Making lives easier and saving cost

At a time of budget cuts its easy to take our eyes away from the needs of our customers and our people. Yet some of the most innovative organisations are delivering efficiency by focussing on just that - an annual gathering in April brings together both private and public sector experience to ask of the year’s best innovators: what is it that they are doing differently?
Back in 2011, members of the Professional Planning Forum were bowled over by work at Surrey County Council and Portsmouth City Council’s housing department. Surrey County Council, winner of our 2011 Public Sector Innovation Award, successfully streamlined process, halved complaints, and raised colleague satisfaction to 72% – all while saving £400,000 for the tax payer. As Simon Pollock, Head of Customer Service explains: “The contact centre has become a barometer of the council’s performance”. 

A Customer Service Investigation (CSI) team in the contact centre dig behind customer feedback to identify how to reduce customer effort. They also work with front-line staff and other departments to design solutions. Overall, the council drove improvement projects that have reduced the number of calls coming in by 11.5% and cut cost per contact by 28%. 

Talking with members, I am struck by the importance of measures like cost per contact and the value of an organisational structure that brings together online and telephone channels with a team such as the CSI. These innovations do not happen by accident.
Customer Purpose Review
The Housing Department at Portsmouth City Council exemplifies a different kind of approach which starts by reviewing the customer purpose of the organisation. Portsmouth transformed the housing service and halved the cost of repair, by applying Vanguard’s Systems Thinking methods and uncovering what creates true customer satisfaction. 

As Owen Buckwell, Head of Housing, explains: “It’s not about economies of scale, it’s about economies of flow.  Managers need to start looking at different metrics – and gearing their working polices and practices towards a different, customer focused purpose."

“The real change is that I don’t get any letters about housing”, comments Councillor Steve Wylie, who’s city centre ward includes many council tenants.  “Residents now have the attitude that the work will get done”.

This year, the Planning Forum’s community of best practice is meeting in Blackpool. Efficiency remains high on the agenda, but again, the best innovators are achieving this by engaging their people and focusing on the needs of the community they are there to serve.

In the customer service team at Sandwell Council in the Midlands, the vision is to not just serve the community but to become it. With active employee support, everyone is now required to take part in community activities. Furthermore, recruitment to support the new bin service was directed at young people who had not been able to get into the labour market, often part of a multi-generation cycle of deprivation. In Sandwell, youth unemployment is nearly double the national average.

Not only have performance results been outstanding, but employee satisfaction is up 21 per cent and the centre operates within the usual commercial constraints, as the council makes savings and migrate services including Children’s Social Care. Relationships have been key. Get those right and there are no such things as hard to reach partners or customers. This initiative goes far beyond traditional corporate social responsibility.
Right People, Right Place
A very different kind of initiative can be seen at UCAS: the admission body for UK undergraduate university courses, which serves a national audience and faces well publicised peaks in demand. Here the theme of the Blackpool conference – Planning for Peak Performance – comes out in a fresh and powerful way, as delegates can learn about the benefits achieved by developing and centralising planning and analysis skills.  Previously, these functions were split between team managers, meaning they were often secondary to the people management role. The appointment of a new Chief Executive, however, revitalised interest in customer experience and it quickly became clear that success here was dependent on having the right people in the right place at the right time.

A new dedicated planning team created new resourcing and planning models and made more effective use of MI. Together with awareness-raising sessions for frontline staff and flexible working contracts, UCAS has already saved £6,800+ in overtime costs. There are far fewer instances of unpredicted call volumes and high occupancy, much more consistency in delivering investment time and a massively improved answer rate in the peak months this year.

At Motability, a not-for-profit company is driving further customer improvements by tacking and analysing the reasons that customers call and using this data in ways that have also increased efficiency. Average handling time reduced by 62 seconds and first point resolution increased from 80% to 86%.

When the community of best practice meets for the annual conference on April 23-24, there will be many other examples – and mangers responsible for transforming public service can learn from the best in both private and public sectors.
Further information
Paul Smedley is Founder and Chair of the Professional Planning Forum – the independent industry body promoting best practice in planning customer contact. Find out more about the work of these organisations at Customer Contact Planning & Strategy 2012 takes place in Blackpool on April 23-34. For further information visit

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