Berkshire council adopts a system that integrates web chat, phone calls, SMS messaging and social media

Before East London’s Tech City came along, the capital of the UK’s IT industry was arguably Reading and its environs. Early IT giants such as ICL (now Fujitsu) and Digital (now defunct) set up offices there and today the region is home to the UK offshoots of US technology giants including Microsoft, Cisco and Oracle.

This means the area has an unusually tech-savvy population, says Sarah Bowers, head of customer services at nearby Wokingham Borough Council. “Our borough has one of the highest levels of computer literacy in the UK, and we’ve got some of the highest levels of smartphone ownership,” she explains.

When the borough council set up a new ‘front-line’ customer services division, Wokingham Direct, in 2009, it sought communications channels that would suit that demographic, Bowers says.

To communicate online and in real time, it selected LiveOps, a hosted web chat service from the US company of the same name. LiveOps allows visitors to the borough’s website to get in touch with a customer service representative at the click of a button.

But while it was originally selected for web chat, Wokingham Borough Council has since used LiveOps to integrate numerous communication channels. It quickly became clear that it could be used for other channels as well, creating a single record of communications with each citizen.

“Within a month, we moved all of our email communication onto the LiveOps platform,” Bowers says. It also introduced template emails that can be used to respond to resident enquiries automatically.

The council later added SMS messaging to its customer support function, again through LiveOps. This allows it to send pre-emptive messages to residents, reducing the call load at the data centre.

“A lot of council communication is avoidable contact, because it’s people chasing progress or ringing up after they hear something on the news,” Bowers explains. “We wanted to be able to tell people about things before they happened, so that they wouldn’t be phoning or emailing us.”

The combination of these pre-emptive text messages and the email templates has helped Wokingham Borough Council to cut the average email reply time by 70% – from ten working days to three.

Social integration

The LiveOps system compiles a profile for each customer, linking their phone calls, emails, texts and, more recently, Twitter messages to the council. The integration of Twitter allows it to handle customer complaints, which often now originate on the micro-blogging service.

Bowers remembers one Wokingham tenant who had started complaining about the council on Twitter, but refused to engage with customer service agents on the social network. “We were able to lead him offline, firstly onto SMS and then onto the telephone, then arrange a meeting so he could come in and meet a tenant representative and sort everything out,” Bowers says.

The council is now working on integrating Facebook with LiveOps as well, bringing the number of communication channels up to five.

As a measure of the success of the LiveOps implementation, Wokingham Direct has been able to take customer support for more divisions of the council without having to increase its staffing level.

“We took on customer services for council tax and benefits, and adult social care, with no additional staff,” says Bowers.