Kirsty Elderton joined FutureGov 6 months ago, having been Assistant Director for Customer Service and Organisational Development at Barnet Council where she managed the front line customer service operation and did large transformation projects to improve how the council served its customers.
Not long after starting work for FutureGov I took part in an online discussion about customer service in the public sector. Having been on maternity break for a couple of years I thought it would be good opportunity to see how the conversation about customer service had moved on. It felt to me like a lot had happened during my time away and I was sure customers’ needs and expectations would have changed, that technology would be offering something new and interesting and within this there would be some new challenges for organisations.
A few minutes into the discussion it was clear, nothing much had changed. It was the same “experts” talking about the same things: Does the public service really have customers? Has anyone got examples of how customer insight has made a real difference? How can we take a corporate approach to customer service? And the list goes on. Big sigh.
What a relief, then, to get to work on a customer service project for Thames Valley Housing, who have a genuine desire to do things differently, so they can deliver something really relevant for their customers in the form of fantastic online customer service.
There are a few things that made their approach different:
Not being the experts
TVH were refreshingly honest about not being the experts in people’s lives. By commissioning FutureGov as an objective third party they were about to learn about why customers currently interacted with them in a particular way, what they would like more of and ideas for the future website.
It’s unusual for organisations to engage in a genuine very broad and deep, conversation with customers that could go in any direction. It’s risky because the organisation has to take a stance of humility and not expert, but the more humility you show the richer the experience.
Knowing it’s really about behaviour change
While TVH had no firm ideas about what the website should do or even what it should look like, they were very clear about the end game. They want their website to be so good it convinces customers to want to do more online.
But they recognise that they need to get it right to create a groundswell of support so people adapt to a new relationship with TVH. The challenge for many is how to focus on doing the right thing, rather than being pressured into doing just anything.
Be brave and challenging and genuinely do things with customers
It would have been quicker and safer for TVH to simply look at the range of data they hold about their customers, how they currently interact and make some assumptions about what a new web service should look like. But those data sets (while a useful guide) in no way represent the complexity of people, their lives and in particular what triggers a change.
By engaging with customers in real conversation, and in this case filming it so we could play it back to TVH, we got to show what customers really want, and start the process of connecting ideas with possible solutions. Because we had no assumptions or expectations throughout the process, TVH’s customers have developed a specification that is much bolder than expected.
The big takeaway…
We don’t often associate humility, doing what’s right, letting go of control, real conversations, being authentic with how organisations behave towards customers today. In our conversations with TVH’s customers I was reminded how much people resonated with these things, how it made them feel more valued and how much more they would be willing to challenge themselves and contribute as a result of experiencing it.
I wonder how much an organisation could improve by simply having different conversations with their customers?