Features: April 30th, 2013

How should public sector organisations approach channel shift to ensure they deliver significant, ongoing efficiency gains and public benefits?  Brett Husbands shows how to gently convert people to using online channels in real time to achieve true service transformation. 

For many local government organisations, there is a gap between aspiration and reality when it comes to realising their channel shift programmes.  They can see their ultimate goal of a self-service model for public interactions, and many organisations have already made headway in this by offering a select number of services online.  But how should they extend these initial footings to build a solid foundation for pervasive online interaction?

Simply offering online engagement to supplement telephone or face-to-face contact channels isn’t the ultimate objective.  While this may realise some financial savings, it also runs the risk of simply offering another point of contact to the organisation, rather than delivering genuine ongoing benefits from transforming services.  

The real value in channel shift comes from driving from long-term behavioural change:  making the channel shift persistent, so that people want to continue using online services after their initial experience, and will actively prefer to use them whenever they interact with the organisation.

Doing it for themselves

The starting point for this is building an understanding with the public that transacting online is quicker, more responsive and more convenient than using the organisation’s contact centre or ‘one stop shop’ in-person facilities.  In turn, this means making access to those online services as easy as possible.  A number of leading councils are approaching this by grouping their most commonly requested online services into self-service portals, which enables the public to see and explore the full range of self-service possibilities for themselves.

It’s important to note that this self-service portal approach is far more than just the online equivalent of the one stop shop.  When underpinned with solutions that provide a simple, accessible user interface for accessing services, that link to the organisation’s diverse back-office systems, and offer a single repository for customer records, it provides the basis for behavioural change that leads to true channel shift.

For example, a user’s initial experience of online services may be with simple transactions such as a bulky item collection, requesting a recycling box, or reporting a highways problem.  These transactions can be done easily, for example using an e-form within the self-service portal, without the user needing to register and create an account.

However, by encouraging and reminding users to create accounts, the council can highlight the benefits of doing so – such as autocompleting personal information on applications, easy tracking of the status of current and previous transactions, and so on.  This makes subsequent use of online services simpler and quicker, creating a virtuous circle that drives further uptake and channel shift.

Shifting in real time

The self-service portal approach, supported by a single customer record and seamless integration between the user interface and back-office systems, is also the stepping stone to another key stage in true service transformation.  This is iterative channel shift, in which people using either call centre or in-person services can receive initial assistance via those channels, and be guided towards online self-service options.  In effect, gently encouraging people online, even while they are using other access channels.

This helps drive channel shift in two ways.  First, if an individual contacts the call centre or one-stop-shop with a request or transaction that is also available online, staff can assist the individual by advising them of the availability of the self-service portal, and even offering to set basic account details for them, that they can complete later for themselves.  As service staff should be able to use the same forms and databases as members of the public, they can guide individuals towards using online service, helping to free resources on conventional contact channels as much as possible.

Secondly, it can also drive real-time channel shift.  For example, an individual may start to self-serve via the portal, then find they have a query, or need advice in completing their application or transaction.  Once this query is handled by another channel, such as the organisation’s call centre, the individual can then be prompted to continue and complete the self-service process themselves online.  Enabling individuals to easily access support while self-serving builds confidence in online transactions, boosts take-up and drives down avoidable contact through other channels.

The benefits of this approach have already been demonstrated in several of the UK councils that Firmstep is working with.  One Greater London council’s self-service portal gives easy, intuitive access to over 30 online services.  In less than a year, it has moved 18% of transactions from its call centre to online, giving an estimated saving of around £40,000 per year – a figure that is still growing.   A council in the North of England had 1.5% of households create self-service accounts within a month of its portal going live, without any publicity.

So the public appetite for self-service is apparent.  And to help councils quickly adopt best practices in driving channel shift, we are sharing examples from our experiences across the UK that can be quickly adopted with minimal effort, on our customer experience platform.   Using the platform, authorities can identify applications that are already solving common challenges and benefiting their peers.

By taking an iterative approach to deploying services online, that uses subtle encouragement to reinforce the move from conventional access to online channels, councils can build firm, resilient foundations for their channel shift programmes.

Brett Husbands is CEO of Firmstep www.firmstep.com