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Getting customer services right in tight times

Source: Public Sector Executive Aug/Sept 2014

Jo Causon, chief executive of the Institute of Customer Service, discusses a major new report into customer service standards in the public sector.

Customer satisfaction is falling. It has been falling for 18 months across all sectors of the economy, including the public sector.

But the public sector – most of it at least – faces unique challenges in trying to reverse this. The risks of failure, and the rewards of success, are substantial.

The public sector also generates more problems than most other sectors. Only telecommunications, at 22% of customers, generates more problems than local public services (19.5%) or national public services (19.1%).

The approach of the Institute of Customer Service (ICS) and its in-depth new report – ‘Citizens and customers: further building the case for customer service in the public sector’ – is to explain how a shared customer-centric vision can improve service deliver and create new efficiency savings.

But it also notes some current problems: “The public sector has among the highest proportion of customer problems which cite staff attitude (33.7% for national level services and 40.3% for local level) and staff competence (33.9% for national level and 37.1% for local). This is significant because our research into complaint handling suggests that it is more difficult to achieve high satisfaction with complaint handling if the issue or part of the issue involves staff attitude or staff competence.”

Strategic vision

The research found leaders across the public sector saying that improving customer service is a central strategic objective – but they would say that, wouldn’t they? We asked Causon whether practical evidence existed for this, or whether the leaders were paying lip-service to an obviously attractive idea.

She said: “Yes, I do think there are examples of public sector leaders who are really trying to forge the way and challenge and lead on the customer service agenda and its objectives. But I do think that this is obviously a hugely complex area. We’ve entered a very critical period of change for the public sector, especially because of the economic pressures and the rising demand from customers as citizens. It’s fair to say that many organisations in the public sector have had to face, and will continue to face, a set of painful choices about maintaining and indeed increasing their service levels and quality, as well as planning for the future.”

Clearly the public sector is not uniform or monolithic: it delivers a vast range of services to a vast range of customers, not just the public, and there are vastly different values, strategic visions and working cultures in different organisations.

Nevertheless, Causon is convinced that a shared vision on service delivery that starts with the needs of customers can lead to better outcomes no matter the organisation.

She said: “Organisations within the sector who have an ‘invest to save’ model and are focusing on understanding customers’ needs and delivering to those have found it a way of driving efficiencies.

“We believe strongly that great customer service – and thinking about it as an end-to-end strategy within your function or department or organisation and across different organisations – is a way to drive greater efficiency.”

“There is a need to develop a shared vision of what customer service means. It’s not just about front-end delivery; it’s about this continuous focus on the customer from the very top of an organisation down.”

Seven key messages

That shared vision, and the leadership to embed it, is the first of seven key points to focus on highlighted in the report. The second is on fragmentation in service delivery and the need for more collaboration and aligning priorities.

Third is customer insight: the need for more benchmarking and understanding of customers and citizens and how they work with the organisation. As Causon put it: “That’s about the end-to-end customer experience, not just about what happens in a transactional or one-off call.”

Organisational culture is driven by leadership, but is wider too. Causon said: “One key thing we find across all industry sectors is that in the world we’re now working in, those organisations that are much easier to do business with, and easier to navigate, are the ones that will drive better results, but will also be far more joined-up in their service delivery. It’s about trying to build a customer-focused culture.

“Those better organisations will enable employees to be more proactive on customer engagement. When I look at the public sector data, the things most complained about isn’t the actual outcome, but ‘how I was dealt with’. That means developing skills and competencies around emotional engagement, demonstrating better communication skills and empathy skills, and getting to grips with understanding what the citizen requires – so a dialogue, rather than reading off scripts, for example.”

The other key factors are harnessing IT, and using it to enable a better customer experience, rather than being driven by the technology; and, finally, measuring your own organisation’s performance against peers within and without the public sector.

Independent customer service accreditation can be a part of that. Causon said that the ICS’s members are about 80% private sector, but 20% are public sector, amongst which there are many good examples of organisations looking carefully at independent accreditation and benchmarking.

“As with every sector, there are examples of shining lights and people focusing on it, and examples of needing to do more,” she said.

