Features: September 24th, 2004

Meeting the Challenge of Customer Focus

 Moving from a provider driven structure with departments working in silos to a customer focused organisation providing a joined up service is a major challenge. This level of transformation means re-thinking how to meet customer need and re-engineering processes so that the wealth of the organization’s knowledge is brought to the fingertips of the customer advisors. Luton Borough Council set out on the transformation process by setting up a Customer Service Centre which combines a centralised one-stop shop and a call centre.

Luton is a culturally diverse town, boasting a variety of leisure and entertainment facilities and a resident population of 1,860,000. Luton Borough Council has a clear vision for where it wants to be in seven years, working in partnership with the community and many organisations to achieve challenging goals in education, health and social care, crime, environment, transport and traffic, leisure and economic regeneration. Transforming access and customer service delivery are a central theme by embracing the e-Government agenda and providing high quality and efficient “one-stop” joined-up service over the phone and face-to-face and engaging with customers through the Web, offering information, communication and transactions.

The £2million customer service and call centre project was partly funded by the Government’s IEG (Implementing Electronic Government) grants and Neighbourhood Renewal Fund and partly from the Council’s own resources.


In 2001, a Best Value review highlighted customer confusion and frustration. Many of the 27 different service departments across the Council offered customer service and face-to-face facilities and LBC published over 300 numbers in the telephone directory. There were nine different customer reception points within the town centre.

Commenting on how the Council could effectively meet its business targets, Stephen Heappey, Head of Customer Services, Luton Borough Council, said:

“Putting all of the review information into the melting pot, we realised it was not simple incremental improvements we needed but step change transformation. The only way we could sensibly afford to do this was by centralising front-line service and investing in enabling tools and new ways of working.”

LBC decided on a purpose-built, face-to-face customer service facility to be located centrally in the Town Hall and a corporate infrastructure model to integrate all of its disparate systems and services. The service shop proved the most expensive part of the project, as the Town Hall is a listed building, which impacted building changes.

Heappey continues, “The whole thrust of what we are doing with this project is to deliver the wealth of Council knowledge to the fingertips of our advisors for more effective, centralised, customer service delivery.”

The transformation task

As part of the change, the Council needed to transform its end-to-end processing, taking out unnecessary costs from the back office, to help fund investment in the customer-facing front office. The Council wanted to place the customer at the heart of everything they do and required a comprehensive document and contact management solution to seamlessly join the disparate systems and to electronically store and trace information. Comino, a leading supplier of E-Government solutions, was chosen as the Council’s technology partner.

The Comino solution is enabling LBC to record customer contact in one place and replace current paper-based systems to improve monitoring, maintenance and service delivery. The system provides a full audit trail to track information, which will allow staff to view, share and update documents more easily. Document imaging replaces time-consuming photocopying, whilst workflow processes and routes documents, files and tasks to allocated staff and can set alerts and reminders for easy management and process control.

Effective face-to-face customer service

Together, LBC and Comino developed an intelligent face-to-face queue management system. At the service centre reception, the customer and their query are registered on the system. If they have any documentation it is scanned in, so from the outset it is held electronically, rather than pushing around pieces of paper. The Comino system knows which advisors are logged in at which counter position. When an advisor becomes available with the skills necessary to answer the customer query, the details appear on their screen. The customer is called by name and there is even a message displayed on a plasma screen informing the customer which advisor to visit.

Heappey enthuses, “This means that the system is clever enough to match the customers query with the skills that are available and then route the customer and their documentation to that agent. Customers love it. It really suits our new environment, is extremely efficient and looks very sexy!”

Responding to customer need

The new Customer Service Centre is located in Luton Town Hall, making it easily accessible and bringing the building back to the people of Luton. Heappey explains, “This is first time we have ever opened a purpose built face-to-face customer service facility. Adopting this type of working is certainly a culture change. We have broken the traditional Council mould of being separated from customers to a very welcoming, open and professional environment, which is much more pleasant. We offer easy access to all over extended hours and now want to roll this out across our services, extend those hours and take it ever more local to our customers.”

Tangible benefits

The Council understood that in planning a call centre and service shop, a critical part is knowing how many people you need at any time to deal with the customers you expect to call or come in. Very much part of that equation is the length of each transaction, call and visit.

Having researched the Council’s and other Local Authority’s manual systems, a target was set of an average call duration of three minutes. Heappey explains, “Comino really got under the skin of what we were trying to do. They worked closely alongside us to deliver a solution that met our core requirements, including developing additional functionality where required. Now we have an exceptional product that enables us to meet and beat our targets. We are delighted that we have managed to do what seemed impossible a year ago.”

In the call centre, LBC now answers an average of 800-900 calls each day, at peak it can be over 1,200 calls. This is more than double that of the old manual world, where a busy tone was given to more than half of all the calls made across the year. Also, as LBC brings in more services, the 300 telephone numbers originally listed in the telephone directory will be consolidated much closer to one.

Face-to-face in the Customer Service Centre, LBC now deals with about 400 customers per day, almost half of which need to sit down with an officer for advice. In late 2002-early 2003, the average wait was 29 minutes. In February 2004, in the new service shop, the average wait is 11 minutes.

Heappey comments, “We are moving to a position where there is no busy tone and our next aim is to answer all calls within 15 seconds. Since we opened the centre, we have delighted more than 5,000 customers who needed the full face-to-face service. This is an absolute step change for us.”

Resource Improvement

By centralising the face-to-face service, LBC has also benefited from a concentration of skills within the Council. Heappey explains, “Approximately 30 per cent of Luton’s population is ethnic and, although most do speak English, far more routinely now we are able to talk in local languages when people come into the service shop.”

An important part of moving to the Comino technology was to ensure LBC made significant savings in the back office to support more front line investment. In the revenues service, for example, LBC believes savings will be around £200,000 per year mainly from improved efficiency and space utilisation, with less space required to keep the acres of paper files and better call centre design. LBC has also introduced ‘hot-desking’ so that there is more flexibility to move advisors between the call centre and the service shop, wherever demand is greater.

“We have been able to move from the Council’s traditional 9-5 working hours to 8-6 Monday to Friday. Later in the year we will be looking to open later and possibly at weekends,” comments Heappey. “We have had really positive feedback from our visitors so far. The Town Hall is at street level, making it much more welcoming and encouraging to wheelchairs and pushchairs.”

The Future

The LBC future involves rolling out the Comino solution corporately and developing one view of the customer for all Council officers for a truly joined-up way of working.

Heappey concludes, “The infrastructure we are developing fast, which includes Comino at its core, is helping us transform service delivery and internal efficiency and achieve the E-Government agenda. It will give us the basis for our customers to access us via the web or through other channels, such as mobile phones, television, smart cards, or however they want to do it.

“We believe that very soon we will prove the model and be able to cost effectively bring our face-to-face service ever more local. For example, we could have smaller service shops out in libraries or local community centres. The future is really going to see things becoming ever more local but seamlessly joined-up.”