Customer service in local government goes further than dealing with queries or concerns. It takes a special skillset to support an individual or a family through a crisis. Those working on the frontline of customer service in local government deal with these situations on a daily basis.
When someone is in crisis, the last thing that frontline customer service advisors (CSAs) should be thinking about is the governance that hangs over any decision they make. To hand out a crisis payment, a resident often has to provide evidence of eligibility – bank statements, benefit application numbers, proof of address etc. This sets a culture of local authorities starting with an answer of ‘no’ and it is left to the resident to prove they deserve a ‘yes’.
We’re not suggesting for one moment that there shouldn’t be governance and criteria – our experience from working in the sector has taught us that there are, unfortunately, people who abuse the system and use limited resources that are desperately needed elsewhere – but what is the cost of no?
Unsurprisingly, we categorised these as human costs (the social and emotional impact on the individual and council officer) and engine costs (the impact on process, time and financial implications).
For officers, their primary motivation is to meet the needs of their residents. However, with most councils having put strong measures in place to manage demand, officers are most likely to deliver an answer of no to residents without being empowered to be part of the decision-making. Inevitably, this leads to demotivation, dissatisfaction and frustration when dealing with residents who are in need of immediate support. These officers know the signs and are aware of repeat customers more than any other team in the council. A lack of trust and judgement placed in the frontline teams can undermine their skills, knowledge and care which is so crucial to fulfilling their role.
When individuals reach out for support, they are often at their lowest point. To be refused a payment because they can’t provide two forms of ID or have gone to the wrong office and the wrong time seems ludicrous. Even when provided with a payment, it can take time for this to be made. A delay in the payment places further pressure and need on the individual and could cause knock-on impacts to partner services and agencies; be that social care, housing, police, health or the third sector, and these services are struggling to cope. In Hackney, food bank usage increased by 54% in 2019 and in Cumbria, there have been increases of up to 38%. Growing household debt is also an issue. In their ‘Hidden Debt’ research, Citizens Advice report a 24% increase in households accessing services to deal with bailiff problems. A small intervention early on has the potential to prevent individuals from falling further into crisis.
The cost of no also has back-office implications for the local authority. Research by the Customer Service Institute(UKCSI) shows that employees spend at least two working days a month dealing with the consequences of organisations getting it wrong for customers. We estimate this to equate to no less than £120,000 of lost productivity for customer service teams in a typical-sized unitary or upper tier authority.
At least some of this failure demand is avoidable. Consider a resident who arrives at the council for help and brings identification but no proof of address. This interaction will usually result in the case not being progressed and the person not receiving the help they need, even though they might be eligible. At the very least there is likely to be duplication of contact when the resident returns with the right paperwork.
Instead, why can’t a CSA support the resident to prove their address? A council owns a plethora of information on residents, be that council tax records, housing, electoral roll or through agencies such as DWP that will have address information. This will remove duplication, create a more efficient process and increase first-point-of-contact response rates.
Moreover, empowering CSAs to make a judgement can remove process and administration in the back-office. When residents have a strong evidence base that will clearly result in a payment being made, it will usually still have to follow a standard process. Enabling officers on the frontline, who understand their customers and community, to make a decision within a framework for eligibility and deliver the payment upfront, reducing the time it takes for the payment to be made – it is a crisis payment, after all.
This is what we were able to achieve with one of our London-based clients. With a team of CSAs, our Improvement Drive project delivered change to the process, enabling officers to say yes quicker and in so doing improving the wellbeing of the resident, improving their own satisfaction and removing unnecessary process to get the crisis payment to the resident.
The power of yes, is more valuable than the cost of no. If you want to find out more about this work, the case study is available here.