Listen up, public sector improves customer service

Cutting-edge technology and a change of attitude has seen the public sector significantly improve its customer satisfaction ratings - with the potential to make significant cost savings, writes Jo Adetunji
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The public sector may still lag behind the private when it comes to customer satisfaction but local authorities are determined to catch up, despite the current financial pressures.

While the most recent survey from the Institute of Customer Service suggests the sector still had a long way to go, attitudes are changing.

"Until relatively recently the public sector hadn't thought of its users as customers, particularly compared to the retail sector," explains Duncan Baker, director of marketing and communications at the institute.

"They chased targets set by government rather than things that matter to customers. What's interesting though is that our research indicates that the public sector has improved more markedly than other sectors."

Though heavyweight retailers such as John Lewis lead the pack, the public sector is picking up the pace. "There are examples of people in the public sector doing cutting-edge stuff," says Baker.

One of those is the south London borough of Lambeth, which hopes to save more than £2m through investing £113,000 in technology designed for military communications from an Israeli company.

The borough has one of the biggest call centres in the country, handling around 1.5m calls each year.

Military hardware

"We invested in software called Speech Analytics a year ago and can now 'listen' to calls. In the military the software spots threat words like bomb or terrorist and alerts a human but we use word phrases like 'repeat visits' and 'second time I've called you," says Allan Drew, divisional director of customer services.

Managers use the information to plot problems over hundreds of calls and have already identified plumbing and carpentry as two areas where performance could be improved for the borough's 30,000 council tenants. They believe the information will drive efficiencies and help get things right first time.

"It takes three-plus calls from residents to get something sorted. Those calls cost around £5 each so it's an expensive business when it goes wrong," says Drew, who previously worked transforming services for BT.

But while any savings could go back into services, Drew believes that a coming budget squeeze could see them balancing the books.

While the public sector can be innovative it also has unique challenges.

"You have to look at some of the issues the public sector deals with - jobs and housing. Maybe people are not in the best place or under stress. There's a different set of expectations," says Baker.

Melinda Swanborough, customer services manager at Shropshire council, believes while there are lessons to be learned from the private sector, including innovation, the public sector cannot become slavish.

The council recently underwent an enormous change when district, borough and county councils joined to become a unitary authority.

"We've maintained a good level of customer service, continuing to deliver and coping with the huge expansion," Swanborough says. "People's expectations are high. We do lag behind the private sector but legislation means that you can't exactly mirror the private sector - you don't have the same autonomy to make decisions and we need to recognise that. But it's not an excuse to deliver less standards.

"We also need to look at value for money and deliver services as economically as possible," adds Swanborough, also with an eye on possible budget cuts.

But while Shropshire is also pioneering new ways of reaching customers - through Teletalk for example, where customers hold video conferences with customer services reps – an older and more rural population means Swanborough is a firm believer is good old-fashioned customer service through reps placed in libraries for example.

"It's still also about getting good people who are customer friendly and who do go the extra mile," she says.

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