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Customer service - do local authorities do it better?

Chris Traill, Director for Place and Growth at Wokingham Borough Council shares her thoughts on the 3rd session in the EiPL programme – Delivering Customer Centric Place Services.

This session focused on how local authorities manage and strengthen their relationship with customers, and to consider how our customers view their experiences with us and how we respond. It challenged us with one clear question: ‘The users of Local Authority Place Services do not expect to receive a customer experience comparable to the very best in the public and private service sectors - is this a fair statement?’

I think there is a common misperception about local authorities, that we somehow lag behind on customer service due to a firm focus on service delivery. COVID-19 has shown just how outdated that perception has become. Councils have worked hard to maintain services with priorities based on the knowledge and understanding of what our customers need. We have delivered food to our most vulnerable, ensured our places are safe and that social distancing could be maintained, moved fast to enable active travel, and provided businesses with the financial support they needed quickly. Waste and recycling collections have continued with staff drawn from other parts of those teams to minimise disruption. 

I wanted to challenge the belief that the private sector does customer service better and faster because we have a multitude of different settings with distinct needs and challenges. It was good to be able to counter that charge with clear examples – after all, just how easy is it for a local authority to deploy electric bin lorries when faced with the lack of charging points in rural areas? 

However, local authorities have to acknowledge that performance isn’t consistent across the country and that this isn’t always down to differences in size, location or offer. We can do better as a sector, but how? When we have a customer base as demographically diverse as ours, with different needs in terms of digital literacy language and serving up to six generations, how do we design services that please everyone? We have to consider the art of the possible.

To begin with, we discussed the building blocks of the customer centric approach from collaboration and shared values to data-driven transformation, empowerment and cultural change. We looked at what helps and what hinders us and how the specific challenges of place, with its attention on delivery, can shape our thinking.

The three breakout sessions drilled down to discuss what blockers we face that prevent us from putting the customer at the heart of what we do – and why designing for the customer experience, rather than for delivery can drive excellence. We evaluated what good and poor customer service design looks like through transformative case studies and considered how to boost and benchmark success. 

I think we underestimate just how good local authorities already are. After all, we provide a huge range of place-based customer services; as well as managing potholes, waste and recycling, we are supporting businesses, creating sustainable, resilient communities and looking after our green spaces, and dealing with Covid. We all understand the framework of local government – that it operates in a political sphere and that itself adds a level of complexity to much of our work. I’m a firm believer that local authorities are a big family and that we find familiarity and trust with people early on in sessions like these, where lifelong friendships and support can emerge.

Like other EiPL blog writers have said, to be able to step away from the constant demands of the day job, and experience the adaptability and expertise of local and central government colleagues, as well as the private sector, is invaluable. Even if you don’t agree with the speaker, it helps to quantify, formulate, solidify and gel your own opinions and lift your head out of the constant pressure of the day to day. It’s good to be with colleagues in an environment where we are respected as experts in our fields and taking part in sessions that are designed to create outcomes that contribute to policy papers and best practice.

One thing we’ve learnt from Covid is that the world and local government is always changing and that If we lose track of that and close our minds, we lose currency in the modern world. We have to stay receptive to new ideas and remember that we are always learning. But this is also where we excel; we are good at customer orientation because we understand where people are vulnerable. We delivered food to your doors, we continue to empty your bins because we thought about you as the individual customer – we’re broke and we’re tired but we’re still going!

When government wants people to go back to town centres and spend money, local authorities have to ensure that people feel safe to do so and comfortable when they are there. Because we are used to working in changing environments, we continue to innovative and fast, using social distancing to make town centres more appealing, changing road design to encourage active travel and enabling people to enjoy their public spaces better when going out for walks when it was the only thing they could do.

Interestingly, through Covid, customer engagement in public meetings has gone up. More people listen in from their own living room and that kind of customer interaction using technology and innovation is here to stay. But alongside that, we are still in your area – still providing core services and offering new ones, often quicker than government guidance sets out. So, to answer that question, sometimes yes, the private sector can be better and swifter because of its specialist knowledge, but there is a blurring , partly because we use outsourcing and private sector solutions, but also because we have our own expertise. I know as much as we can learn from them, we also give the private sector a different perspective.

The EIPL Customer Experience Toolkit for Place Leaders is available here.

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