Archives for posts with tag: customer service

Note: this is the final instalment in a series of three articles.

Customer service in the public sector.

Whether you’re providing public services, or selling t-shirts online, customer service is crucial.

Without it, you’re on borrowed time.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the importance of managing and meeting customer expectations.

Last month, I wrote about making sure employees understand those expectations, and how they can help meet them.

This month, I want to talk about the customer side of the bargain. The things that organisations need from their customers to deliver the experience they’ve committed to.


more than money

Think about the last time you bought something. It wasn’t just money that changed hands.

You were polite (hopefully). You were clear about what you wanted. Maybe you provided information – like a delivery address or sales feedback.

The fact is, there were lots of things that formed part of the transaction.

Now some of this stuff is instinctive. Consumers know they have to play their part if they want a good experience.

But sometimes they need a prompt, and you have to help customers be good customers. You have to help them to help you.

So what do customers need to do to keep their end of the bargain?

Some thoughts.


1. use services responsibly

Here’s an example. As a council, we provide a recycling service.

We ask residents to put the right materials in their recycling bins or boxes, and not to mix them up with things we can’t recycle.

When it comes to ‘bin day’, if we find things we can’t accept in recycling bins, we may have to leave them there – for the householder to deal with.

It’s a simplistic example, but the principle rings true for many supply-and-demand relationships.

People that only use a product or service for its intended purpose, tend to have a better customer experience.


2. be civil

People get frustrated. I get that. But occasionally it boils over, and every now and then, a customer can become aggressive. Even threatening.

We don’t tolerate abuse towards staff. No employer should.

But we don’t tolerate abuse of customers by employees either.

Being civil is an important part of the customer contract – from both sides of the table.


3. provide constructive feedback (so we can make it better)

The key to making a product or service better, is to understand how customers feel about it.

Now I’m the first to admit that – as a consumer – requests for feedback from product and service-providers can be annoying. If I’m not happy, I’ll let them know.

Or will I?

How many times have you bought something and – while not disappointed enough to complain – still walked away feeling less than impressed? And as a result, unlikely to buy again?

We always welcome constructive feedback on our services at Wrexham Council. And to some extent, it’s our customers’ duty to let us know when something isn’t right.

If we don’t know, how are we going to fix it?

And on the flip-side, we need to know when things are good too. Compliments are just as useful as complaints.


4. give new things a chance

Things change. The trouble is, nobody likes change – until they try it. Then they like it. And don’t want it to change.

Organisations change the way they deliver services for all kinds of reasons. New technology, market forces, the need to reduce costs, increase customers, and so on.

It doesn’t always improve the customer experience, but – quite often – it does.

And in the long-term, if customers point-blank refuse any evolution in product or service, they usually end up receiving a weaker product or service.

To some extent, customers have to be open-minded and give change a chance before making an informed judgement.


5. provide information

Like I said earlier, a transaction usually involves more than an exchange of money. It involves an exchange of information.

A lot of services we provide at Wrexham Council depend on customers giving us the information we need, when we need it and in the right format.

Providing the right information is an important part of the customer side of the deal. If you provide poor information, you’ll probably have a poor customer experience.


Of course, it’s down to product and service providers – from local councils to online t-shirt sellers – to help customers keep their side of the bargain.

If you need information, make it easy for customers to provide it.

If you don’t want them to abuse your product or service, explain what it’s intended for. Don’t just assume that people will know.

Well. I hope you’ve enjoyed my ‘customer contract’ articles, and found one or two useful ideas.

I’ll be writing about other customer-service topics later this year.

When you buy a product or service – doesn’t matter if it’s a bag of groceries or mortgage advice – you have certain expectations.

You probably expect an efficient service. And for the people you’re dealing with to be polite, helpful and knowledgeable.

You expect value for money and convenience.

There’s a caveat here. Our expectations vary depending on what we’re buying (we don’t expect the same convenience from an artisan baker as we do from a supermarket, but we probably expect more quality).

But typically, the businesses that succeed are the ones who understand what their customers expect from them – and then deliver.

Expectations of public services are no different. And if they are, they shouldn’t be.

Here at Wrexham Council, we’re undergoing a massive change. It’s full-on and fast-paced, and in the midst of everything it’s easy to forget why we’re doing it.

But we’re doing it because we’re trying to get that customer experience right.

Because if we get it right, we’ll become a more efficient and effective organisation.


setting standards

Way back in the autumn of 2013, we agreed our four ‘shape principles’ – the things that would guide us through change.

Wrexham Council's shape principles.


Our customers were right at the front of our thinking from the start. We wanted to put them first, and at the heart of everything we do.

This month we moved an important piece of the jigsaw into place.

We recently asked people what kind of customer service they wanted. On the back of that, we refreshed our customer care standards – spelling out two things in the process.

1. The kind of experience customers can expect from us.

2. The standards and behaviour we expect from our employees when dealing with customers.

Making sure colleagues understand this is really important. As employees, we all make a difference to how customers think about our organisation through the way we behave towards them.

When was the last time you looked at your organisation’s customer standards?