There were some particular case studies she highlighted in our interview as examples of good practice, some of which can be seen on this page.

The cost of failure

She explained: “What the report looked to try to do was to spread the understanding that it is not ‘tick this box and it will all be glorious’. That is not the reality of the world we’re living in. There are many great people in this sector battling hard to deliver a good customer experience, but the things that will make the really big difference is the strategic approach, the leadership of the organisation, the culture of organisations – and challenging, on occasion, that culture to start thinking about this in terms of delivering a great customer experience.

“In this sector, the costs of failure – of not delivering a good customer experience – can be pretty awful. It really matters. It’s not just about the cost agenda, it’s about something much better, and driving a better outcome and the people working in this sector. But get it right, and citizens can experience improved wellbeing, better quality of life, problems not reoccurring, public sector organisations can avoid the duplication of work – that’s why this matters.

“Our own research and others’ suggests a direct correlation between customer satisfaction and employee engagement.

“I don’t believe anybody comes to work to do a bad job.

“We have many passionate people in this sector working very hard to deliver a good outcome, and therefore the more we can have a genuine focus on the citizen, and have that as a shared viewpoint, working collaboratively across those organisations, the better the outcome for those working but also those being served by that organisation.”

Identity Assurance Programme

One research respondent highlighted the potential of the ID Verification project in making it easier and quicker to access services and carry out transaction in potentially ID-sensitive areas where it is important to validate identity.

The Identity Assurance Programme is a core element of the digital by default policy pursued by the Government Digital Service within the Cabinet Office. The programme is working on the development of identity assurance schemes in the UK so that citizens and businesses can assert their identity safely and securely in order to access and use public services. Through a standards based approach, contracted and certified private sector organisations (identity providers) enable citizens to use evidence they own as part of the process for validating and verifying their identity. Once they have proven their identity with an identity provider, the identity provider can authenticate the identity with multiple public services (relying parties) as and when required by the citizen.

The programme uses a ‘hub’ (technical intersection) that allows identity providers to

authenticate identities to relying parties without: government centrally storing an  individual’s data; privacy being breached by exchanging unnecessary data; or either transacting party openly sharing user details.

The Land Registry – independent case examiners

The Land Registry operates an advocacy service to help deal with complaints. The service gives users access to independent advice and arbitration. Then the independent case examiners look at a complaint and make a recommendation to the Land Registry such as ‘You rejected person X’s complaint; we actually think you should uphold it, for the following reasons.’

As well as being respected and liked by consumers and Land Registry personnel, this advocacy service effectively acts with authorisation of the parent organisation.

DVLA – data-driven customer services

Many interviewees cite the DVLA vehicle licensing for drivers as an outstanding example of technology-based customer service in UK public sector. Respondents stated how simple and straightforward the service is to use.

Reporting of environmental incidents and antisocial behaviour

Several local government organisations have introduced smartphone apps for reporting environmental incidents such as fly-tipping or other anti-social behaviour. Residents’ e-mailed images of incidents are passed directly to departmental work schedules, avoiding any other interactions with councils’ contact centres or reporting processes.

One local authority’s software app alone is estimated to have delivered £500,000 in savings in recent years. A local authority service director suggested that the apps’ longer term value lies in enabling employees to better track and deal with incidents without time being spent on site pre-inspections for collection.

Troubled Families Initiative

Many respondents recognised the Troubled Families Initiative led by Louise Casey for the DCLG and implemented by co-located local government, police, NHS and JobCentre Plus as delivering successful outcomes of reducing unemployment and truancy and inspiring coherent multi-partner community services based on clear aims and specific targets.

…The Troubled Families Initiative delivers value by looking at the family’s needs as a whole, and by acting as a catalyst and a conduit for action; so the team doesn’t deliver services but instead it ensures that the other organisations, or the other parts of the organisation, work effectively with that family. The Troubled Families Team was really clear that this is key; that from day one, when they arrive, they say, ‘Right. Now, you’ve got problems. We’re going to help you sort them,’ I think that works because although it was a top down initiative it is clear about objectives and resources and funding.

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