The importance of customer service in the public sector
Why, and how, the public sector must continuously listen to customers
Why, and how, the public sector must continuously listen to customers
Customer expectations for flawless service and immediate gratification have never been higher. UK citizens expect to waltz through train barriers with a simple tap of a phone, pay for online goods in a single click, and have queries resolved 24-hours a day, thanks to the now omnipresent ‘chat’ services found on most websites.
Technology has not just raised the bar for service expectations but has empowered the voice of the customer to complain. Social media platforms provide a huge audience of customers often eager to share and weigh in on complaints. The digital footprints of negative publicity and poor customer service delivery cannot easily be erased, thus having long-lasting consequences. What’s more, full histories of events are easily accessible to prying audiences, ensuring that even public relations specialist cannot delete poorly manage customer service complaints. Delivering good customer service is thus no longer a choice for business, it is imperative to both thrive and survive.
The public sector is one of the biggest service providers in the UK, employing some 5.36 million people in 2018, or around 16.5% of the working population. Delivered through a large number of central and local government departments, the quality in service provision across these organisations can vary widely, often resulting in an inconsistent and frustrating customer experience.
As well as a hugely varied spectrum of services and customer facing functions, from passport checks at border control points to the delivery of medicines in hospitals, the UK Government also operates services at scale. Last year, HMRC alone handled a staggering 65 million calls. Efficiencies of reducing each phone call by just one second could save two years in call time. As such, marginal improvements to the way public services are delivered can achieve significant cost savings and help improve the lives of millions of citizens that use them.
The Institute of Customer Service envisions an organisation which delivers good customer service as “…honest, gives good value for money, has a high reputation, meets deadlines, has quality products and services, has easy to understand processes, responds to criticism, encourages complaints and handles them well, and demonstrates that it is passionate about customers.” The near utopian vision of customer service demonstrates the myriad of touch points high quality services need to target.
While the means and definitions of good customer service are often debated, the benefits of improved customer service include higher sales, improved margins, happier customers and increased staff retention rates. Fewer complaints are made, and those customers which do vocalise complaints are often more understanding thanks to previous goodwill.
Digital by default remains a core strategy for public sector organisations looking to deliver cost-effective, high quality customer service. To put the financial pressures on the public sector into context, the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently estimated that public services face real-term spending cuts of up to 40% in the decade to 2020. Despite these constraints, public servants are still responsible for performance, mitigating risk and improving the value for money delivered.
The Institute for Government, a think-tank, recently highlighted the need to be sensible. HMRC initially anticipated that the move to digital customer service would reduce salary costs significantly, and cut 10% of its cost base ahead of full migration. The large-scale transformation to digital moved too quickly, leading to a ‘collapse’ in service delivery over the period between 2014 and 2015. One UK news outlet labelled HMRC customer service as ‘abysmal’, lambasting the department not only for its customer relationships, but its very competency as a tax collector. Despite the good-intentioned motivation to drive down costs, botched attempts at delivering good customer service incense the public and destroy value.
HMRC is not alone in facing challenges with customer service. The Home Office has been faced with criticism over failing to meet customer service standards 30 out of 31 days this July. Virgin Atlantic and British Airways bosses have criticised hold-ups at the border as business unfriendly, insinuating that the Home Office, post-Brexit, will not be able to handle border entry volumes. The department’s failure to meet in-person service standards can be closely linked with another slip in customer service. Of no surprise, hiccups in updating technology and digitising border controls have likely contributed to the border processing delays.
The Infrastructure and Projects Authority 2018 report noted that amongst many infrastructure programme updates, the implementation of more efficient border checks appeared to be in jeopardy. Ranked as amber/red, “successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to address these problems and/or assess whether resolution is feasible.” Clearly, non-performing customer services not only highlight the importance of service delivery, but also, can call into question the competency of relevant departments.
The Government Digital Service’s (GDS) approach to assessing Digital Service Standards requires all departments with public facing services to take user needs, programme iteration, security, and performance checking both seriously and frequently. The GDS’ Digital Service Standards gold standard targets user experience – ideally, users should only have to attempt to do the things they want to do once.
GDS’ approach has also helped government branch out into different media streams. Connecting with younger citizens and embracing social media, GDS has increased its presence on blogs and apps. Communicating with citizens across multiple channels, GDS has also encouraged private sector to pilot new technology to help solve public sector challenges and improve customer services. While probably not quite up to the utopian standard, the GDS does appear to communicate and target good quality customer service metrics that the Institute of Customer Service promulgates.
Significant strides have been made across the public sector in addressing the myriad of ways which users obtain customer service. The GDS has rolled out more than 175 services that can be utilised across government. For example, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency has used GOV.UK Notify to remind more than 500,000 people when they need to get their MOT renewed for their vehicle. In the first 12 months of operation, more than 22.3 million notifications have been sent through GOV.UK Notify and more than £39.3 million in payments passed through GOV.UK Pay.
While many high-profile customer service journeys have been improved in central government, similar digital customer service improvements are ongoing across local government. Pendle Borough Council’s digital transformation has seen a 95% reduction of in-person service as customers are choosing to self-serve. In Birmingham, the innovative City4Age project has provided hundreds of elderly and vulnerable citizens with wearable technologies, helping the service providers to monitor, predict behaviours and intervene when required, allowing the individuals to remain independent for as long as possible.
Listening to, and engaging customers in feedback, is of course paramount to continuously improving services. The recently published Civil Society Strategy includes initiatives to improve participation in local decision making. The authors cited that, “evidence shows that enabling people to participate in the decisions that affect them improves people’s confidence in dealing with local issues, builds bridges between citizens and the government, fosters more engagement, and increases social capital.” The strategy includes running pilots over the short term, for example, online platforms and apps where residents can vote on local decisions.
Central government should champion publishing statistics on performance, based on a consistent set of customer service measures. Such transparency will help customers feel that they are being listened to, and help drive improved performance and sharing of best-practice across government. Feedback and engagement from citizen users are central to the next iterations of government customer services.
The Digital Economy Act 2017 (DEA) introduced “a number of new powers to share information to help make the digital delivery of government services more efficient and effective.” Allowing government to share information in a manner that is appropriate and proportionate to customer service delivery remains a fundamentally important step to improvement.
While the DEA can be seen as a positive step towards enabling improved customer services, there have been concerns over the robustness of safeguarding of data to ensure that citizen information is used correctly and not abused. Mike Bracken, former Government Digital Service (GDS) boss has often been quoted as mentioning that government departments often already over-share – bulk datasets are often asked for rather than the discrete data set relevant to the specific request. Limiting data sharing and providing transparency to customers in how and why data is shared remains important to build trust in public sector data sharing.
The recent experience from Lewisham Council, where some 6,000 people are thought to have had their data regarding council tax, housing benefits and adult social care stolen, demonstrates how important data protection is in good customer service. Such incidents bring into focus the risk associated with digitising customer services, and the need to establish greater protections. Proven heightened security threats to citizen data and security must be weighed up against the benefits of improved customer services and efficiency. Mistakes must be learned from to prevent the same issues happening again, yet these incidents must also not derail the public sector’s focus on digital delivery and drive to improve customer services.