Putting customers at the heart of your services

How to respond to resident expectations for on-demand services and use technology to put customers at the centre of your communications. Dave Worsell, Managing Director for Europe, Granicus.

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Key points:

  • Councils must adapt to citizens’ expectations for ‘on-demand’ services
  • Online services and investment in digital technology must be aligned to measurable communications plans to encourage use
  • Communication teams must work more closely with customer services to deliver impact

In the past, government had few outlets for communicating with the public. They could talk to the press, send items by post or run advertising campaigns. In every case, the lack of granular data on individuals’ specific needs and interests meant that communication was, by default, a form of broadcast. The messaging needed to appeal to a wide audience and there were few ways to accurately measure ‘success’.

Despite broad consensus this approach is ineffective and costly, for too many councils it remains at the core of their communications strategy. Even as they have shifted to digital communication tools and platforms, they’re under-using them by treating them as broadcast channels.

But a radical shift is emerging as citizens, armed with new technology, begin to demand more from government. It is clear that the future of public sector communications doesn’t look anything like the past. Instead, it’s nimble and targeted, focused on customer service and delivering a clear return on investment (ROI). The public sector must adapt to citizens’ expectations, or lose credibility and relevance.

Defining the problem

Any talk about the future of communications requires an honest assessment of the state of it today. The upshot is that UK institutions are failing to fully harness the power of digital communications.

Chief among the reasons for failure is that many local councils continue to value the broadcast model, but the requirements of residents have evolved as technology enables change. This results in a disconnect where newsletters are produced as public relations pieces: information that the leadership wants to see pushed, but little that truly aligns with what people need from government to help them lead easier and safer lives. Think of it as the “Sending out Stuff” (SOS) model – where quantity trumps quality.

The root of this problem is that communications often gets short shrift at the outset of a programme, often called upon when it is too late. As with many successful private sector organisations, the director of communications should be a board-level leader so that they have an opportunity to influence how strategic objectives are met. You can have the best project in the world, but if you don’t have a solid communications strategy, it is doomed to fail. It will certainly go under-used by the people it is intended to benefit.

A number of councils have developed online accounts that allow residents to see all sorts of information that pertains to them. But after spending hundreds of thousands of pounds developing them, they realise usage is low. Why? They lack a coherent communications strategy to drive people to use them.

In the age of austerity, communications has often been wrongly perceived as a nice-to-have. The reality is it can deliver tremendous returns on investment when work is aligned with organisational goals and tied to SMART objectives and accurately measured, as illustrated by the case study from Birmingham City Council.

Finally, it’s important to note that quantifying value means focusing on outcomes. A drug issue in a community should be met with a programme goal to “reduce drug misuse by [x] percent by [x] date” rather than “increase awareness of drug misuse”. Awareness isn’t an appropriate measure of success; only action counts. People care about actual improvements in their communities, and it’s how organisations use communications to move people from apathy and inaction to awareness and understanding, and finally to action and advocacy that will result in real change.

Where we’re headed

The UK faces two major challenges in its shift to customer service-focused communications: austerity and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

When public sector budgets were reduced in the wake of the financial crisis, few saw that as a good thing. But it forced radical thinking and eliminated complacency. When every pound needs to be accounted for, each line item requires data backing it up. It may seem odd, but the UK’s austerity and demand for quantifiable ROI in the public sector means it is well ahead of places like the United States, where government communication is still more geared towards SOS.

GDPR, too, has been an eye-opener. Despite the hype, it’s likely to be net positive. It makes the SOS model untenable because the communications teams need to adhere to strict data privacy laws and make any content they’re sharing timely and relevant to residents. It’s a golden opportunity to reset expectations and work smarter.

These two challenges are huge, but they provide an opportunity for growth and change that puts the customer first. So what are the first steps?

Personalisation is king. Reduce the volume of press releases and old-fashioned newsletters, and move to a more granular and highly personalised subscriber-based approach where push becomes pull. Modern communication technology allows residents to choose how, when and what information they receive from the council. It empowers smart communications teams to use data and audience insight to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time. This approach is proven to deliver meaningful behaviour change, reduce demand and generate revenue while improving resident satisfaction and council reputation. The right digital tools support multi-channel communication, offer subscription management, automate transactional messages and deliver impactful campaign messaging focusing on action and outcomes. 

How do you go about getting the buy-in you need to implement the right digital communications solutions? Like all good things, solutions that can deliver on this promise of inciting action and change (as well as being able to meet the security requirements for serving all levels of government) do come with a price tag. But this is a business case that’s easy to approve if it comes with ample opportunity to achieve returns on investment. Speak to suppliers. Visit the G-Cloud. Ask for the proven case studies in the public sector.

Council communications teams must also talk more to their customer services colleagues. Which issues result in the most visits and phone calls? How could digital communications service those calls instead? We know a huge proportion of customer calls relate to rubbish collections, so if communications can provide recurring emails that remind residents of their collection day and timetable changes, then immediately customer services’ workload is reduced – as illustrated by the case study from Wrexham County Borough Council.

This focus on the customer will only grow. In the future, expect to see an emphasis on ‘life journeys’. Parents already need to register their child when they are born. Savvy councils will work across departments to send relevant, personalised information hinged to key milestones - early years learning events, teenage health, information about A-Level exams, applying to university, paying off debt. At each stage, the council of the future can provide value to citizens by helping them access services and opportunities that they may not even know they need.

Change isn’t easy

Making communications—and, in turn, government—more customer focused is an absolutely urgent matter. But it won’t be easy, and it won’t be achieved overnight.

For starters, you can’t cut corners – you need tools fit for the job, especially secure and dependable digital communication software. This usually means an investment in solutions and staff up-front in order to save money and get a better ROI in the long run. This isn’t the sole responsibility of communications, it is something that should be coordinated across all council departments.

Communications teams aren’t always accustomed to selling themselves. But in an age of austerity, every campaign needs to be tracked, measured and refined to ensure success and value for money. Go a step further than the vanity numbers like click and open rates (although these do have a place in indicating your performance and the potential for a positive impact). A good communications team reduces customer service calls, increases the number of children vaccinated and attracts more tourists for economic benefit.

Finally, effective communication only works at scale, and building an audience doesn’t happen overnight. That means the biggest risk is all about timing: If you aren’t starting right now, you’re already falling behind. You need to be proactive now to have a chance of surviving the uncertainties of the future.