Call centres in local authorities are in danger of falling well below standard or even failing, according to a new report, writes Robert Dunt. The research, conducted by the Foundation for Information Technology in Local Government (Fitlog), revealed that 75% of daily enquiries to local authorities come via the phone.
But the report shows that typically 25% of calls or more are lost. In some cases, the figure can be much higher.
In December 1998, research by the Association of London Government found that almost one in two Londoners had problems getting their council on the phone.
Prime Minister Tony Blair may have recently been criticised for including telephones in his raft of new government targets on e-commerce for 2005 - due to the fact that by including phones, targets become more achievable - but the report shows that even when telephones are involved there is no guarantee of a smooth ride.
However, despite the growth of the Internet, the research claims that the phone will remain most people's favourite method of getting in touch with their council.
According to the report, entitled Making Contact - Developing Successful Call Centres in Local Government, the solutions for call centres lie not just in changing the call handling methods but in revolutionising the way the whole local authority works.
"Call centres aren't a technological fix," said Fitlog's chairman Chris Hurford. "What is clear is that they require a real commitment from everyone in the authority, including councillors and senior officers."
The report's author, Fitlog's David Hunter, agreed. He said a group of people at the front-end making contact easier and being pleasant to customers is not enough. The whole delivery process needs to be changed.
"If you order housing repairs but the people don't turn up or they do a bad job then it's not really much of an improvement. It really is a matter of thinking about the process," said Hunter.
One aspect of this problem the report examines is the need for a good check on "hands-off" areas - points where call staff have to transfer an enquiry to another part of the authority or organisation and where service breakdowns often occur.
The report claims that problems could be reduced not only by establishing a set of guidelines, but by developing a general knowledge in the authority of priorities and ensuring there are enough staff to handle queries when they arrive.
Other suggestions for improving efficiency included having more specialised staff in the call centres who would be able to answer complicated questions straight away.
However, the report warns that if call centre practice is not reviewed nor oriented towards customers then call centres could become a barrier to the public.
Hunter added that where call centres were falling below expectation it was often not the fault of the call centre itself.
Copies of the report Making Contact - Developing Successful Call Centres in Local Government can be ordered from www.fitlog.com
Technologies that the report suggests call centre advisers need to improve efficiency:
Managing call traffic
Dealing with calls