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A blueprint for contact centre excellence

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17th Nov 2008
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In 2001, a dedicated central point of contact for all Derbyshire's council activities was launched. Seven years on, Call Derbyshire has become a model of customer excellence. Verity Gough speaks to its architect, head of public affairs Chris Hartley, to find out how exactly it has managed to achieve such rapid success.

By Verity Gough, staff writer

Call Derbyshire is a flagship for the county council. Set up as a single point of contact for the smaller borough councils, the call centre ensures residents no longer have to navigate around such a large organisation. Ironically, however, the process of simplifying its services actually created a lot of internal complexity.

Before the project could even get of the ground, it required internal buy-in across the many council departments and a great deal of advocacy to shift the high volume of traffic into one location. “While we had some early adopters of the scheme, there were others who were more reserved and wanted to wait and see how things went,” says Chris Hartley, Call Derbyshire’s head of public affairs.

"In the early days, because of the complexity, some of the social care staff were quite sceptical as to whether we could actually achieve this through a contact centre. Now they are amongst our greatest advocates."

Chris Hartley, head of public affairs, Call Derbyshire

Given such a large task, Hartley and his team initially considered outsourcing the centre but quickly discounted this option, preferring to utilise the local knowledge of existing staff. “We felt we needed that element of local knowledge for it to have an appeal and resonance for the people who were going to use it,” he says.

Once all the departments were on board, the next challenge was integrating the myriad of IT systems each operated, which Hartley admits was tough. “As a big authority, we have all sorts of IT systems to deal with and we have a fairly sophisticated scripting system,” he explains. “The redesign works like a flow chart so, dependent on the answers given when someone calls, the customer care assistants can see routes to take or actions needed. The system also flags up if something should be dealt with as an emergency.”

Specialist training

Much of Call Derbyshire’s success has been due to a 60% extension of the centre’s contact hours, which includes evenings (until 8pm) and Saturdays, as well the creation of an out-of-hours service dealing with emergency calls on behalf of the social care department.

Yet it’s the creation of the highly-trained and knowledgeable team of customer care assistants that has really been the jewel in the crown for Hartley. “We started off with six members of staff dealing with the switchboard but when we took the function into Call Derbyshire, we appointed another 12 internal staff,” he explains. “We felt that because they already had to get to grips with the new idea of a contact centre, telephony work and the customer care software, perhaps it would be a bridge too far to bring in external people who knew absolutely nothing about the council and its services.”

"It is very much a flagship service for the council: we get many visits particularly those in the early stages of developing contact centres, and some more mature ones who are looking for new ideas."

Chris Hartley, head of public affairs, Call Derbyshire

Hartley’s prudence paid off and the insider knowledge of the staff helped the service to hit the ground running. Now the centre occupies its own premises, employs 66 fully-trained call centre staff and deals with over one million transactions a year.

It also runs an in-house staff training programme dealing with generic customer care and contact centre skills as well as field the social care department’s out-of-hours emergency calls, which can often include more specific, sensitive issues.

“In the early days, because of the complexity of the department, some of the social care staff were quite sceptical as to whether we could actually achieve [the same level of service] through a contact centre. Now, they are amongst some of our greatest advocates,” says Hartley.

“When we first began training staff, we had social care floor walkers who were there to assist, answer enquiries and fill in any gaps in training. Now, we continue to work very closely with the children, younger adults and older adults departments to develop deeper training, as well as ensuring there is a person from the social care department based in the centre who can act as a liaison between them.”

Diversifying

The success of Call Derbyshire has also spawned other communication methods, which has helped widen the authority’s reach. An increasingly popular means of contact is though the dedicated website. This has been particularly useful for allowing quick and easy access to council services for those with less pressing issues such as straightforward literature requests, freeing up customer care assistants to deal with other issues.

"As we take on more and more we have to be very careful not to be a hostage to our own success."

Chris Hartley, head of public affairs, Call Derbyshire

The site also provides an opportunity for users to react to a service they have just experienced, providing Hartley with valuable feedback to ensure the service maintains quality and consistency.

In fact, all of Call Derbyshire’s achievements in public sector customer excellence has seen it become a blueprint for other local authorities who have implemented similar centres. “It is very much a flagship service for the council,” enthuses Hartley. “We get many visits, particularly from those councils in the early stages of developing contact centres but also some of the more mature ones who are looking for new ideas. Bringing in the social care work element has also interested a lot of other authorities."

However, Hartley is quick to emphasise that there is no room for complacency: “As we take on more and more, we have to be very careful not to be a hostage to our own success,” he says. “We are looking at further development and we continually test to see that we are maintaining the standards expected of us.”

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