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Avoidable contact and your call centre

3rd Nov 2008
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New government regulations demand local authorities measure the amount of avoidable contact they receive from residents. However, a significant number of local authorities reportedly still do not have a measurement system in place. What can they do about this, and how can their experiences be of value to your own call centre? Ken Reid provides some answers.

By Ken Reid, Rostrvm Solutions

When it comes to avoidable contact, we’ve all been there; we’ve rung the council because the rubbish hasn’t been collected, called the contact centre because we can’t find the information we want on the website, made our way to the bank only to find we haven’t brought the ‘correct’ ID... It is frustrating and time consuming for both parties.

However, reducing avoidable contact is not about making life ‘better’ for your customers – although that is a positive side effect – and nor is it about generating nice performance metrics. The real business value is in reducing workload for your staff.

Any contact causes workload. As simple transactions are increasingly satisfied by consumer self-service via the internet and automatic voice systems, organisations are now handling more complex queries via person-to-person contact. These require more knowledge and time to resolve, so reducing avoidable contact gives an organisation more capacity to handle the unavoidable contacts more effectively and, in turn, reduce end-to-end workload.

It makes good sense to work towards minimising the proportion of contact that is of little or no value to the customer; to ensure that time, effort – and usually money – are not wasted on these unnecessary communications. But in the case of local government ‘reducing avoidable contact’ has a more specific meaning.

Performance management framework

At the end of 2007, the UK government launched a comprehensive spending review to monitor the spending of the country’s local councils. To do this, a set of 198 national indicators were introduced which will give an overview of how money and time is being spent.

As one of the factors that will be assessed within the new performance management framework agreed between communities, local councils and the Local Government Association, National Indicator number 14 (NI14) is reduction of avoidable contact, for which local councils were required to start measuring avoidable contact from October 2008.

"We collected a significant body of anecdotal evidence that indicated many local authorities would not have systems in place to measure avoidable contact in time to meet the October 2008 target."
Ken Reid, Rostrvm Solutions


However this is clearly not as easy as it seems, as research conducted by Rostrvm earlier this year confirms. During summer 2008, Rostrvm Solutions collected a significant body of anecdotal evidence that indicated many local authorities would not have systems in place to measure avoidable contact in time to meet the October 2008 target. To gain an understanding of the reality behind the anecdotes, we carried out a survey of local authorities to establish whether there were any common factors as to why the target might not be reached.

What we found was that the anecdotal evidence was accurate; nearly one in three local authorities did not expect to be ready in time to meet the October target. While the vast majority of councils (82%) have started projects to measure avoidable contact, a third (32%) did not expect to have data collection mechanisms in place to meet the government’s October target.

The research highlighted the various problems that local authorities are facing, the most prevalent being the challenge of collecting the data required, cited by 41% of projects. Official guidance indicates that a CRM system is the simplest method of data collection, but a third of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system users (31%) said their CRM system cannot be readily adapted to measure avoidable contact.

Other problems identified by the contact centres include the ambiguity of what is required (19%), the necessity of training staff to comply (11%) and preparing the back office and service support systems to handle the extra data (10%). A further 8% would struggle due to a lack of resources and time constraints. Just 4% of the local authorities surveyed did not perceive any problems preventing them from meeting the target.

What to do

In light of these findings, a number of recommendations can be made to help organisations in getting to grips with avoidable contact.

  • The importance of clearly defining avoidable contact internally should not be underestimated and must be agreed before a strategy can be put in place.
  • To reduce avoidable contact in a sustainable way, organisations need to focus as much on the way they design our services and organise their work, both internally and with partners, as on developing the behaviours and capabilities of staff.
  • Organisations should be clearer up-front about their actual (as opposed to our notional) service standards.
  • Organisations should confirm agreed actions with a brief email or text message and contact people in advance to remind them of appointments.
  • Organisations should actively inform customers of a delay, explaining why the delay has occurring and giving a new timescale.
  • Organisations should use plain English in written communications and on the web.
  • Organisations should make people aware of what can be done electronically when they phone or visit with a specific type of enquiry.
  • To ensure that your measurement is consistent, time should be put into ensuring that it is properly communicated to staff through proper training.

But, most importantly, the starting point for the drive to reduce needless communications is to begin monitoring the necessity of your customer contact. Drilling down into our survey data, we found that whilst many councils have deployed systems, some can be problematic.

"By building a clear picture of the volume and causes of avoidable contact, an organisation can effectively address the problems."

For example, a number of local authorities run a number of mini call centres and are finding it difficult to centralise data into a single source. In other cases, CRM is only available in the contact centre, so other departments lack appropriate access to monitor the data. As such, great care must be taken to ensure that accurate measurement can be taken.

For most organisations, reducing avoidable contact makes obvious business sense and local government is taking a structured approach to improving service to manage both effort and cost. But, as with the old cliché, if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Most organisations ‘know’ that they get unnecessary contact – just ask customer service staff and they’ll provide more than a few anecdotes. But anecdotal evidence won’t give them the hard facts that they need in order to assess the extent and cost of avoidable contact and put in place a strategy to minimise it.

By building a clear picture of the volume and causes of avoidable contact, an organisation can effectively address the problems. It could be that your website doesn’t cover the information your customers need, or perhaps there are processes in place that need to be improved. Could your staff do with a training refresh? Once you have a metric to refer to, you can begin the process of improvement.

Ken Reid is marketing manager at Rostrvm Solutions.

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