Guest Blog: Providing excellent customer service in the public sector

by Andrew Clough

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 21 November 2019

A front-row seat

Having worked in the public sector for 25 years, I’ve got a front row seat to the huge challenges facing the public sector at the moment. My current role sees me working with UK Government organisations to support their business goals by streamlining the customer experience and using ERP tools. So what’s changed to cause these recent challenges? In my view, the huge increase in people using social media. 

Microsoft, where I work, has 3.2 billion active social media followers. Just think of the scale of that number! Social media is everywhere. It’s what most people do as soon as they wake up – check their phones, check social media. I very much doubt they’re checking the HMRC website, or the Birmingham city council website, or the Met Office website! That’s where I come in.

Challenges facing the public sector

That’s one of the big challenges facing the public sector. Citizens are used to using social media for everything, from make-up purchases to wedding inspiration and customer service complaints. They naturally expect to be able to communicate with government organisations using the same channels, but these brands have their own unique constraints that make them challenging to engage with. 

Budget limitations

Due to the nature of public sector organisations, budget constraints are a huge issue. And, of course, commercial success is not a priority. They’re trying to provide a service to the citizens of the country so they have to choose different language and tone to commercial brands and measure impact in other ways.

Lack of predictability

The public sector also has to deal with all sorts of unknown issues that may suddenly arise. It could be a flood, a national threat, or a dispute within the local community. Whereas commercial brands just have business objectives to focus on, the public sector operates in a space where everything could be disrupted from one day to the next. This makes it very difficult to prepare for what might happen, and allocate resources accordingly.

Catering to all citizens

A further challenge is that the public sector’s customers are basically…all citizens! Government organisations need to cater to people spanning all demographics, from all backgrounds. A great example is the Met Office, who understandably focus heavily on their digital offering, but also need to cater to those few hundred people who telephone the service for a weather forecast. Yes, there are really people who do that! Brands within the public sector don’t have the luxury of focusing on a specific demographic, and tailoring their language and channel used to that group of people. They need to be everywhere, and for everyone.

Customer experience within the public sector

So whilst many people could cite their favourite brand, very few people have a “favourite public sector brand”. Perhaps because the likes of HMRC, Met Office, NHS, just aren’t that cool or aspirational. Who gets excited about calling HMRC? Generally, you only make contact with these government organisations when you need something, and quite possibly you’re also in the middle of a crisis. The emotion that’s driving your contact is likely to be negative, so it’s difficult for brands in the public sector to embrace digital channels in a positive way. 

And government organisations go against the grain when it comes to the instantaneous customer service we expect nowadays. If your train is late, you tweet Virgin Trains. If your internet is down, you call BT. You expect a response within a couple of hours. What do you do if you need to renew a license with the DVLA? You’re unlikely to receive a response within a couple of hours. And if you forget your HMRC password? It’s inappropriate for this communication to happen publicly, so the result is a contact centre whose sole purpose is to help taxpayers reset their passwords. Delighting those customers will always be a challenge. And engaging those call centre operators will be even more so. 

Really, even the concept of a public sector “customer” is problematic. They are more citizens than customers. But some government organisations, and in my experience particularly universities, are really starting to embrace the concept of students as “customers”. They’re investing in mobile tech and apps, as well as creating a coherent brand. Because brand-building is becoming more important than ever within the public sector. As is creating a single customer view across all touchpoints, which at present is next to impossible due to the myriad of systems that needed to be matched up.

Is AI the answer?

The good news is that I’ve observed real strides forward in the pursuit of capturing a single customer view in the public sector. And we’ve got Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to thank for that. RPA is automatic software and robots that essentially fill in forms, so a real person is saved the job. It’s budget-friendly, and cost-efficient. It’s a huge step forward. The public sector has a hard time operating in this digital world, so let’s see where technology is able to take us.

Andrew Clough

As Director Public Sector Business Applications at Microsoft, Andrew brings over 20 years of Public Sector experience within all areas including Central Government, Local Authority, Health, Police and Education.

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