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HMRC tackles engagement and customer-based design

18th Oct 2010
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Jane Frost is on the front line of dealing with customers of HMRC – which essentially means just about every one of us in some guise or another. In this interview, she explains how the HMRC approaches customer engagement, and where customer-based design comes into this.

It's a boast that many public sector professionals will be hoping to emulate over the next few years. "The directorate I run has paid for itself every year in the past three years," says Jane Front, director of the Individuals Customer Directorate at HMRC.

Frost is the woman on the front line of dealing with customers of HMRC – which essentially means just about every one of us in some guise or another. It's clearly a massive challenge, made manifest by some of the appalling PR surrounding HMRC in recent months.

"A lot of dealing with customers is plain old common sense," insists Frost. "At the BBC [where Frost used to work] the problem I had was that the BBC wanted to talk about pages of technical terms whereas customers just wanted to turn on the lights. When we think about customer support, we tend to think of a wonderful linear progression of things, all very logical. Unfortunately it doesn't work that way. We get disconnect between what we need customers to do and what they will do. So we get delivery gap between what we need it do and what customers will do."

Mistakes get made, Frost admits, citing the example of how HMRC has to support the activities of the court service. "It took us six months to convince officials that they were dealing with the wrong information," she explains. "They needed jurors who could sit for 6 weeks with full attention. They needed to know where parking was because they needed to get kids to granny for the day, they needed to know they were getting expenses and so on. While these questions were unresolved, jurors weren't paying full attention. We could prove the difference in attention rates between those who had been told what they wanted to know rather than what we wanted them to know."

It's not just in HMRC that decisions are based on false premises. "At the BBC they need to create value for female audiences. More women than men pay the licence fee, but the BBC had problems getting women to accept the licence fee is value for money. A scheduling director was talking to me about 'mums and what they do'. He was thinking of the poor stupid woman staying at home who had nothing better to do with her time.

"The BBC was scheduling 'reward programming' around the school run time. Then they'd move children's programming around. Now the last thing you need is to have to search for kids programmes. This was all wrong. I asked the scheduler what he called his 'mum'. He said 'mummy' which said it all. He thinks of his mother as mummy, but thick people have mums."

Customer perception

How you perceive your customers clearly has an impact. "At HMRC we talked about a 'head of duty'. So child benefit was a head of duty, not something that we owed to people," says Frost. "If you think in terms of what you owe people, then you are going to treat them differently."

HMRC hasn't necessarily treated everyone as an individual in the past. "That leads you to treat customers as compliant or non-compliant, good or bad," notes Frost. "In the bad sector, we have people who are in error or who can't cope or are fraudulent. In the good sector are the people who we didn't notice, but who were costing us a lot of money. We gave them the same treatment – the same treatment for people in error as those in fraud."

There was a need for a new approach to customer segmentation. "Are people motivated to the right thing? Are they capable of doing it?" says Frost. "People who mostly know what they need to do don't bother with our high cost adverts. So we can the cost out the willing and put the money into the 'needs help' section of the customers. Those are people with low confidence, who find the complexity of our systems difficult so they need policy simplification. There are four million people a year with ability problems."

Customer engagement is also about being able to address changing circumstances. "Take Joyce," says Frost of another illustrative example. "She's in retirement. Her husband has died so she has to deal with inheritance tax. We had 40 touchpoints just to deal with her journey. This is a lady in trauma so the last thing she's interested in is getting her tax right, but we treat her as those she is."

This is where customer-based design comes in. "We need intelligent forms," says Frost. "It's not about redesigning a website. A form that is 10 questions long will have a base error of at least 25%. Adult literacy and numeracy levels are lower than most people think. In HMRC we try to design for a literacy level of 9 and a numeracy rate of 7. If you can't read or write on paper, then you can't online so we try to pre-populate forms."

Such intelligent forms should not be created by the wrong people, she cautions. "I don't like IT people to design things for customers because IT people are intelligent people who can read and write well, whereas a lot of customers just go to pieces when they read forms," says Frost. "We use a mix of customer research, psychologists and so on. There's a lot of stuff out there on how to use forms and a lot you can learn from the ad industry in terms of design."

Some unexpected lessons have been learned. "Sending out guidance notes doesn't work," says Frost. "We redesigned our notes and did a control test with them. You get almost no error rates if you send out no guidance. It's like me helping my child to do homework and getting worse marks than him. I was over-thinking and looking at why the questions were asked; he was just answering the questions."

At the end of the day, it's all about common sense, emphasises Frost and there's one simple question to be asked: "Can people get it right first time? If they can’t, you will be reprocessing, and that is just costing you money."

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