Do they still reflect your goals? Are they achievable? Do customers and employees know about them?

Questions worth asking.


keeping it real

So which is best…exceeding expectations, or falling short?

Neither. It’s best to meet expectations.

If you exceed expectations, your customers clearly weren’t expecting much…or didn’t know what to expect. That’s a problem.

If you fall short of expectations, well I don’t need to explain why that isn’t a good thing.

So when you spell out to customers and employees the standards your aiming for, it’s important to be realistic.

We know we can’t always give customers what they want, when they want it.

But we do know we can always be clear and polite with them, and not hide behind jargon and ‘council speak.’

So we spell that out.

And when we get it right – which we often do – our customers give us really positive feedback. Like this…

“I come in here often, and the service is always excellent.”

“Excellent response and very professional member of staff.”

“Attentive, polite and made me feel at ease. Very effective.”

“I have always had my problems sorted here.”

“Everyone very pleasant and helpful. Thanks.”


the contract

I’m really proud of the services we provide. And by relentlessly focusing on our customers, we’ll emerge as an even more effective and efficient local authority.

But it’s not all one-way traffic. We expect something from our customers too. Respect for our employees, who do a tremendous job dealing with enquiries.

So I think of it as a contract.

And as both chief executive of Wrexham Council, and a Wrexham resident who uses our services, I’ll be honouring both sides of the deal.

Like every organisation, we’re always looking at how technology can help us do our job.

How it can make us more productive.

Innovation is one of our key values (take a look at our Council Plan). So is flexibility.

And, if we use it wisely, technology can make us far more innovative and flexible in how we work. And that can make us more productive.

However, it’s easy to start thinking that productivity starts with technology. You adopt a snazzy new tool or platform, and then wait for the productivity explosion.

It doesn’t work out.

Because shiny new tools don’t make people more productive. Not by themselves.

putting a man on the moon

A colleague of mine listened to a talk by Dave Coplin of Microsoft recently. He signposted me to the footage on YouTube, and it’s really interesting.

One of the key points Mr Coplin makes is that a lot of employers miss the point in thinking productivity is driven by technology.

But it’s not. It’s driven by purpose.

He cites that famous story about former US president John F Kennedy asking a cleaner at NASA what he does. “I’m helping to put a man on the moon” he replies.

Basically, employees with purpose are productive. So the purpose needs to be there first, and then you use technology in a way that helps make that purpose more achievable.

That makes a lot of sense, and articulates something we’re trying to achieve here at Wrexham Council.

At every opportunity, we try and communicate our values and objectives to employees, and implement projects and changes that allow them to live those values.

So hopefully – over time – everyone starts to get a clear sense of where we’re trying to get to.

It’s not easy. Particularly during moments of organisational change. But there’s no doubt in my mind that productivity is driven by purpose.

the right tools?

So we’re trying to embed that sense of purpose here at Wrexham Council. But what about using technology to make that purpose more achievable?

Well. We’re making progress.

We’ve been using technology to encourage ‘agile’ working for a while now.

Employees can access emails, tools and systems remotely, or work from ‘hot-desks’ (not just in council buildings, but in some instances at partner agencies like our local hospital).

This reduces the need to travel to and from a single workplace, and helps them stay closer to the locations and customers they need to reach.

And we’ve just given all employees access to social media. A small step in the grand scale of things, but an important one for us – allowing colleagues to tap into relevant content on Twitter, YouTube and so on.

We’ve also developed a consultation tool with our partners called Your Voice Wrexham.

Not because the technology is there, but because one of our missions is to put our customers at the heart of our decision-making. That means understanding their views on key topics.

So we’ve developed Your Voice Wrexham to help us gather those views and feed them into our decision-making processes. Topics like our budget proposals for 2015-16.

Without the technology, it would be a lot more difficult to understand how customers feel.

So the key point is this.

When it comes to productivity, technology is just the oil on the gears. It’s purpose that really makes people productive.

A few months ago, I posted an article called ‘Becoming Digital.’

It got 51 shares on LinkedIn, so I’m guessing it struck a chord?

I talked about the challenges – and opportunities – that councils face in their quest to foster truly digital cultures. And I promised to keep you posted on our progress here in Wrexham.

One of the most exciting things we’ve been working on since that first article is an online customer service portal.

The portal – called My Account – will provide a personalised experience for people who want to access our services online.

We’re going for a soft launch – offering things like council tax and benefits claims – and then gradually building the range of things people can use the portal for.

It’ll look and feel like part of our website, and the technology behind it is very clever.

We’re not the first council to do this. Far from it. But it’s an important step in our digital journey.

My Account screen shot

how will it help our customers?

Simple question. Simple(ish) answer.

A lot of people expect to be able to do certain things online. A lot of people prefer to do things online.

Pay for stuff. Apply for stuff. Book stuff. And so on.

Generally speaking, doing stuff online is convenient. You can do it in on your laptop, tablet or phone in front of the TV, on the commute to work or whenever you like – just so long as you have an internet connection.

For those people, making our services available online – in a way that’s intuitive and easy – will meet their expectations.

