaction was sensible in the first place.

Copying the best practice of the private sector, such as retail, where the idea of CRM originated, also had limits. This was just not suited to many council services. The private sector focuses on the monetary value of customer interactions, albeit by delivering excellent customer service. The public sector has a range of non-financial statutory obligations to protect people, often with complex needs spanning different relational services, including with partners, such as health and police.

As a result, service pathways are hard to define and change regularly. So, any CRM model has to be either hugely sophisticated to accommodate this (and therefore costly to implement and to support), or relatively simplistic (undervaluing the potential power of a full CRM implementation).

Covid-19 creates new expectations

Leading councils had already begun moving away from a traditional model of customer service when Covid-19 struck. These leaders had redefined customer services from being ‘service-led’ to being truly ‘customer-led’, recognising that increased efficiency lies in designing around customer needs and preferences, not in automating and re-engineering existing processes for the service provider.

Customer service frontend ‘AI engines’ are today redirecting telephone callers to self-service forms, and citizen apps are delivering common transactions and interactions on smartphones, removing the need for any professional intervention altogether, except as a safety net.

Covid-19 has pushed this further still, especially where services were previously wedded to face-to-face interactions. Councils have accepted more risk by reducing checks and increasing trust, especially in the more complex service delivery areas such as parking permits, self-referral for support, licencing, and ‘blue badge’. But they have also seen a channel shift backwards, towards the telephone, perhaps because customers have more time and want some human interaction, or because digital services are still not mature enough to provide a complete ‘one and done’ service.

There are also other changes that are going to prove more challenging for councils in their customer interactions. For example, proactively contacting customers to see if they need help, rather than simply waiting to be contacted. This relies on the ‘health shielding lists’ to identify vulnerable people with limited or no access to support networks. Isolation and loneliness were always big challenges for councils—and that challenge has grown enormously in the last 6 months.

Is there even such a thing as a ‘Customer’?

We all talk about ‘the customer’ but generally we have in our mind’s eye the true ‘paying’ customer, buying a service or product. In practice, many interactions with councils are not from true customers in that sense. They are tourists, shoppers, residents, volunteers, partners, voters, service users, and taxpayers. The true customer pays for optional services such as car parking, hiring a venue, or buying a ticket at the leisure centre, for example.

But customer principles and cultures still need to apply, and the technology, if applied appropriately, can accommodate this complexity, such as website functionality that automatically requests services from applications. Systematically focusing on ‘needs and preferences’ can make all the difference in removing avoidable contact that comes from failure demand.

Take bin services, for example. New bin needed, missed collections and just wanting to know the collection times during bank holidays, all create unnecessary calls to councils. Yet many councils still fail to ensure this is all easily available from a simple phone app or personalised web search.

This is not just about digitisation—it is about design so that customer service is more personal, integrated across different channels, and with safety nets of ‘face-to-face’ when necessary:

Customer typeDigital expectationsCustomer service impact
Council tax payersTax payers want to know what they have to pay, what they get, and how to query payments (or seek reductions). And it needs to be personal.Make it fully online. It should be possible to see your council tax account, make updates, pay, request adjustments, all without any manual intervention.
ResidentsConsultation and involvement are key here. From general information about ‘my patch’, ‘my interests’, to the opportunity to become a volunteer. Apps are good, but need to ensure that those who cannot use digital methods are supported by more traditional means.A citizen account app (PC or smartphone). Can offer residents an app on their phone or PC, with confidence in the security of data, and ease of registering (and de-registering) for updates by area, service, or interest. This includes tracking services and seeing exactly what data the council holds about you. In two-tier areas, it needs to cover district and county services as well.
Visitors and touristsVisitors expect clear, up-to-date, and easy-to-use online information and services—where to park, online payments, maps, tickets, etc. The information needs to be designed for both PCs (prior planning for a visit) and smartphones (on the move).There are many reasons to visit a place—to see friends, use leisure facilities, visit attractions, or support a relative in care. Whatever the purpose, web resources should be designed and integrated around these common customer interactions.
Partners and suppliersThey can be customers, too, if they are using or consuming your services to fulfil a wider delivery to the end-user. So publishing open APIs, sharing code for apps, and adopting common standards are important.This is a challenging area for councils, even if they have a genuine partner delivery model and shared service arrangements. Ideally, customer service channels would be integrated and seamless, ensuring that the end-user (citizen) does not need to know who provides the service or have to manually integrate services around their needs.
Service usersThese are customers who are not necessarily paying (or don’t have a choice about the service they consume). Child protection services, for example. But they rightly expect first-class digital and non-digital support, as good as the private sector can deliver, joining up related services about their needs.Service users should expect a join-up of related services, at the point of delivery, signposted with a safety net of customer service support. Access from home or the smartphone, and telephone help when required, should be possible. Many council digital services are still designed for the service owner, not truly for the customer, which is the cause of much avoidable contact.
Paying customersTrue customers pay for a service. They expect an ‘Amazon-style’ experience with simple checkout and payment, service selection, and as much automation as possible—safe, secure, fast, simple, predictable.Councils are increasingly commercial. But commercial practices need the best digital methods from the private sector—from ordering to payments, fulfilment, and pipeline management. This includes redesign of customer interfaces across multiple channels so that these are harmonised and aligned.
VotersWhether registering for postal voting or introducing electronic consultation, there is a need to ensure that there is fair, transparent, ethical, democratic debate and decision-making about matters affecting individuals, families, communities, and areas.All customers need an equal voice. Customer service design should include considerations of the democratic aspects of council activity, tracking preferences for online, postal, proxy voting, unbiased methods of digital consultation that ensure no one becomes disenfranchised because of their personal circumstances.

Customer in control

If we are honest, customer feedback and involvement is not always welcome, and it can be a distraction or even a nuisance. A council has elected politicians after all, why is more consultation needed when they have been elected to get on and fulfil policy?

The answer is, of course, that we all have an equal right in a democratic society to be heard in decisions that affect our communities, families and ourselves. It is an essential part of democracy, whether it is in the ballot box, or the now familiar digital methods, from chatbots to Facebook.

But these new digital methods have to be real, and acted upon, not simply bolted into a council website as a tick-box exercise. If a customer can report a problem, they ought to get feedback. And the more a council consults and communicates openly and fairly, the more the public trusts and supports them (including at the ballot box).

Politicians of all parties recognise the power of social media and digital consultation to improve their ratings, but also to improve decision-making and to give insight into complex problem-solving. Getting the customer involved is a genuine win-win, and digital methods offer the way to do this efficiently.

Council in my pocket?

You’ve read this far to get the answer, but there is no magic! But there are some simple components of a successful customer service for a modern digital council:

  1. Review your customer service strategy
    • Set organisation-wide culture, standards, and methods for customer interaction that eliminates no/low value activity from the customer viewpoint
    • Consider how digital methods can reduce avoidable contact rather than how IT can increase throughput or just streamline existing practices
    • Be adaptable. Don’t invest in rigid systems and methods and expect things to change
  2. Review your digital strategy and legacy IT constraints
    • Ensure that any technology holding back digital and customer service plans, whether on price or performance, is removed
    • Focus on new tools such as AI and integrated web functions on a component basis
    • Design for primarily digital interaction but from the ‘outside in’ (customer perspective), which will help to avoid digital exclusions

The leaders are already moving in this direction, building ‘council in my pocket’ digital model of customer service, but with the safety net of direct contact and strong cyber disciplines to protect data, people and services.


About the Author

Jos Creese is an independent digital consultant, researcher and analyst. He is a strategic client advisor for Advice Cloud (supporting Freshworks), helping SMEs in particular to position their products and services to be of the greatest value for the public sector. Since founding CCL in 2015, after 30 years as a public sector CIO, he has helped over 200 public and private organisations in their digital journeys, including on customer service strategies for large public bodies. He is also a non-executive director for the Department for International Trade and Hampshire Hospitals Foundation Trust, UK, and chairs the Open University Industrial Advisory Board for the School of Computing.

About Advice Cloud

Advice Cloud are public sector procurement specialists and G-Cloud consultants. Services include assisting both public and private organisations in buying and selling services that include IT, Cloud, business process outsourcing (BPO), digital, and professional services. Advisory services include business surgeries, customised client workshops, and a range of specialist consultancy support tailored to help clients to position their products and solutions optimally for the public sector’s needs and challenges.