Agenda item

Customer Services Strategy


The Operational Services Lead presented the report which outlined the draft Customer Services Strategy and proposals for a number of service areas.  This would be particularly important as at present there was no overarching strategy for the Council as a whole which meant there were no consistent standards.  The council was not managing residents’ expectations, nor did it provide clarity for staff.  Members were invited to offer comments on the proposals to make some services online only and make others appointment only, whilst aiming to reduce the level of face-to-face walk in clients and increase self-service. 


Councillor Liddiard asked how many active “my account” users there were as this was important information.  The Committee was advised that currently, whilst there was information surrounding the number of accounts, it did not show how many were actively used.


Councillor Watkins raised concern firstly for those residents without online access and reminded officers that they should be considered.  He referred to section 2.6 of the report and expressed his dislike for the wording as it implied the Council did not want residents to be in contact, and also asked whether residents were ever asked why they were not using the website to identify whether it was due to lack of internet access or the website itself.  Drawing on his personal experience at work he suggested use of a live-chat system on the website and also highlighted the benefits of phone applications versus traditional webpages.


Members were assured that presently, officers carried out a range of activities to help residents get online, including assisting in the creation of their “my account”.  At present applications for benefits or to register as homeless were compulsory online forms and if residents encountered problems there was support to help them complete these forms.  The potential of mobile applications was something that would be considered and fed back as a result of the debate.  It was stressed that support was 100% available for those in need.  Officers hoped to assist vulnerable residents with face-to-face appointments but at present they were having to wait in a queue alongside other residents; it was hoped that resources would be less strained if those who were capable would use the website or the phone service.  The majority of those asked advised that they generally came into the Council Offices purely because that was the route they had always taken.


The Director of Strategy, Communication and Customer Services added that every page of the Council’s website had a “did you find what you were looking for” link to obtain comments and feedback from service users.  She agreed that the wording of section 2.6 needed to be amended but that it constituted two key points:

1.    Getting things right in the first place, for example missed bins. This should reduce the need for residents to contact the Council to complain.

2.    A current lack of clarity about standards.  At present residents were calling to chase applications if they had not received a response within a few days when the process took a minimum of 7 days.  If this was more clearly communicated it would reduce the need for service users to contact the Council to chase a response.


Councillor Liddiard noted that the issues raised by residents in his ward had shifted from largely being related to housing repairs to a wide range of social issues including debt management, mental health issues and substance abuse.  He asked whether services were being devoted proportionately and suggested making the service more user friendly with 1-click icons for areas such as housing.  He also enquired as to whether there were plans to bring the service surrounding emergency alarms for the elderly, currently located in Harty Close, in house.  As yet there were no plans to bring the Care Line in house as it was a fairly small operation that worked 24hours a day with only 2 people working at any one time, who also carried out home visits and as such it was quite a tight resource.


Councillor Liddiard wondered how residents were informed that they could attend their Community Hubs for information and assistance as there were currently a number of volunteers while only a small percentage of the population were aware the Hubs existed.  The Committee heard that it was hoped to widen that knowledge and educate residents that they need not come to the Civic Offices for every service.  Councillor Liddiard also considered that bus far into Grays could be quite costly from certain parts of the Borough and attending local Hubs could save residents money, although the libraries charged 10p per copy which seemed counterproductive as they were documents requested of residents by the Council. That cost to residents needed to be addressed.  The Operational Services Lead informed Members that the Council was looking at introducing self-scanning booths in the Community Hubs.


Councillor Liddiard also remarked that residents often complained, when using the online system, that they received no response.  He asked how officers could ensure jobs were actually being completed.  The Committee was advised that this was exactly why the Customer Service Strategy was required, whilst the Contact Centre could log a job it was necessary to ensure jobs were being completed by the relevant service areas.  Now that the Customer Services department was an in-house operation it was possible to make improvements.


Councillor Duffin supported suggestions of a live-chat system and agreed that the majority of people these days tended to use apps rather than traditional websites.  He admitted that he had been forced to use the telephone service three times due to problems with the “my account” system and that he had experience of emailing with no response, he understood why so many residents called or came into the office if they felt they were not getting anywhere.  He suggested the Council should do more with email communication, such as automated replies including timeframes for responses.


