Chatbot research with Neil Lawrence

It was an absolute pleasure to talk with Neil Lawrence from Dorset Council about the research project he led, using Local Digital funding to find out what the user needs are that using a chatbot might meet. You can watch the video on YouTube.

It turns out that if you want to know whether a chatbot is a good idea or not, it’s not as simple as a yes or no. There are a number of factors to bear in mind, such as the complexity of a service, how transactional it is, and what the emotional state of the service user might be.

Add on top of that the fact is that you need to train the chatbots with the good content and provide access to back office data via APIs. Anyone thinking chatbots are a shortcut are very much under the wrong impression!

Check out the project’s website to download the various outputs, so you can benefit from this research too.

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.

Should every member of staff do a stint in customer service?

customer-serviceI’m loving Scott Berkun‘s The Year Without Pants – an account of the time he spent in startup land working with Automattic, the company behind

I’m going to do a full write up at some point, but some bits of the book are so good I can’t wait to share them.

Here’s one. Every new hire at Automattic spends time working in customer service, answering user questions and queries and solving their problems. No matter what their position in the company – everyone has to do it.

The reasons are clear. It helps that new starter understand the customer’s needs above everything else – what their pain points are, what they are trying to achieve and so on.

It is also the best way to learn about how any kind of system or process works, by hearing from those who are using it every day, and running into problems. Fixing those problems is a fantastic way to learn how something works.

So perhaps this is something other organisations could take up? Perhaps when a new chief executive takes over at a local authority, they should spend a week or two on the phones at the customer contact centre, learning directly from the people who depend on the services provided by the organisation.

What do you think?

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?

Too busy for Twitter?

A common risk associated with public bodies engaging online in spaces like Twitter is that there’s too much interaction to cope with. It’s something that often gets raised when I am talking with clients.

E-government bulletin covered the issue recently:

A second delegate from an NHS hospital trust told the group that her communications team was underfunded to respond to social media. “We are becoming an arm of our complaints service, but with no budget – and the complaints team itself won’t monitor Twitter,” she said. And a third told the group that his council’s elected members were receiving such a volume of direct messages on Twitter they were unable to respond to them.

This is, I think, another argument for comms teams not to ‘own’ social media within an organisation. If complaints are coming in through Facebook, or Twitter (or whatever) then it’s the complaints team, not comms, who ought to be monitoring those spaces.

As I think I have written before, communications teams have an oversight role, and a championing one too. They look after the main corporate channels, manage the strategy and governance processes and look after arranging training and that sort of thing. Most of the activity should happen in service areas though.

It’s social media as telephone, not press release. Another way of putting it is that it is communications not Communications. In other words, it’s the normal communicating we all do everyday, by talking, using the phone, emailing and so on; rather than the formal Communications that happens with press releases, interviews and so on.

If you are in a comms team and are drowning in social media interactions that aren’t in your area of expertise, pass them on to someone who is responsible!