On 21st March Dr Peter Bishop (Director Digital & Customer Services) led the Chief Executive’s webinar session officially launching Birmingham City Council’s new Customer Service Strategy, sharing what it will mean to the council and every single employee. The session was attended by over 800 representatives from across the council who heard about the culture change journey the customer programme will be championing to fix the basics and move us towards a best-in-class council. This year the Customer Service Programme is focused on fixing the basics, ensuring that we meet the needs of all our customers across multiple channels, providing whatever support and services they need from us.
During the webinar we had over 120 comments as part of the Q&A session, so understandably we were unable to cover all of these in the time we had, however have been addressed internally and are available to staff via the intranet.
Following a review of the questions, the team have grouped these into themes to better understand patterns and key areas for us to do more work on, aligning these to the programme aims. The themes we have identified from the webinar Q&A session are:
- Culture and ways of working
- Political, budgets and staffing
- Communications and complaints
- Organisational change and support from management
- Human centred design and engagement
- Technology, channels, the website
- Digital literacy and inclusion
We have looked at the questions asked within each theme and sought to openly and honestly respond:
Culture and ways of working
Our culture is at the core of who we are as an organisation. We recognise that at the moment our culture isn’t enabling us to consistently deliver the customer experience that our citizens deserve. Our strong public service ethos, our commitment to improvement and our care for each other are all underpinning features of our current culture, that will remain part of our foundation as we evolve. We know we need to shift towards being curious about the people who use our services, taking the time to listen and understand their experiences and needs. We know we need to break down the silos between us and collaborate more effectively across teams and directorates. We know we need to have the same standards across the whole council, so we are all pulling in the same direction.
To unify our approach, we have launched our Customer Charter, which includes the minimum standards that all council staff will work to. We know we need to embrace change and we know we need all council employees to join us on this journey – without your engagement and support we will not succeed.
We know that change takes time to embed, but we have started by ensuring the Customer Service Programme is embracing this new way of thinking, practicing what we preach, aiming to bring our colleagues and partners with us along this journey. We commit to working in the open, sharing what we do and inviting you to be involved. We commit to being collaborative, working with key colleagues in our priority work streams, putting customer’s voices at the heart of the process, testing out new ways of working and new solutions that are based on evidence, in a low-risk, low-cost way.
Organisational change and support from management
Changing an organisation that is as large and complex as our council takes time. We are focusing on incremental improvements in how we deliver excellent customer service, supporting the culture change needed. As part of this process, we want to empower all staff members to deliver the best possible customer service to our customers and colleagues. You know your service areas best, and we want you to feel trusted to deliver the best service you can. Managers are fundamental in supporting that shift, but they are also balancing other factors, like meeting a Service Level Agreement (SLA), minimising complaints, resource constraints and so forth. By working closely with teams and service areas, we commit to bringing you along the journey with us. More structured, formal training will support these efforts.
We are absolutely committed to ensuring all staff have the right level of customer service training across every service in the council. This is a key focus for the programme to ensure we are collectively meeting all the needs of all our citizens. There is already a mandatory courses available for customer services staff, but it doesn’t go far enough to ensure we all have the right skills and understanding. For us, good customer service:
- is fundamental to everyone – all staff, including managers and senior managers, back-office teams, as well as those on the front line
- means demonstrating excellent customer service behaviours in all our actions and engagements with citizens
- requires a change of mindset, so we see things through the lens of the customer across service boundaries
- means getting things right first time for every contact or request across all our channels
- is a lived, daily practice, not a tick box exercise that we do on a yearly basis
- is an ongoing improvement journey – that comes standard practice not programme led and that evolves
We are already working closely with the New Ways of Working (NWoW) team to ensure the right level of training is developed, so that we are able to deliver on the cultural change needed to embed this new way of ‘thinking and doing’. The NWoW team are helping us shape our requirements which will feature a series of workshops, discussions, best practice forums, sharing of live stories of positive & negative experiences around “customer service” to help and raise the cultural mindset change to delivering good customer service. We are committed to this change and encourage you to join the workshops to support us in shaping this.
We also need skills to be more human centred as a council, to make decisions based on staff and gaps in customer service that are evidenced based. Approaches such as user research, data analysis and design are important skills to adopt so that we can be responsive to the changing needs of our customers, staff and partners.
Political, budgets and staffing
We recognise that there has been an impact on the service we are able to offer as a result of the cuts we have had and continue to experience across the council. We have been asked to do more with less, which at times feels like an impossible task. However, we are confident that we can work smarter and more effectively. By using approaches that are new to us like human centred design and agile project delivery, we can ensure that the time and money we invest delivers the right result, the first time. As part of this programme, our aspiration is to make the most of digital, technology and data, to create efficiencies and savings, free up staff from the day to day so they can focus on adding value to the services we deliver and the people who use them.
