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Council contact centres were integrating legacy technology to enable better customer relationship management for many years...

Council contact centres were integrating legacy technology to enable better customer relationship management for many years before the e-government agenda came along. Lindsay Clark talks to those councils with a head start.

information about a school, they might also want to know why the rubbish bins have not been emptied, or need information on a planning application.

"Councils have to change processes to focus on the customer - not just to act as functional silos that the organisation works within. They cannot do it without a customer relationship culture with technology support, given the complexity of the problem of managing people holistically," he says.

Knowsley had a head start in developing contact centres through a European Development Agency grant for regeneration. The initial investment in contact centres gave the public access to different council services from a single site, but staff did not have such an integrated view, says Rod Matthews, director of Knowsley's e-council programme.

"It is a terribly complex process that relies on the judgement and skills of contact centre officers," he says. "In the early days there was a whole range of screens to toggle through to access different systems.

"One thing we found is that the packages we used for particular services were not developed for enquiries but were more suited to detailed and high volume work. This created a massive overhead in training and trying to retain those skills."

By 1998 the council had started to introduce local people to the electronic delivery of services by installing PCs in libraries and schools.

Now the council has developed a customer relationship management system that all contact centre staff use to integrate and track interaction with members of the public and manage resulting actions using a workflow system.

But being a trail-blazing council has its disadvantages, Matthews says. "The document management system is now integrated with the CRM system, but this is something that we had to break ground on. To get it up and running we had to define and design the interface ourselves."

Having all the information on a single CRM system has reduced the amount of training the contact centre staff required. Also, because the CRM system requires mandatory fields to be filled in and prompts for additional information, more enquiries are dealt with first time, which reduces follow-up calls, Matthews says.

This in turn has liberated more time for frontline staff to make better use of their specialist skills. "If you speak to a customer service officer, they want to get it right first time and respond to the customer across all our services. Professional officers are very happy to relinquish handling forms. They can have more detailed, interactive roles in a particular service."

Lynne Phillips, public service access manager, strategic development at Sheffield City Council, says the city's contact centres have achieved similar results. "What it has enabled service professionals to do is focus on core activities. At the point of contact service professionals can devote all their time to delivering the service, not getting the information," she says.

Sheffield launched its contact centre, called First Point, in 2001. Although it does not offer a full CRM system, it is a start to providing a public service in a way most people find coherent, Phillips says.

"It is really about increasing the visibility of the council within the community and providing a recognisable access point," she says. "It is a single gateway to the service. There has to be an overall coherence - we cannot expect people to understand the set-up of our organisation. With all the different locations and arrangements, how can we possibly expect people to navigate it?"

Now the council has dealt with more than one million enquiries with a high customer satisfaction rating at its First Point contact centre, its next aim is to move to a fully integrated CRM system, but not before carefully reviewing and, if necessary re-engineering, particular processes to make it work, Phillips says.

Such an approach is the crux of developing successful customer contact centres, Riding says. To make it work, there has to be co-operation from council service departments. "There has got to be the will there," he says. "It has got to be user-driven rather than technology-driven, and it has got to have executive sponsorship."

This is because integrating information from particular stores or silos not only involves the technical challenge of merging data standards and protocols, but the data protection of individuals must be handled in the same way - something that can require detailed discussion between professional groups. An IT-based project cannot hope to drive this level of change, Riding says. "The major issues are cultural." With Tony Blair's e-government targets rushing closer, the customer-centric approach to public service the government is encouraging may seem like a very 21st century idea. In fact, multi-service council contact centres first started popping up more than 10 years ago, long before the e-government agenda was born.

Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council opened its first "one-stop-shop" for council services in April 1994 in Halewood, with the aim of giving people access to a range of council services at a single, convenient location, in this case the Raven Court shopping centre.

Because a customer-centric approach has been part of the e-government implementation plans that councils must submit to Whitehall for the past three years, all councils have had to come to terms with the considerable challenges involved. To give local residents access to services, either at one-stop-shops or call centres, has meant that councils must reverse years of entrenched working cultures and integrate technology that was never designed for this purpose.

Tony Riding, principal associate with Socitm Insight, the public sector research and best practice group, says councils can run up to 20 different businesses. "They are all dramatically different, but when someone wants information about a school, they might also want to know why the rubbish bins have not been emptied, or need information on a planning application.

"Councils have to change processes to focus on the customer - not just to act as functional silos that the organisation works within. They cannot do it without a customer relationship culture with technology support, given the complexity of the problem of managing people holistically," he says.

Knowsley had a head start in developing contact centres through a European Development Agency grant for regeneration. The initial investment in contact centres gave the public access to different council services from a single site, but staff did not have such an integrated view, says Rod Matthews, director of Knowsley's e-council programme.

"It is a terribly complex process that relies on the judgement and skills of contact centre officers," he says. "In the early days there was a whole range of screens to toggle through to access different systems.

"One thing we found is that the packages we used for particular services were not developed for enquiries but were more suited to detailed and high volume work. This created a massive overhead in training and trying to retain those skills."

By 1998 the council had started to introduce local people to the electronic delivery of services by installing PCs in libraries and schools.

Now the council has developed a customer relationship management system that all contact centre staff use to integrate and track interaction with members of the public and manage resulting actions using a workflow system.

But being a trail-blazing council has its disadvantages, Matthews says. "The document management system is now integrated with the CRM system, but this is something that we had to break ground on. To get it up and running we had to define and design the interface ourselves."

Having all the information on a single CRM system has reduced the amount of training the contact centre staff required. Also, because the CRM system requires mandatory fields to be filled in and prompts for additional information, more enquiries are dealt with first time, which reduces follow-up calls, Matthews says.

This in turn has liberated more time for frontline staff to make better use of their specialist skills. "If you speak to a customer service officer, they want to get it right first time and respond to the customer across all our services. Professional officers are very happy to relinquish handling forms. They can have more detailed, interactive roles in a particular service.

Lynne Phillips, public service access manager, strategic development at Sheffield City Council, says the city's contact centres have achieved similar results. "What it has enabled service professionals to do is focus on core activities. At the point of contact service professionals can devote all their time to delivering the service, not getting the information," she says.

Sheffield launched its contact centre, called First Point, in 2001. Although it does not offer a full CRM system, it is a start to providing a public service in a way most people find coherent, Phillips says.

"It is really about increasing the visibility of the council within the community and providing a recognisable access point," she says. "It is a single gateway to the service. There has to be an overall coherence - we cannot expect people to understand the set-up of our organisation. With all the different locations and arrangements, how can we possibly expect people to navigate it?"

Now the council has dealt with more than one million enquiries with a high customer satisfaction rating at its First Point contact centre, its next aim is to move to a fully integrated CRM system, but not before carefully reviewing and, if necessary re-engineering, particular processes to make it work, Phillips says.

Such an approach is the crux of developing successful customer contact centres, Riding says. To make it work, there has to be co-operation from council service departments. "There has got to be the will there," he says. "It has got to be user-driven rather than technology-driven, and it has got to have executive sponsorship."

This is because integrating information from particular stores or silos not only involves the technical challenge of merging data standards and protocols, but the data protection of individuals must be handled in the same way - something that can require detailed discussion between professional groups. An IT-based project cannot hope to drive this level of change, Riding says. "The major issues are cultural."

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