Birmingham City Council Contact Center Puts People First

25 November 2010 — From early next year, Birmingham’s one million residents will be able to call a single telephone number to pay their council tax, request housing repairs, report anti-social behaviour or access a whole host of other council services. It is the culmination of an ambitious customer service project begun by Birmingham city council in 2006 to “take the confusion out of local government” for its residents.

The aim of Birmingham’s Customer First programme is to put the city’s residents, businesses and visitors at the heart of everything it does. The city council has committed to providing customers with access to “world-class services” how, when and where they want them. It has done this by transforming a fragmented customer service system into a streamlined and centralised service. Telephone enquiries are now channeled through a new central “corporate contact center”, while a revamped corporate website offers a 24-hour, “self-service” facility for customers to access services.

Since the first phase of the programme went live in December 2009, 40% to 50% of inquiries are being resolved immediately over the telephone. Most of the customers who still need an appointment at one of Birmingham’s 32 neighbourhood offices are offered one within six days and 65% are given their first choice of location. The application process for benefit payments has reduced from 24 days to an average of just three.

Visitors to the council’s website immediately see a front page inviting them to click to “Click online anytime” to pay, report, apply or book. The most popular services are council tax payment, large item collections and leisure card enquiries. The site attracted 22,000 requests for services in the first three months of operation, and 3,000 people have opened accounts to enable them to raise and track any queries they make.

Dawn Flook, programme delivery manager for Customer First and head of customer service delivery at Birmingham, explains that historically, customers’ access to the city’s 1,700 service activities had been thwarted by disconnected access points and limited self-service capability.

“Prior to the launch of Customer First, customer satisfaction and customer service delivery performance were inconsistent and insufficient in some areas,” says Flook. “Around 22% of telephone calls were abandoned as they were spread across the city throughout the service areas. There was also a corporate customer satisfaction rating of 59%, whereas our target is 85%.”

As one of the largest local authorities in the country, Birmingham is home to 408,000 households and 46,000 businesses, and welcomes 40 million visitors a year. Customer First, delivered by Birmingham and Service Birmingham, a joint venture with Capita, cost £33.8m last year. It includes a new corporate contact center – at two sites for disaster recovery purposes – with 542 customer service staff and management. IT systems have been built and processes redesigned across the council. More than 520 customer-facing staff have been trained in customer service skills and 1,292 on new systems. Callers to the contact center can conduct their enquiry in their language of choice via the council’s Big Word translation service.

During the next two months, Customer First will go live across other services, such as highways, environmental health, commercial waste, sports and leisure and the corporate switchboard. A single telephone number for all enquiries “will open up access to services for our customers even more”, says Flook.

Customer First has attracted attention from local authorities in Northern Ireland, South Africa and China. Flook says the programme – which Birmingham hopes will deliver savings of £197.4m over 10 years – has embedded change rather than just scratching the surface of service improvement. “In some areas, true performance was not really known,” she explains. “Now, we are able to gather powerful management information that not only highlights the performance of the initial customer contact, but is also making the service delivery within the service areas more visible, which will enable us to look for further improvement.”

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