Communications and complaints
We recognise that there is a lot of work to do across service areas to address the root cause of issues that lead to complaints. This is shared responsibility amongst ourselves, our partners and our customers. Being open and transparent about our processes, timelines and levels of service will help to manage expectations and minimise disappointment.
As part of early work carried out as ‘quick wins’ during the shaping of the strategy, we have reviewed the existing complaints solution from a people, process and technology perspective, which now includes member enquiries. We have had great success across all council directorates in ensuring that complaints are handled in a consistent way and to agreed timelines. As part of the technology review, we now record what actions we can take to ensure a complaint does not arise again, which should be feeding into service area improvement plans. The focus has been on getting the process for complaints and member’s enquiries right first time and to ensure we are responding in agreed timescales and to a consistently good quality. This links to the ‘fixing the basics’ theme of the customer strategy. This is an area we commit to continuing to look into as part of our discovery into the common customer experience across high volume services such as housing, waste and highways.
The customer programme has been working on delivering a communications and engagement plan which covers both our external and internal channels. We have been working with directorates to identify key meetings that we need to attend to update on progress. We have already started this activity at a management team level and the Council Directorate ICT board. These will continue over the coming months, supporting our effort to reach every single employee in the council.
Human centred design and engagement
Human centred design is new to the council. We used this approach to develop the Digital Strategy and we are committed to using it to deliver the Customer Service Programme. It’s tried and tested and is best practice in central government and many local authorities across the country. It’s means putting humans, or ‘users’, at the heart of everything we do – of all our decisions, actions and behaviours.
Humans or users means us, the staff working for the council in all job roles and it also means our partners and contractors who deliver services on our behalf. It means the 1.1 million people we serve in Birmingham, and it means those running and working in businesses based in the city. It’s important that all our customers are involved when we are redesigning our services and products, however our primary customers are the people who live in Birmingham, and the businesses we serve.
User research is regularly speaking to a representative group of real people who are using our services – it is the foundation of human centred design. It enables us to validate any assumptions we have, understand customer needs and then make decisions based on evidence that will result in the best solution for those using our services. We are committed to taking this approach on the programme and it’s enabling us to move away from being ‘requirements focused’ towards being ‘user needs led’.
We have directly spoken to 43 staff, 5 businesses and around 100 customers so far. Our customers have broadly been representative of the city, although we recognise we have some gaps. We decided which customers to speak to by developing a sampling mix – this details the different types of demographics we want to target and in what numbers, for example for characteristics that will be specific to the city such as ethnicity, we will use census data to determine what proportion of our target group should be Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi and so forth. If we are speaking to 10 people in total and 30% of the city have a Pakistani background, we will want to speak to 3 people from this group. We then target our recruitment based on this information.
We had some good suggestions to better engage with staff in the webinar, particularly those on the front line who don’t have time to attend digital events in the day. We commit to taking these ideas forward to ensure all staff are able to share their thoughts and experiences with the programme and be heard.
Technology, channels, the website
As part of the customer service strategy, we are focused on technology and channels, and this is supported by the technology theme in the Digital Strategy. We need to ensure that the technology supports our customer experience so that it is simple, easy to use and we are clear what role it plays in the overall end to end experience. This feeds nicely into us looking at our technology infrastructure in detail, allowing us to re-use technology, learn from developments where others have already delivered solutions, and work with other authorities productively where we deliver the same services.
The Customer Service Programme is looking at the council’s website because it is the key source of information, guidance, advice and transactional services for customers. We will be ‘fixing the basics’ across the site including any issues raised by our customers through user research and testing. As part of the review of the website we will be looking at the supporting technologies like google search, analytics and the customer management system which powers how you visually see and use the council’s website.
Responsibility and accountability for ensuring content on the site is accessible and up to date will sit with each directorate going forward. The programme is currently conducting a content audit of a small number of service areas. This will lead to content guidelines and governance to support service areas to develop and manage their own content. The web team will support with publishing and will champion best practice so that content meets the needs of users across the end-to-end journey.
We will also be looking at the contact centre, so we have a level of consistency in the customer experience, regardless of the channel the customer wishes to use. We will also be looking at chat bots where appropriate and automation to support some of the simple back-office processes which will help release staff to focus on other key areas of the business.
Digital literacy and inclusion
On both the Customer Service Programme and the Digital Strategy, we are committed to making it so easy to contact us and get something done through a number of channels including digital, face to face and over the phone. By ensuring our digital channels work well, are accessible and easy to use, we will free up staff to spend more time with those who cannot contact us online, improving everyone’s experience of council services.
You can contact the programme with feedback, thoughts and any opportunities you’d like to share via: CustomerServiceProgramme@birmingham.gov.uk. If you would like to be more closely involved, please do let us know.
We have invited staff to join us at our next show and tell on Tuesday 26th April to hear more about the two discoveries we have been doing over the past months. We’ll look forward to sharing the recording here in due course.
Blog co-authored by colleague Hannah Pinnock (Design Strategist – Methods)