Communicating customer access

I’m at Channel Shift Camp in Birmingham today, organised by my good friend Nick Hill.

It’s an opportunity for people involved in customer services in the public sector to talk about ways of delivering services using new channels, such as online.

The point for organisations is that online channels tend to be a lot cheaper than phone or face to face; for the customer, hopefully the experience is quicker and more convenient.

The first session I attended was a very interesting one about how to communicate the benefits of using new channels for contacting councils and so on to users of services.

The problem was soon identified of the quality of the new service being sold. Often the user experience of online public services is pretty bad – to the point where most people would rather phone up or turn up to an office than try and figure out how to use them.

After all, think about the big, successful online services, like Google’s search engine, or Facebook, or Amazon. When have you seen an advert, or a poster, trying to convince you to use them? Probably never, and yet we do in our millions, because it’s better.

It was mentioned that it might be possible to ‘nudge’ people into using online channels by doing things like hiding the organisation’s phone number and address on the website, so people have to use the web service.

That is not nudging! It’s bullying.

Users ought to be able to access a service in whatever way they prefer to. The job of the organisation delivering that service is to design it so that their preferred channel is also the one their customers would choose.

So to start with there is a need, I think, for communications folk to challenge those asking them to promote a service to ensure that it is actually an improvement on the traditional alternatives. If it isn’t, then trying to persuade people to downgrade their user experience is not really a goer.

In other words, the service ought to sell itself. To do that, it needs to be designed with the user at the centre, meeting their needs and solving their problems first, and not those of the organisation.

Could a customer service centre be a source of social media content?

Just a quick thought: could local authority customer service centres be sources of content for their social media channels?

Most customer service departments in councils these days have CRMs of varying sophistication and they must be able to report on what the issues are that most people are calling about at any one time.

Perhaps this could be a great source of stuff to create content about on social media channels, whether Facebook pages or perhaps on Twitter, with links to web pages with more information.

After all, it’s by definition content that people would want, and might be a good way of channel shifting people away from the phone, if they are getting that information from elsewhere.

Anyone doing this already?

Digital visions

I spend a fair bit of time talking to local councils and the like about taking a strategic approach to digital stuff, although usually it is mostly around engagement, and a bit of communications.

It’s important – simply to know what you want to achieve and why. As soon as you have those things figure out then it’s easy to choose the right tools and channels to help you get there.

Taking a strategic approach though doesn’t necessarily mean you need a bit of paper, with ‘strategy’ written on it. Sometimes just having thought about the issues is all you need to do. A quick look on Twitter or Facebook and it’s pretty straightforward to spot those that haven’t even done that!

However, there are times when a bit more of an in depth look at all things digital are required. After all, the bits of an organisation like a local council that are affected by the internet go way beyond just the communications team.

There’s customer services and all the transactional stuff – what commonly gets referred to as channel shift these days. There’s the democratic element, and the policy development process. The way big projects are managed and communicated can be transformed by the web. Every service delivery team could make use of digital channels to deliver that service, or part of it, or at least communications around it.

Given all of this, and the vital strategic role a council plays within a local area, having a digital vision is pretty important. There are several big agendas connected to technology which need to be considered.

What elements are required?

  • channel shift
  • digital engagement
  • mobile
  • publishing / content strategy
  • digital inclusion and broadband roll out
  • open data

I think these are probably best presented as some form of ven diagram, and there is bound to be plenty of overlap in there.

I’ve always like the phrase that ushered in the Government Digital Service – that of ‘digital by default’. The notion not that digital is the only option – but that it is always an option. Quite often when I have been called in to help out with digital side of a project or campaign, it’s been a bit of an add on. Being digital by default means building the online element from the get go – making it an integral part of a service or project.

It also means getting away from one of the flaws of the e-government era – that (necessary) rush to get government services online – which was to do the wrong thing righter. In other words, not rethinking how a service should be delivered in a networked society but just taking a process and sticking it into an online form.

We’re just taking on a project to deliver a comprehensive high level digital strategy for a county council. I’m delighted – it’s the sort of meaty, wide ranging envisioning work which is pretty scarce these days. It also offers a chance to think about what a truly digital local council might look like, and how it might work.

Part of the project will involve running a crowdsourcing exercise on good practice and what the future may hold for local government digital – rather like the effort I made back in 2009 which focused on websites. That’ll launch in a few weeks. In the meantime I’d love to hear from anyone who has been having digital visions in the comments, or by email.