Giving customers access to services 24 hours a day to create new channel shift agenda
In October 2015, Design Council in partnership with the LGA ran a cohort of the Design in the Public Sector Programme in South West England. Among the participant was a team from Teignbridge District Council who, along with the neighbouring Mid-Devon and Exeter councils, had joined the Programme to explore how they could better promote the next wave of ‘channel shift’.
Channel shift is the process organisations use to encourage customers to access or interact with services via channels other than those they would normally choose. It includes the design and marketing of effective and efficient channels most appropriate for the type of contact and customer in question. Implemented well, channel shift can lower costs, improve the organisation’s reputation, empower the user and improve the overall service proposition.
The councils wanted to know how design principles could help them better understand customers’ needs and engage staff in the process of identifying potential solutions. Together, the three councils worked to see if they could discover a way that service users could interact with them in a more efficient, cost-effective way.
The councils had identified a need to develop understanding around the channel shift agenda and create a new culture of business change across all service areas – in particular within front-facing departments that regularly dealt with customers. The council’s frontline staff pride themselves on their excellent customer service skills and, for many, the fundamental principles of channel shift are at odds with their perception of providing a good service.
Engagement and action
The original design challenge was to promote a clearer understanding within the organisation of why channel shift was needed, so staff could more effectively promote the concept to their customers, and identify opportunities in their work to make change. However, during the initial workshops, the Teignbridge team identified that this challenge was very broad and, in order to maximise the opportunities the Programme offered and achieve tangible outcomes, the team reduced the scope to focus on one specific service which generated high levels of customer demand – the council tax team.
Teignbridge spent a significant amount of time during the workshops focusing on the techniques it could use to discover what service user’s needs were and the perception of services currently offered. The team researched the nature of the problem from a user perspective and defined the problem before identifying potential solutions.
The process showed the council that by increasing understanding of why customers contact them with council tax queries, they could explore and develop potential solutions. Using design techniques such as ‘logic models’, Teignbridge identified a list of activities it needed to undertake to understand the reasons for customer demand following receipt of council tax correspondence. It then took the following actions:
Obtained feedback on existing council tax reminder letters across the three councils.
Designed a feedback form for customers to understand the reason customers contact the councils following receipt of a letter.
Carried out initial research into ‘nudge theory’ – a concept which argues that positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions rather than direct instruction – and how this could be used in future communications with customers.
These actions identified some ‘quick wins’ which were implemented immediately, including putting the date of last payment on the council tax letter as this was one of the most frequent queries identified from customers.
Mindful that an element of the project was changing staff culture and behaviours in order to ensure staff were engaged and ready to promote any new strategies developed, Teignbridge commissioned a design specialist to co-create ‘personas’. Personas are fictional potential users of the service, useful in considering the goals, desires and limitations of both the user and the service in order to help to guide decisions about its features, interactions and design.
The council believed that there was some value in co-creating personas rather than imposing them as it would develop their understanding of different customers’ needs and there would be more enthusiasm for promoting a new service initiative. Staff were trained to interview customers and get an insight into their behaviours around using online systems and preferences around how they pay for things.
Results – update for November 2016
The project is ongoing and final results are still being reviewed, however, it is clear that the DiPS Programme kick started an important piece of work redesigning some elements of the council tax service to meet customers’ needs.
The council believes it has a greater insight into customer needs and whether the existing processes and services offered meet those needs. The training received in interview skills and creating customer personas has now been developed into a service blueprint to be used in other areas in addition to the council tax team.
By doing so, Teignbridge Council has dispelled some of the myths and misconceptions about the types of customers it has and the reasons why they do not wish to move to more self-service transactions. It has also identified some problems with some of the existing processes. Specific processes are now under review, and piloting of new processes and interactions with customers has begun.
Teignbridge has since used nudge theory to tell customers how important Council Tax is – this resulted in 500 more residents setting up direct debits. This is trend is set to continue with other nudge initiatives.
Payment models such as standing orders – which are very expensive for the Council – are being kept only for exceptional circumstances. Meanwhile, a business case is also being prepared for an online system which could allow customers to check past payments made and their instalments, personalise statements and payment options, text message reminders about payments, the ability to email payment receipts automatically and a host of other small changes which could make big differences to the council’s customers.
As a result of the Programme, Teignbridge Council has started to think more broadly about the way in which it engages with customers and understands their needs and experiences before developing new services, changing processes or tackling other problems within frontline service areas.
Amanda Pujol, Business Manager (Housing and Health) at Teignbridge Council, explained the benefits of the DiPS Programme: “The Programme enabled collaborative working which we would not have otherwise embarked on, and an opportunity to share experiences and poach ideas from each other on other issues as well as part of the opportunity to network. The techniques we learned about – such as interviewing and stakeholder mapping – have been applied to other service challenges, both big and small. This ranges from working with staff to restructure the format of team meetings, all the way to developing services for private landlords to improve their properties. Corporately, some staff have also chosen to undertake further training in human-centered design techniques.”
Business manager (Housing & Health)