Customer access – Does New Normal imply an increasingly Digital approach?

The Covid19 crisis meant that we had to distance ourselves from each other and find new ways to communicate. This meant that contact centres closed, staff worked from home, customers accessed services on-line and face to face contact was avoided wherever possible.

The question is whether this has established a permanent way of working or simply given us a glimpse of a New Normal. There was already a move to more on-line access for customers. Many would say not nearly fast enough. The crisis has at least proved that it is possible to use Teams, Zoom, Skype (and other on-line tools) to socially interact, even though significant refinement is needed. Is this the opportunity to rethink customer access and what does New Normal really look like?

What will change and how will customers access services?

1. Customer expectations

Customers lost access to contact centres and simply had to find another way of accessing services. On-line was the principal method where the Digital offering was adequate, but phone access was still possible. Having switched, there is every likelihood that customers will only access this way. Local authorities will likely move quickly to consolidate this position and withdraw non-Digital options, e.g. the acceptance of cash payments.

2. Staff expectations

Equally, staff may have resisted the notion that they could work remotely. Working from home can have its drawbacks but it is now at least proven to be a viable option if not all day every day. What it has done is open the possibility of more flexible hours of access and the opportunity for hybrid options. It certainly means that some face to face contact centres will be closed.

3. Digital face to face

Working from home can offer real work/life balance benefits. Being remote and agile could work for staff, but equally could work for customers who could get Digital face to face time but without having to leave home. This may give staff the opportunity to engage at a more personal level with customers likely to be more comfortable sharing issues when not in a public place and without strangers listening in. It could also work in some social care cases where home visits can be done using a digital application. It’s unlikely that this would completely replace traditional face to face where there is an indication of risk and vulnerability. However, it could go some way to help alleviate the pressures from high caseloads.

4. Flexible workforce

As staff have been redeployed into call centres to meet short term peaks in demand, it has been demonstrated that staff can be trained quickly to deal with a wide range of service issues. This could lead to more services being pushed to the front line with a flexible workforce deployed to deal with the demand. This can be offset with an increased move to Digital self-serve, but only if the technology and processes are in place to fully automate customer journeys and processes. The net effect will be a more integrated offer, being met more often at first point of contact, through a single front door, with more straightforward demand being met on-line.

5. Vulnerability

While it has been shown that Digital access can help with demand it is not the whole answer. Shutting the contact centres did mean that council workers needed to find ways to seek out the most vulnerable members of the community to ensure they were protected. The creation of community hubs and the need to bring rough sleepers into sheltered accommodation meant that council officers needed the means to find and make contact with the vulnerable. Achieving this illustrates that outreach services for the vulnerable – potentially in conjunction with the community is a valuable access tool in the armoury.

6. Community front doors

The community has demonstrated that it can self-mobilise to identify citizens in need of help and to deliver that help using pop-up networks and infrastructure. This was far from perfect, but it may well be that by enabling the community there will be a series of community front doors created that can provide access to services and address demand before it comes anywhere near the council. This creates the opportunity to concentrate resources on dealing with more complex cases that need more specialist and integrated support.

The challenge

Councils have demonstrated that they can provide customer access in very different ways. There are twin challenges. Firstly, building on the principles of remote working, flexible roles and involvement of the community to shape a very different access model. Secondly, refining the ways of working established in the crisis so that they become a sustainable and a robust part of the New Normal.