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Public sector organisations are responsible for dealing with a host of sensitive topics when it comes to customer service. From questions about housing benefits, to health concerns and childcare costs, organisations such as councils, hospitals and social services handle personal and private queries on a daily basis.

However, when it comes to the customer actually speaking about these issues, many are uncomfortable vocalising them to a customer service representative over the phone, with most customers embarrassed or hesitant to go into detail. If public service providers are to truly help those dealing with sensitive and personal issues, they need to offer more than a phone number and a long wait time.

Dealing with sensitive issues

Improving the customer experience has long been a priority for the private sector, with consumer brands investing in the creation of positive customer journeys to keep customers loyal and happy. And while the end goal may be different in the public sector – improving the customer experience is less about engendering loyalty and more about solving the problem at the other end of the phone in an efficient and swift manner – it certainly helps to build trust with users of the service. In fact, McKinsey found that customers were 9 times more likely to trust the agency providing them with a service if they had a better overall customer experience.

This need for trust and, more importantly, efficiency is especially apparent when people contact their local authorities with near-critical issues. From health emergencies to housing problems to money concerns, customers may be contacting their GP, social housing association or HMRC with issues that can severely impact their life. With many people feeling hesitant and reluctant to discuss such sensitive issues over the phone, there may be a delay in seeking an answer (adding to an already pressurised situation), and even if they do find the confidence to pick up the phone, the infamous long wait times of the public sector can lead to more stress and anxiety for callers.

Offering a true omnichannel experience

To resolve these issues, the public sector needs to provide alternative methods of communication. Furthermore, in today’s world of smartphones and social media – there are an estimated 51.8 million smartphone users in the UK – it’s crucial that the public sector expands its customer service reach and offers a true omnichannel experience, allowing people to discuss their needs and concerns on a variety of platforms.

Whilst elderly customers may still prefer to speak to a human agent over the phone, younger or more technologically savvy customers will prefer – and expect – to be able to speak to someone via email, an online chatbot, or contact the organisation through social media channels. This is even more crucial considering 76% of millennials are afraid of speaking over the phone. Having a variety of contact options allows customers of all ages and abilities to find a frictionless and speedy resolution to their concern in a way that best suits them, and helps the public sector to be more cognisant of its customers’ needs.

The future of public sector rests with technology

It is essential to have the appropriate technology in place to achieve these goals, but the public sector has a way to go here. In 2018, it was estimated that HMRC took 43 million calls, 4 million of which went unanswered. In today’s world of instant answers, this type of customer service should be completely avoidable, with a myriad of new solutions available to cater to every contact centre need.

Live chat functionality delivered through chatbots, for example, is fast becoming the tool of choice for both customers and organisations. Indeed, Gartner estimates that 25% of customer service operations will use a virtual assistant in 2020, and Salesforce found that a chatbot was the preferred method of quick communication for 69% of consumers.

Furthermore, chatbots can be trained to identify sensitive language and respond accordingly – for example, if a customer sends a message saying they need to update their council tax or council housing details because someone has passed away, the chatbot will be able to respond with empathy. Using Intent Analytics, these finely-tuned chatbots will recognise a customer’s distress, replying ‘I’m sorry to hear that’ and will also know when to pass the customer on to a human agent responding ‘I recognise that you might need help. Let me transfer you to an agent.’ This is an essential tool for public services, especially those dealing with sensitive issues and customers who are wary about speaking over the phone.

Self-service technology should also be a priority for public services looking to more adeptly satiate customer needs. From phone apps to automated messages to contact through social media channels, self-service technology allows customers to more readily complete tasks without having to wait on the phone. Some public sector organisations in the UK are already bolstering their self-service efforts – the NHS, for example, recently, launched a self-service login toolkit which will help patients more easily access their information through a single login button. The Government Digital Services’ GOV.UK Notify is also being used by over 1,500 public services, from the DVLA to local councils, allowing service teams to more efficiently send out notifications to customers about their hospital appointment for example, in a safe and secure manner. There is still much more to be done, however, and by introducing such tools and technology, public sector organisations are not only improving customer service efficiencies but are also giving people more choice when it matters most to them.

Benefits all round

Having different avenues and methods for customers to get in touch with their doctor, emergency services or the passport office, not only satisfies the need of smartphone-wielding younger generations to be able to message a chatbot or email an agent rather than wait on the phone, but it will also make the lives of those agents who are on the other side of the call, that much easier. By alleviating some of their workloads and having automated tools take on the simple tasks – such as updating billing details – agents will have time to spend with callers who really do need to speak to them about a serious or personal issue. These agents are trained to be able to deal with these types of calls, and by giving them the means to do so will reflect positively on their performance and the customer service they offer.

In today’s mobile-first world, it is crucial that public sector contact centres are operating across various platforms. It is no longer enough to offer customers a helpline number and have agents answering calls one after the other. This is neither time-efficient nor cost-effective for the public sector, and neither does it go very far in helping those calling with sensitive and personal subject matters resolve their issues. It’s time that the public sector looks to expand its customer reach and ensure that anyone, anytime, anywhere, knows they can find a helping hand.

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Published in Open Access Government, 10th February 2020.