Birmingham City Council: Delivering impact with email

2017 unawards winner for best use of email: School admissions offer days are among the busiest in the council’s calendar, with almost 3,000 calls received on one day in 2016 alone. With only 18 contact centre staff available to answer them, Birmingham City Council needed to find new ways to provide information to parents, and free their employees up to focus on more complex cases. Communications manager Laura Hendry, and social media officer Guy Evans, explain how they used digital technology to address the issue and reduce calls by half.

The day that primary and secondary school places are announced is always one of the busiest of the year.

The problem

The council offers around 15,000 places on each day and parents phone the contact centre with questions from what time the announcements will be made, to needing to discuss more complex issues that might have arisen during the process. We only have 18 members of staff in the contact centre who take admissions calls as well as other children’s services enquiries, making it impossible to answer the thousands of calls that we receive straightaway. This has the knock on effect of creating long wait times for parents, many of who are already anxious. As a council we then have to deal with complaints across a range of channels, including social media, which has a bigger reputational impact.

The volume of calls about straightforward, process issues also means that our experienced call handlers are unable to focus their efforts on resolving more complex cases. Although a lot of information had been made available on our website, the volume of calls indicated that we still were not getting those messages across, so we began exploring whether there were other ways we could reduce the bulk of calls from the system, keep parents informed and save our telephone lines for the more detailed or complicated cases.

The solution

We began by bringing together the communications team, the contact centre and the children’s services team to collect insight into the type of calls that parents were making on school place offer day and in the days immediately afterwards. This enabled us to gather intelligence and analyse the data we already had. By working together and looking in detail at our data we were able to see that the vast majority of calls to our contact centre were about simple issues such as the time that announcements would be made, or how parents should respond to their offer. These were questions that we already had the answers to.

We also realised that we already had correct email address details for the majority of parents affected by the announcements as they had used those addresses to apply for school places in the first place. This meant that we had ready-made access to a direct channel of communication. Our analysis had revealed that people were not always going directly to our website for information, but we felt confident that if answers to the key questions were provided directly into their email inbox, we would have a better chance of engaging them.

We decided to create an email bulletin providing the answers to some of the most commonly asked school offer day questions. We sent the bulletin out one week before the offer announcements were made, and again the day before, so that the information was fresh in people’s minds. We supplemented this activity with work across our social media channels, using posts to direct people to the offer day frequently asked questions on our website, which we had also made clearer. We also edited the content of our interactive voice response message that people hear when they ring the contact centre. We included some of the answers to key questions in that message, reducing the need for people to complete their call through the contact centre.

We also made use of other networks and channels by providing all schools in the city with a copy of the offer information and details of what messages we were giving to parents. This ensured that we could provide a consistent message to parents wherever they were asking questions and helped to keep schools informed about the messages we were giving out.

The impact

These changes had an enormous impact. When we first introduced the bulletin in 2017 we successfully reduced the number of calls on offer day from 2,780 to 1985. When we repeated the process in 2018 the number of calls to the contact centre went down to 1,341, with only 661 of those needing to be answered, as many parents received the information they needed from the interactive voice message. The huge reduction in volume enabled our contact centre staff to use their expertise to support parents with more complex cases and ensured that parents who did not have access to our other communication channels stood a much better chance of having their query answered promptly. Importantly, achieving these improvements wasn’t to the detriment of other parts of the council. It was quick and easy to create the bulletin and as we already had all the email addresses, it was very quick to create an accurate distribution list. We had already planned to use social media channels to highlight messages around school offer day so very little additional work was required to achieve a significant impact. There was also no cost involved in doing it.

Why it worked / how we’re sustaining it

A key aspect of this campaign’s success was that it was highly targeted and included simple messages. We kept our communications focused on the key issues that our target audience wanted to know about and resisted the temptation to include other information. School offers are something that directly affect people’s lives so we knew we had an audience who would be interested in relevant information. The campaign was also rooted in insight – the messages directly answered questions that we knew parents had.

We’re planning to continue this work in the future and will look to maintain the high levels of success we’ve achieved over the past two years. We are also looking at how we can develop our social media activity even more by using a wider range of platforms to share our admissions day messages.

Lessons learned

This campaign wouldn’t have worked without the close working relationships between communications, the contact centre and children’s services. Working together enabled us to interrogate our data and create clear, concise messages that met everyone’s needs. We also realised how effective digital channels are at directly engaging audiences on specific issues and the value that can come from making better use of data and insight that we already hold. 

Want to know more?

For more information please contact Laura Hendry, communications manager for Birmingham City Council.