Contact centres: the heart of healthcare?

It’s clear that all public sector services are going to need further and deeper plans to drive efficiency, delivering more with less. In this new world, technology appears again and again in transformation plans and budgets, but technology alone doesn’t drive down costs.  
As David McElhinney, acting chief executive of Liverpool Council, said at our Public Sector seminar in Liverpool last year, just buying new laptops never saved a penny, but getting people to work differently transforms service. Transformation requires putting the customer at the heart of how things work. The experience of our members – especially in the public sector – is that a contact centre which channels and manages customer enquiries can be a real catalyst for genuinely doing more with less in the organisation.

Pioneering projects
Sometimes this starts with changes to everyday working practices. NHS Business Authority were finalists in our 2011 Customer Contact Innovation Awards – for inspiring work in organising telephone contact. In just three months MyTime – a self-scheduling workforce management system – introduced flexibility, following full union consultation, saving £150,00 in just one year in a small workforce – and helping cut cost per call by ten per cent.  
What’s significant, is that a small office-based unit has demonstrated how to achieve radical changes in working practices, with the full engagement of the unions, because it is customer focused. As Paul Fitzsimons, UNISON branch chair explains: “There was a clear business need, what we needed to do was to communicate that to staff in a very clear way and together phase in the new way of working.”  
Equally vital was the work behind the scenes that created alternative working practices that offered genuine advantages to staff who gave up traditional flexitime arrangements.  “Knowing our audience has been key to getting them on board,” explains Richard Abdy, forecasting planning and MI manager. We used a lot of the things people liked about flexi time and built that into the new system.”  
The new approach was also designed to support the flexibility needed for the business to move forward – for example the more multi-skilled you are, the more opportunities there will be for you to get the shifts you want. What Richard found is that success depended on piecing together the scheduling jigsaw – there was a far better way of doing it if you could take a fresh look that started with the customer’s needs.

Sharing best practice
Like other public sector managers, healthcare managers need to get clever about how to work differently and perhaps the key to this lies in looking for success elsewhere. With this in mind, I want to share four further success stories from local government, which demonstrate the scale of impact that can be achieved when there is a vision and commitment, together with the skills and resources to make change happen. All of them are putting the customer at the heart of the decision – with a focus on simplicity and process re-design.
One service at Liverpool that’s made a dramatic difference is the ground breaking Careline service, which uniquely offers full 24/7 social care support by telephone for vulnerable children, adults and families throughout Liverpool. Highly skilled call-handlers now assess all new cases in this extremely sensitive area of work, supported 24-hours by trained social workers within the team. Costs are down 23 per cent, with 20 per cent more calls answered and fewer cases passed to area social work teams – and employee survey scores for communication are up 26 per cent.
Social care is a brave area for innovation in the public sector; with high risks and huge consequences if the wrong judgements are made. Louise Gray, director of public access services, explains that although they are handling calls, Careline is not a typical call centre. “We define ourselves as a social care centre. We have been praised for the sensitivity of our advisors.” Experienced social workers sit alongside highly trained advisors as part of a single operation; they jointly mange the risk and referrals.  
Dave Spender is one of the social work team leaders: “Culturally, it’s like a different social work office,” he says. While social workers bring their experience and people-focus, Careline was also able to build on the wider infrastructure for handling calls and process improvement that already existed in Liverpool Direct Ltd. Furthermore, now the concept has been proven successfully, the service is being offered to other authorities looking to achieve a similar transformation.
At Wokingham Borough Council, Suzan Law, chief executive, has set out a different kind of approach: “We invested in prevention and greater depth of service; the building block in our transformation programme.” Smart working was introduced, using flexible hours and home-based agents, with the aim of making council-wide savings of £1million. Breaking down silos has delivered budget savings of £100k, cut e-mail response time from ten days to one day, and reduced abandonment rates from 40 per cent to under five per cent.   
Sarah Barrow manages Wokingham Direct – the council’s contact centre service – and has invested significantly in technology such as cloud computing, webchat and SMS to make contact quick, cheap and easy for customers.  “Integrated service technology has got to a state where we are confident it will give customers a better experience.” Furthermore, both website and the communications team now come under the same management as the contact centre, making it a way to move fast and develop an integrated communications plan.  

A model contact centre
Another authority famous for transforming customer service is Surrey County Council, commended at the European Call Centre Awards. They developed a new model contact centre which has become a diagnostic tool for the whole council – to successfully streamline process, halve complaints, and raise colleague satisfaction to 72 per cent – all while saving £400,000 for the tax payer. As Simon Pollock, head of customer service explains: “The contact centre has become a barometer of the council’s performance.”  
Working with customers, frontline staff and other departments, the council drove improvement projects that have reduced the number of calls coming in by 11.5 per cent. The Customer Service Investigation (CSI) team dig behind passive as well as active customer feedback and help design new solutions.  
The Catapult team – a group of frontline advisors – gather ideas from council staff or customers and meet monthly to discuss how to implement them. Thanks to a holistic channel strategy and setting up a web service team within the contact centre, problems are identified as soon as they occur and cost per contact has been reduced by 28 per cent.

A different approach

The housing department at Portsmouth City Council provides a valuable example of a different kind of approach which is even less reliant on technology. Here we can discover what happens when an organisation changes the thinking that drives service design and delivery. Portsmouth transformed the housing service and halved the cost of repair, by applying Vanguard’s Systems Thinking methods and uncovering what creates true customer satisfaction. As Owen Buckwell, head of housing, explains: “It’s not about economies of scale, it’s about economies of flow.” Managers need to start looking at different metrics – and gearing their working polices and practices towards a different – customer focussed – purpose.
Now, repairs are provided at the specific time/day requested by tenants – 75 per cent within 48 hours – and completed to a high standard on the first visit. Most managers would argue that it couldn’t be done or would be massively expensive. In fact, focus on people and value, rather than cost and process, has cost less – with £2m annual savings, fewer properties left empty and double the grounds maintenance at no cost. “The real change is that I don’t get any letters about housing,” comments Councillor Steve Wylie, who’s city centre ward includes many council tenants. “Residents now have the attitude that the work will get done.”
Getting people to change the way they work plainly delivers more with less – if it’s focused on what the customer needs, employees are fully engaged and good planning creates a framework for improvement. Many of these success stories have indeed involved technology, but contact centres are often at the heart of it. It starts with the customer, to make their lives simpler.
Copyright Professional Planning Forum 2011

The case studies referenced in this article are all published in the Planning Forum’s Best Practice Guide for 2010 or 2011. E-mail for your copy or download individual case studies from the public sector pages at .
Tel: 020 8993 1129

Six top tips for better customer contact:

    •    Start with the customers – does it make their life simpler?
    •    Change the thinking in your own organisation
    •    Engage your front-line teams so that they feel listened to
    •    Good planning creates a framework for engagement and continuous improvement.  
    •    Measure the impact – and check you are delivering what you plan
    •    Learn from others; there is such a lot of good practice out there already