Customer focus, customer experience, customer relationships whatever you call it, there is a clear recognition that how service users are dealt with is important. A range of approaches have been tried to deliver the desired 'experience', which alongside the ebbing and flowing of guidance and performance measures has resulted in a patchwork of different solutions. This leaves the current customer services environment in something of a transitional phase. The localism bill and The Open Public Services White Paper set a new landscape for public services and how authorities interact with the public, the details are still being worked out but the ambition is clear, in the words of the Cabinet Office:
"High-quality public services are the right of everyone. By putting choice and control in the hands of individuals and neighbourhoods, public services will become more responsive to peoples' needs." [IPSO Mori]
The vision is laudable, but the real question remains how, particularly where many organisations have legacy arrangements developed during previous visions for user engagement. Whilst visions and targets have changed though, the key headline factors have remained fairly consistent – cost of the operation and customer satisfaction. It is often the way these two factors are measured that has the biggest impact on decision making.
Firstly, is the cost of customer services measured as the thin line of call centre and service desk staff that provides the public face of local authorities, or in a broader way factoring in the whole life cycle cost of interaction? Whilst we would advise looking at customer demand as the trigger for much or an organisations activity, this is scant consolation for those that represent the thin public facing line and are being asked to find their share of the 20% saving.
The customer service measure is even harder, without any clear objective measure a range of factors are used which are not consistent, or often objective. As IpsosMori (2) have shown consistently it is often publicity and perception rather than actual delivery that drives the reputation of a council and its services. This does not however remove the pressure to demonstrate high satisfaction levels in the service.
So what's the answer? Beware of those who offer simplistic solutions is a good start, a number of the panaceas offered over the years have resulted in the patchwork of solutions we see at the moment. These range from outsourced solutions, to customer service centres to web enablement. The reality is that the solution is likely to be a blend of a number of options and importantly reflect the local realities faced. A 5 year transition plan may sound attractive, but if you need to deliver results now, will be of little comfort.
Listen to what services users want: Focussing hard on what people want helps to provide focus, and stops you wasting effort on irrelevant areas. How you get this information will depend upon what you have available but volume data, survey information, and customer profiling such as Mosaic are all good starts. These sources also enable you to track progress, and provide the team with successes it can celebrate.
Identify where you can do things more cheaply: Current realities dictate that savings need to be made. To realise savings you need to understand what is currently making you expensive. Is it lots of chasing calls because the process is slow, is it lots of face to face contact when the activity could be done on the phone or web or does lots of effort go into passing information from the customer service teams to departments.
Understanding the issue will help point you in the right direction to resolve the problem. Two factors to consider here are appetite and suitability.
- Appetite of both the customer and the organisation. Is there an appetite for web transactions from the public for instance, or is there an appetite from the organisation to see customers meeting directly with assessment officers. If there isn't it doesn't necessarily make it wrong, it does however suggest that you might want to look elsewhere if you need to deliver quick results.
- Suitability reflects the local context that you operate in. What's the likelihood that a certain group of service users visit a facility in an out of town location? If you have rigid computer systems, pushing content to the web may result in longer and more complex (and costly) processes than if you had done nothing. Very few organisations are starting from a blank sheet of paper, therefore its worth reflecting on where you are starting from.
Reflecting on appetite and suitability will provide you with a priority list of improvements and start providing savings which keep the finance director happy. Thinking differently about how, when and why services are delivered however may start to highlight opportunities to dramatically reduce cost and improve satisfaction that were not immediately obvious.
- Begin to think differently - Reflecting on local businesses desire to pay business rates on line may prompt you to provide commercial waste, trading standards or parking services online too creating a one-stop shop for business. Thinking about events which rouse people to contact you such as moving into a new home may identify half a dozen services which they would need, enabling you to carry out 6 services on a single visit. Identifying that they will also need to register for the local doctor begins to forge links on the basis of what customers want (and are likely to use) rather than on narrow organisation and departmental structures.
Customer services may be in a period of change but the clue is in the title, and in looking at what customers want organisations may find that they are able to deliver both the savings and the customer satisfaction that will be universally welcome.