Councillor Maney added that encouraging residents to use the online system was a good idea, though certain applications required submission of documents and that was a more complicated matter.  He echoed concerns around attempting to reduce email communication, particularly if there was a need to reduce the number of residents coming to the Civic Offices for enquiries.  He asked what exercise had been carried out to give the result of 85% of residents that were happy to go online, and whether it was online in general or online with Thurrock Council.  He remarked that one of the biggest complaints about Thurrock Council was that requests seemed to go in and nothing more would be heard, which is why people tended to come into the office.


The Committee was advised that the exercise had taken place 3 years ago and as such it would be reasonable to expect that number to be higher at present, and the commitment to supporting those who need help was reiterated.


Councillor Maney asked that the proposals be amended to move away from reducing email communication and Members were assured that feedback would be taken on board.  Councillor Liddiard suggested caution as whilst email was easy to use it was also very possible that residents would not include all the information required by the Council and therefore it might be better to promote the use of “my account”.  He stated that he had seen data that suggested 85% of people had access to Wi-Fi, which was a very different matter.  There were houses within his ward that had no computer or Wi-Fi and were not aware that these were available in libraries, he stressed the importance of informing residents of resources available to them.


Councillor Watkins urged Members and Officers to remember that everyone would have a different need and that it was paramount that there was a clear and definite strategy to ensure these needs would be met.  He asked if it might be possible for an automatic system within the council to flag up if requests had not been responded to within a certain timeframe, and proposed the use of online forms with enough information for services users and to outline exactly what the Council required. 


Councillor Watkins also expressed the need to increase the Council’s social media reach to engage with residents and be easily contactable.  Councillor Duffin agreed that the Council did not utilise social media to its full potential.  He asked whether there was any way for residents on hold to be aware how long they could expect to wait before their call would be answered and echoed Councillor Watkins’ call for a  system to ensure response deadlines were met and requests were not missed and that interactions did not reach the complaint stage.  The Operational Services Lead outlined that a Customer Charter was to be set which would give very clear timescales for transactions.  The Director of Strategy, Communication and Customer Services highlighted that there was currently a consistency issue; once the process left the Contact Centre it fell to the individual departments and some areas had flag systems whilst others did not, the process and standards needed to be constant.


The Committee began to discuss options for Social Media but it was agreed that it would be more practical to discuss at the next meeting when a report on Communications would be presented.


Councillor Liddiard asked whether the Council used exercises such as mystery shoppers to assess the quality of Customer Service.  The Committee heard that Customers were invited to participate in a Customer Satisfaction Survey at the end of their call and the Contact Centre service had been independently audited, so there were mechanisms in place.  Councillor Liddiard added that the issue did not lie with the Contact Centre but calls put through to the back office.  This had been noted and there were plans to undergo a telephony review.


Councillor Liddiard also noted that homelessness was a major issue within the borough and there needed to be a strategy in place to help with access, though he was unsure whether it could be dealt with from a Customer Service view.  The Corporate Director of Adults, Housing and Health agreed that customer access needed to be reviewed as presently there was a compulsory online form which was not the most suitable method.


Councillor Watkins asked whether calls were recorded for training purposes, though he was aware that telephone recording was an expensive service.  The Committee heard that there was set call quality criteria and all Contact Centre calls were recorded and spot-checked.


The Chair referred to p9 of the Customer Service Strategy and highlighted that, although the document read “We must start our journey with a clear definition of Customer Services” none was given.  Members were advised that it was about understand who the Council’s customers were, that customers included both residents and businesses and anyone who entered the Civic Offices; it was agreed that there should be a line detailing that information.  The Chair reminded the Committee that whilst the Council should be professional and business like, it was not a business and the thought of removing reception services made him uneasy, as did the thought of removing staff to be replaced by volunteers.  Online services and applications were pointless if there was not sufficient staff on the receiving end.


He also highlighted that recommendation 1.3 concerned the savings proposals listed in paragraph 4.2of the report, but it gave no details of savings proposals.  The Committee heard that the proposal referred to resource savings and staff reduction, along with held vacancies, however Members agreed that without full details they could not pass comment.




1)    The Committee commented on the draft Customer Services Strategy at Appendix 1.


2)    The Committed commented on the proposals for the service areas set out in Appendix 2.


3)    The Committee felt they could not comment on the savings proposals for customer services as set out at paragraph 4.2 as there was insufficient information provided.


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