Headlines: February 17th, 2011

Councils should move away from handling customer contact in specialist areas such as planning and manage it centrally as an activity in its own right. This would allow the process to be managed more effectively at a reduced cost.

The Society of IT Management in a report ‘Better served: customer access, efficiency and channel shift’ argues that councils could make major savings by fully centralising customer management to reduce avoidable contact and make ‘digital the default’.

Traditionally planning, social services and other local authority departments have managed their own customers. Despite recent moves to reap efficiencies by splitting front and back office management, tradition persists, and in many councils there is no corporate role or responsibility for customers management. Where a professional customer services activity exists, it very often covers only part of the council’s interaction with the public.

The report points out that comprehensive enquiry and service data across all services and channels is needed in order to manage customer enquiries efficiently, identify scope for improvement, and track progress. Councils cannot start on an effective programme of ‘channel shift’ until data is collected and is available for analysis. Socitm has found few councils currently able to produce comprehensive customer enquiry data.

All front office customer contact, whether face to face, by phone, through the website or other means, should be brought under central management, to enable customer contact to be run to common standards, with customer contact analysis leading to improvement and savings in the cost of delivery. The result will be better service for the customer and better value for the taxpayer.

Face- to- face contacts are the most expensive and there is a wide variation in the costs incurred. In a survey by the Society contacts varied from 0.24 face-to-face contacts per head of population to 1.76 contacts per head. With an average cost of £7.40 per contact the difference in spending is between £1.80 per head and £13 per head of population.

The report quotes savings £197.4m projected by Birmingham City Council over 10 years from its ‘Customer First’ programme and savings of £1m by Tameside MBC over the next four years from better management of the front office.