How local authorities can deliver an outstanding online customer experience

Toby Parkins

Toby was an agile practitioner talking to a product owner from a global corporation at a barbecue when the Headforwards concept began to develop. Having started out on the internet in the early 90s, Toby founded UKNetWeb, a web development company and knew that he could deliver a better outsource software company. Toby and Craig co-founded Headforwards in 2011. Toby is also the founder of Agile on the Beach, President of Cornwall Chamber of Commerce and a Director of Software Cornwall.

A new relationship with citizens – the changing dynamic

In our day to day lives, we are all used to interacting with a wide range of brands and service providers, from online retailers to banks, utility providers and much more. Many of these deliver an excellent online customer experience. This, in turn, shapes citizens’ expectations of their local authority. People increasingly expect their council to provide services quickly and efficiently, using the online technology which makes their lives as easy as possible.

With the huge variety of services that councils are responsible for, and the complex range of customers that they deal with, this represents a tough challenge. Luckily, advances in technology mean that there are many innovative new ways to deliver these services, creating a customer experience that can match anything seen in the commercial sector.

Using the right digital technology, local councils can deliver a much more responsive service to their customers which also enables greater productivity. These systems can improve the quality of feedback to the council and the data gathered on its customers, which can guide the long-term improvement of local authority services.

What makes a great customer experience?

These are the key requirements that need to be met when designing the online customer experience for local authorities:

  • Ease of use. People expect digital systems that make their lives as easy as possible and are very straightforward to navigate. Bear in mind that many of the people using these systems will be relatively inexperienced with using technology, so they must be helped along the way.
  • Customer-centred. People want to be able to access all the information they need through one point of access rather than having to deal with different departments. This requires a carefully planned and ‘joined up’ approach.
  • Self-service. If they are given the right systems, then more and more customers will be happy to take the initiative in seeking out the support they need. This in turn frees up council staff time to focus on added value activities. As part of this, customers expect to have their own user account, which gathers all their important information in one place and highlights any important actions that need to be taken.
  • Speed. Customers want to be able to get fast access to the precise information they need. Any frustration with this will lead to them picking up the phone, which would tie up unnecessary resources.
  • Personalisation. Customers want to be able to decide when and how they receive information from their council. They also want their customer journey to be personalised, based on their latest information, and using data provided from their previous interactions. Improved personalisation also means that customers are only sent communications that are relevant to their particular needs.
  • Availability. Customers want to be able to use the council systems 24/7. This convenience means they can schedule their dealings with the council around their work and home commitments. It also means that productivity is maintained even out of hours. As with any key service provider, downtime needs to be kept to a minimum.
  • Consistency. Whatever part of the council system people are interacting with, they need to feel that they are getting a consistent experience and that the council is speaking to them with ‘one voice.’ If you think of the council as a brand, then this consistency and reliability is an important way in which brands build trust with their customers.
  • Flexibility. Customers expect to have a lot of options open to them for communicating with their council, including email, text, social media, and even specially designed apps.
  • Real-time interactions. Customers want to be sure they are always accessing the very latest information and that the system is automatically updated with their latest inputs.
  • Security. With the large amount of information that councils hold on their customers, it is vital that the system has excellent security and that customers are confident about the safety of their data, as well as that all personal data complies with the GDPR.

The impact of AI and automation

Given the complexity of the above requirements, and the growing demands of customers, it is not surprising that AI and automation are beginning to make an impact on the way that councils deliver their customer experience.

A great example of this trend is the increased use of chatbots and digital assistants. Chatbots have already been deployed across a wide range of consumer services and have now gained much wider acceptance. They can be especially valuable in dealing with services that generate a large volume of enquiries which are also highly repetitive in nature. They can be invaluable when there is a need to deal with a sudden spike in demand which would otherwise tie up a large number of human agents, who even then might not be able to cope with the increased volume.

This is another way in which customers can be encouraged to self-serve, while also providing a highly responsive level of service. The latest customer information can be drawn across from the back office system in order to personalise these conversations. This technology does not do away with human involvement, but this can be held in reserve for particularly complex enquiries, ensuring the most appropriate use of the available council resources.

These AI-driven systems will have an increasing influence on the way in which councils deliver their customer experience across all their different channels, and will enable a very sophisticated level of personalisation.

Taking a strategic approach

To deliver an outstanding customer experience councils need to develop a detailed understanding of all the customer journeys that are made and how these affect each individual’s interactions with the council.

For these technologies to operate effectively, there needs to be a fully integrated front-end and back-end Business Intelligence system, which can draw the information needed efficiently while also continually updating with the latest data on each customer – and all operating in real time.

This may well require a radical re-think of the existing IT set-up and a thorough review of the relevance of the existing legacy systems. This will require some bold decision making.

The long-term benefits of this approach are that it:

  • Ensures that customers enjoy a smooth and efficient interaction whenever they deal with the council
  • Enables the council to manage a complex range of services
  • Frees up staff time to spend on more added value activities
  • Can evolve and grow to meet the changing needs of the council and its customers
  • Provides a more impressive showcase for all the services offered by the council

Delivering a quality customer experience has a big influence on how residents view the overall performance of their council, how engaged they are, and how satisfied they feel with local democracy.

Further reading

Building the business case for long term IT investment

As an outsource software development company Headforwards has worked with a lot of people in building the right business case for their products and projects. The impact of structuring a business case can be significant and can determine the success or failure of projects.

Explore

Can Agile work in local authorities?

From a little seed planted at Agile on the Beach, Cornwall Council has gone through a real transformation in how they’re structured, how they manage products and, of course in their new Agile approach.

Explore

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