Customer Service and Engagement – are they aligned?

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I’ve read two kind of related blog posts this week and they got me thinking about the current culture in Local Government and the approach by many councils on customer service  and engagement.

From what I hear from other councils, progress is being made on rationalising services and centralising common functions to enable cost reduction and in the harsh reality we face redundancies. Now I’m not suggesting this is the wrong approach but I do wonder what the intended outcomes are for all of these councils.

I’m going to acknowledge up front that the scale of public sector cuts and the speed in which these are happening are also causing me a slight concern, not because I think they are wrong but because of the potential for decision makers to make knee jerk reactions to situations without really thinking or considering the longer term outcomes that the local government sector in particular has a role in.

Lets get to the blog posts, the first post Via CapGemini:  What can we learn from small businesses about social media and customer engagement? made me think about the skills and approaches required to do customer service effectively. This then made me think that is “good” customer service really something that the public sector ought to think about right now in the context of huge cost reduction and job redundancies…It took me a few minutes, to argue with myself and accept that Customer Service is essential and a fundamental aspect of delivering and contributing to cost reductions in the medium to long-term. I don’t believe we have a short-term approach available in this area. My view is that if you haven’t started a customer service programme of any kind then it is likely to be about 2 years before you start seeing any return on investment.

Coming back to the issue of rationalising and centralising functions etc…This can and does work, but I think it needs to be approached in a way that de-couples the layers of those functions so that only the relevant parts and the appropriate processes are actually rationalised and centralised.

For me Customer Service is not a process that can really be centralised or rationalised, it need to be main-streamed and embedded in the core culture of an organisation in order to really support success  – in local gov terms this really means cost reductions – and the following extract from the blog post sort of highlights my thinking.

There’s a counter that many people from our offices get their lunch from that also draws in a long line of people from the local area. Like most business districts the block is crammed with competition, all essentially selling the same product at the same price. And yet this little spot, tucked away on a side street, is always consistently busier than the competition. So what’s driving people to make the extra effort to reach this small corner of the city to buy highly commoditised products; sandwiches and coffee?

The business is run by just two people, one front of house and one in the kitchen. For the front of house they apply three key principles to engaging with customers;

  1. Know who I am; know my name and what I like / don’t like.
  2. Respond appropriately; consider my current mood. Am I looking for a quick purchase, do I have time to explore new products, do I have time to engage in a more lengthy conversation.
  3. Make me feel valued; make me feel like a valued customer and reward me for my loyalty (but make this sincere by building it over time so I feel like I’ve earned it).

SO the scale of operation is very different from local government – But let me explain my thinking….Local Government is being pushed to become even more local and connect with people and to ensure service users and wider citizens are involved in service design and decision-making, but how can this level of connection and relationship exist or even emerge unless we start to build relationships in new ways and understand what people really need.

The 3 principles are very relevant to Local Government Channel Management Strategies:

1) Know who I am – This is supported through approaches to Customer Relationship Management but also and probably increasingly through local engagement activities whether online or offline…We have already created relationships in many different contexts, but have perhaps not connected up the relevant information.

2) Respond appropriately – Ensure that the channel is able to meet a variety of user scenarios…quick reporting of a problem, to a slightly more complex application process…Whatever the channel it needs to respond, signpost and direct people through an appropriate and efficient process to meet their request.

3) Make me feel valued – I simply see this as acknowledging someone in a community has something to say and contribute to the design of services, we need to reach out to these people (offline and online) and ensure that their views are recognised and valued alongside others.

The second post again from the CapGemini blog : Are you willing to crowdsource your customer support to a p2p community? got me thinking about how customer service agendas need to be more aligned with our underlying democracy and engagement agendas.

When I read about engagement strategies, approaches and frameworks I always read about connecting with existing communities to ensure a long-lasting connection and relationship or if one doesn’t exist work on nurturing a community over time.

Now I am more than happy with this and it makes so much sense  – however have we in local government or central government connected this engagement agenda and the focus on connecting with existing communities with the customer service agenda and in some ways the Big Society agenda.

The following extract might help explain my thinking a bit more:

The advantages of integrating customer support communities into your customer service strategy include:

  • Increased credibility: Studies show that 44% of consumers trust people that are just like them (Edelman Trust Barometer 2010), and 74% of consumer purchasing decisions are affected by key influencers on social networking sites. Gartner shows that customers value advice of other customers more than that of a company’s employees. Real customers providing a service to other customers improves the credibility of information.
  • Expert Knowledge: Users with a strong interest in the product often have profound product knowledge and can provide detailed answers to even complicated issues. Especially with highly technical products these experts are closer to other customers than contact center employees because they face the same challenges in using the product. Dell’s IdeaStormcommunity, for example, addresses its customer’s expert knowledge and creative power by providing a platform for new ideas and suggestions around its products.
  • Lower cost to serve: Enabling customers to help other customers can also reduce the volume of direct customer contacts, thus reducing contact center resources. The transfer of customer service to online communities ensures 24/7 support which would create high cost to service when provided by conventional channels. Linksys by Cisco Systems for example stopped its email support one year after its community launched. Since then peer-to-peer support has replaced a large number of customer contacts (Forrester May 2010).

When I first read this part of the blog post, I wasn’t sure whether they were really talking about customer service or engagement or both and I’d missed the connection between them?

Anyway, I had started to think that the 3 main areas are also linked to the cost reduction agenda and whilst I am not advocating we make even more people redundant, one could argue that in time if our engagement strategies are successful, then we could look to create “community based” helpdesk and service support groups from within the community itself and support the over-arching customer service agenda.

After all this thinking I asked myself – are Customer Service and Engagement Agendas aligned and should they be to maximise the opportunities to government and communities?

This is merely a collection of thoughts at the moment and it likely to be some way off into the future before the levels of maturity around engagement reach a stage where government can have meaningful conversations about taking over some support and assisted self-service functions.

Sometimes I wonder whether I think too much 🙂

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7 thoughts on “Customer Service and Engagement – are they aligned?

  1. A mixture of the two really. Strategy forms the basis – but it is further grown (organically) by the staff on the front line. The customer experience will therefore vary from location to location. Does that make sense?

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