In this blog I want to discuss and contrast the different technologies available to transform and develop the way that customer service functions can work.

There is no shortage of technology to help customer services functions dramatically change the way that they operate. Used wisely and implemented methodically, technology can help customer services improve both service and efficiency.

There are three broad types of technology that you can look at if you want to enable transformation and customer self service:

  • Customer portals and My Account online offerings
  • Social media platforms
  • Chatbots and ‘intelligent’ interaction channels

I’ll consider the relative pros and cons of each in turn

Customer portals and My Account online offerings

These approaches can be as simple e-forms enabling specific transactions right through to fully integrated and personalised portals that cover all service areas and enable a full range of transactions and information retrieval.

Customer portals are now mainstream. Customers are used to them and these days expect them. There are many proven examples of My Account portals taking significant workload away from stretched customer service teams and these facilities provide customers with a 24/7, 365 day a year access to key digital processes.

However, getting the most from a My Account deployment requires careful design. The implementation needs to be planned and appropriately resourced. Well-liked and widely adopted self service portals that increase customer satisfaction do not happen by accident.

You will need to consider integration between the selected portal platform and your third party systems. Revenues and benefits systems are often high on the list of integration considerations in order that the council can make it easy for customers to view their financial dealings. All these things take resource and investment to deliver.

The other challenge with portals is to avoid an outbreak of ‘portal mania’ whereby every back office system in the organisation gets deployed as a portal. If this is allowed to grow unchecked you can end up maintaining numerous portals that aren’t integrated with each other at all, and your poor customers will have multiple different logins and profiles for each service area. This path leads to a fragmented and expensive to maintain technology stack, and leaves customers with a hard to navigate and inconsistent environment.

The key to success is careful and pragmatic planning as your organisation rolls out customer self service technology whilst aiming to reduce rather than expand the number of separate systems required, keeping the number of system-to-system integrations to a manageable and affordable number.

The reality is that the digital landscape is now omnichannel. This means that your customers will use more than just the prescribed technologies supported by your council’s transformation programme. We’ll look at the extended picture next…

Social media platforms

Love them or loathe them, social media is now an established element of our daily lives. Current research indicates that the current social media user numbers translate to a penetration rate of around 60% of the UK population, with Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as the most popular.

Not surprisingly, users have been quick to re-purpose social media platforms as operational self-service channels through which they can contact their service providers. This presents both opportunities and challenges for UK local authorities.

On the plus side your customers are already using them, they like using them and they are generally familiar with their interfaces and functions. Moreover, they are offer a direct, interactive and immediate route into the council regardless of the topic.

On the downside, social media channels are largely unstructured, they have very large volumes of wildly varying content flowing through them, users are often anonymous or not easily identifiable, they are not designed to follow the process flows of a UK local authority service area, and they are ‘always on’. In short, you have little control over how your customers choose to use social media, for what purpose and at what time. This creates plenty of opportunity for failure!

To get a firm grip of the range of social media channels, you may feel the need to invest in more technology. There is a proliferation of third party social media management tools on the market such as Hootsuite, Crowd Control, Sprout Social and many others.

Based on our significant exposure to social media in a local government, the key to success is to think carefully about how you are going to support its use operationally. Specifically, make sure you have documented policies on what can and cannot be managed through these channels, that you know who is going to resource this activity on a daily basis, and that you ensure your staff are properly trained in using these platforms appropriately. My view is that social media platforms should be an extension and augmentation to your core customer self service capabilities. Well-managed and properly resourced, they can be a significant boon to your organisation’s channel shift efforts. The truth is that they cannot be ignored and so you need to find ways to harness their power.

Chat bots and other ‘intelligent’ technologies

The use of chat bots and, more broadly, of ‘intelligent’ technologies that attempt to replicate something close to human-to-human interaction is still relatively new. The term ‘chat bot’ covers a wide range of potential deployment scenarios, from tools that enable automated web chat, software engines for providing automated answers to inbound email from customers, automated voice conversations through artificial intelligence driven ‘agents’ through to intelligent voice on devices enabled by services such as Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.

Whilst these options are intriguing and potentially highly transformative for customer services, they are not yet mature or widely deployed. I’ve heard and read of interesting pilots at Aylesbury Vale District Council, who are doing some interesting work developing ‘skills’ to run on Alexa but nothing yet that is at scale and forming a central column of daily customer services operations. Nor are chat bots and the software engines that power them a magic solution. Like every other technology they require resources, planning and input.

Anything driven by algorithms requires historical data on which the chat bot engine can be trained to respond effectively and sensibly. In the customer service context this needs to be data representing examples of customer requests and the appropriate customer service response or resolution. This is where local government has additional complexities to cope with. Local government provides a wide array of disparate services,  from provision of accessible parking permits through to administration of benefits and the collection of trade and domestic waste. This adds variety and complexity because the range of topics that a chat bot may have to cope with is vast. Furthermore, the downstream processes can be complex in their own right. Getting the first conversation right and its data capture accurate is critical. Compare this to a pizza delivery company gearing up for chat bot enabled order taking. The variety of available pizza toppings and pizza base options does not come close to the array of service enquires a council may need to deal with through its customer services function.

As with any newer technology, there are multiple approaches to training and enabling chat bot capability e.g. pattern matching, algorithmic or natural language processing. Each of these approaches has its relative strengths and weaknesses and all require set up resources and some management. This topic warrants a separate article so watch this space.

I have no doubt that chat bot technology will continue to develop at pace and that it will rapidly earn its place amongst the already more established platforms that enable contemporary customer service delivery for the UK public sector. It is for this reason that Abavus is investing its own research and development in this area.