“I was scared to call you, but you calling me has taken a weight off my mind”.  

It’s not often that you get thanked in customer service for contacting people up after missed payments. But the feedback from the above customer, who had fallen behind on council tax after seeing his income drop as a result of coronavirus, shows the value of local authorities reaching out to residents during unsettling times.

He is not alone. We know that many in Adur and Worthing have experienced being furloughed, being made redundant or having to temporarily close their business. Others have had to reduce their hours in order to look after children or elderly relatives who can’t access schools or care as normal.

In part that’s because we’re seen (collectively) as “the face of government”, others feel our communications are impenetrable and, significantly, some customers fear feeling stupid, embarrassed or humiliated and worry they will be judged and/or “talked down to”.  

We know from those same in-depth customer interviews that, pre-COVID, customers wanted five things from all teams in the Councils: clarity, honesty, respect, warmth and speed.

Many teams in the Councils have demonstrated in the last few weeks just how speedily they can develop new or adapted services, and how clearly and honestly they have explained to customers what we can and cannot do to help.  

Whilst warmth and respect are less easy to measure, I wonder if customers might perceive that our collective empathy and approachability has increased too?  It’s much easier to put ourselves in customers’ shoes when the problems they’re facing are familiar to all of us. With COVID, the entire population has (rather uniquely) been handling similar issues at the same time, with everyone aware of the increased pressures placed on families and friends.

This has had an impact on how we have responded to customers.

The Councils’ Customer Service team has traditionally responded to large numbers of customer queries as they come through on the phones, email or social media.  

In the last few weeks, we’ve shifted towards increasing numbers of proactive calls to customers, particularly those who have missed council tax payments since lockdown.  

Our goal was to check that people knew about the help they were entitled to (reprofiled payments, council tax support, universal credit) and, ultimately, to check if there was anyone in severe financial difficulty that we should refer to the Councils’ Community COVID Support Service for help with food.    

As a team, we wondered how customers would respond to our direct contact and whether some customers would consider our calls unwelcome.

Our experience was just the opposite. Having worked really hard on the tone of our calls, focusing in particular on warmth and respect, the reaction was unanimously that customers felt supported. Crucially, they took it as a demonstration that “the council cares”.  

We also noticed that by talking honestly about how processes work, the gap between what people imagined could happen and what actually happens narrowed significantly. This helped reduce unnecessary stress for customers, with one remarking: “I’ve been worried that the bailiffs would be knocking on my door - I can stop now”.

This change did not happen overnight.

Our call stats for the last couple of years show that immediately after lockdown, we had the highest number of incoming calls received in that 24 month period. But from April onwards - after we changed emphasis - total calls remained high but were increasingly made up of outgoing, proactive calls.

How has this change gone down with the team?  The well-established link between customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction is borne out by our advisers’ feedback:

One team member said: “I have found it very rewarding to be involved with the proactive callouts. Most of the people I spoke with were really struggling, and so relieved and grateful for knowing that one of the issues they are trying to juggle is dealt with”.

We want this change to how we work to be something that “sticks”.  It’s proved one of those rare “win win” examples, as it’s benefited customers, colleagues and the Councils equally.  

Some of those we called were in fact able to pay their council tax and voluntarily brought their accounts up to date, generating much needed revenue for the local authority at a time when other revenue streams had dried up due to lockdown.  

But crucially, the anecdotal evidence so far indicates we are delivering for the customer, giving them certainty and peace of mind during these unprecedented times.

I’ll be looking keenly to see if this is reflected in more formal evaluation when I review how customer satisfaction rates (where measured) have been affected since March 2020.  More to follow on that!