They’ll get the convenience they want.

However, not everyone likes to do things online.

So when it comes to switching the focus to digital, a lot of organisations talk about ‘channel shift.’

They’re talking about the need to get out there and actively encourage some customers to try the digital option.

Take the Barclays ‘digital eagles’ for example.

The company wants more customers to access its services digitally – and it realises it needs to help certain groups do that. Customers who might not be comfortable using online services.

Achieving this channel-shift is probably a bigger challenge than the technology. It doesn’t happen on its own.

We’ve been running workshops at our customer contact centre to show people how to use our new system, along with other basic skills – like how to set up and manage an email account.

They’ve been really popular, and it’s great to see people lose their fear of the technology – and suddenly grasp the benefits that online services can offer.

ok…so how does it help wrexham council?

It helps us in two ways.

It’ll help us understand our customers better.

And it’ll save us money.

The cost of handling enquiries face-to-face or over the phone is – typically – far more expensive than online.

National comparisons suggest the following averages…

• Face-to-face = £8.62 per enquiry
• Telephone = £2.83 per enquiry
• Online = £0.15 per enquiry

We’ve done our sums, and we think My Account will save us £38,000 in the first year, £141,000 in the second year and £210,000 in the third year.

At a time when public sector budgets are shrinking, those savings are going to be important.

It doesn’t mean we can – or want – to do away with one-to-one interaction where its needed. Algorithms and artificial intelligence can’t solve everything.

But for services suited to the internet, encouraging customers to get online will save us money or free it up for where it’s really needed.

The other big win for us is the data.

The portal will help us understand what services different sets of customers use, when they use them, how often and so on.

That could help us manage those services, predict peaks and dips in demand, and target resources.

We’re not talking ‘big brother’ stuff. Just the kind of thing most digitally enabled service providers do – all within the bounds of data protection and with terms and conditions explained to the customer.

The data will help us deliver services better.

So come to think of it, it’s the customer who wins in the end on all counts.

That’s got to be a good thing.

What matters to me, might not matter to you. That is the starting point for my thinking.

And the things you think are important might not matter a jot to someone else.

I suppose it is stating the obvious to say that we’re all different?

Public services have to think a lot about what really matters to people. I mean what really matters. Not what people value or need or want, but what matters to them.

I am not playing with words here. I am clear that these words…need / want / matter…mean different things to me.

I suppose the challenge is…without getting into a big debate about semantics…they probably mean different things to other people too.

But I’ve been thinking about what matters to me – personally – and there are four things that stand out.

My own ‘hierarchy of matters’ (not to rival Maslow’s!).

hierarchy of matters diagram


We’re social animals – so we spend a lot of time thinking about how we interact with other people.

We want people to behave positively towards us. And – for the most part (hopefully) – we want to behave positively towards them.

Kindness. Being supportive. Being considerate. Doing the right thing.

From a small interaction with a stranger on a train, to long-term interaction with a close friend or relative. I think how we behave towards other people really matters. Behaviour underpins everything.


After behaviour, for me, comes family.

I wrestled with this one…should family comes first? But I have put behaviour first as I believe it underpins family life.

We all belong to groups. Consumer groups. Age-groups. Economic groups. Biological groups.

Sometimes, it’s circumstance that brings us together – and not much else. But shared values – and the behaviour that shows those values – are often a huge factor. We want the people we’re closest too to value the same things we do. And vice-versa.

For me, sharing the same values as my family (including the way we behave towards each other and other people) is important. It’s part of what bonds us together.

positive contribution

I always want to make a positive contribution to the wider world. That’s important to me. And I hope it’s important to my family.

Doing something that feels meaningful – that feels like it will make a positive difference to the wider world – motivates me and drives me on. From supporting a charity to leading innovative activity at work.

I think making a positive contribution drives many folk. Doesn’t it?


At the top of my ‘what matters’ hierarchy is legacy.

It’s not just the sports-people, the politicians and the celebrities that think about legacy.

A lot of people do. Maybe most people do? I know I do.

Because our legacy is the imprint we leave behind after we’ve moved on. The things we did and the difference we made – both in our careers and our personal lives – still creating ripples long after we’ve left.

And maybe we’re all becoming more legacy-conscious because of the digital trail we leave behind via social media.

How much of our day-to-day life will we record for ‘legacy’ reasons in the future? Will we become more obsessed with documenting the things we do for future generations?


So there it is. Paterson’s hierarchy of what matters: behaviour > family > contribution > legacy.

But do these things matter to you? In a moment of casual thought, I might assume they do.

Which brings me back to the point of this article. We’re all different. Different things matter to different people.

So how can we – as professionals supporting and enabling the provision of services – really get to the bottom of what matters to our customers?

We consult. We engage. We involve customers in shaping services and  provision. But we often frame our conversations with customers around specific issues and questions. And we get framed or restricted feedback in return.

How often do we simply ask: “What really matters to you?”

Not very often.

How often do we apply our own personal hierarchy of what matters to our customers, and assume that what matters to us, matters to them?

More than we dare to admit…maybe?

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