Customer Service and Digitalisation…. Back to the Future

Every Council’s digital agenda needs to be a corporate priority for Mayor’s and GM’s alike. Will Taylor discusses the issue in the context of emerging technologies which can give a modern day take on good old-fashioned personalized customer service.

Back in the day, my Grandma used to pop down to the corner shop every Saturday morning. She knew the staff and they knew her – ‘Your weekly cut of brisket beef Mrs T…oh and we have those pork sausages in that I know your kids like’. A glimpse of yesteryear? For sure. However, with digitalisation, a modern take on ‘old school’ personal service is very much making a comeback.

Every day, increasing numbers of Australians are choosing to interact with all levels of government and private businesses on their mobiles, tablets and computers rather than face-to-face or over the phone. The explosion of new digital technology – social media, mobile/smart technology, big data, cloud computing and, more recently, advanced automated intelligence – has altered irredeemably the way people communicate, make friends, buy things, exchange information and use data. There is therefore a customer driven transformation taking place. It’s radical, digitally located and transformational for organizations and those who they serve.

Today, customers are driving the process of interaction using websites, blogs, vlogs and social platforms. Just as in my Grandma’s day, customer requirements and preferences can once again be remembered and prompted, but this time it’s less about human interaction at the corner shop, and more about being digitally driven. For example, if I’m booking a hotel with my regular provider Expedia, they know my normal pattern – a good 3 star for business and a ‘cheapo’ bargain 5 star for a holiday splurge. Travel sites also can store and meet in advance my preferences for non-smoking rooms, with or without breakfast and balconies with stunning sea views. Importantly, these sites already have all my personal details digitally stored saving me the hassle of inputting the data every time I want to travel.

From a local government perspective, going digital offers many opportunities to reshape service delivery within our sector in favor of customer preference and with the added bonus of achieving this at much lower cost. It’s clear that across the Australian public sector that much progress has already been made with Councils having digital strategies in place and thus broadening access, system functionality and information to their citizens.

Despite the progress to date, new channels and technologies continually open up fresh opportunities for Councils. Opportunities to build an ongoing dialogue with citizens, local businesses and visitors alike. Opportunities to learn from customers and to increase the relevance of and access to public services. The digital era ushers in a golden opportunity for Councils to create and foster enduring relationships with their citizens.

Well-rounded Council digital strategies often include the following objectives:

  • improved customer access and service delivery – by improving online services via digital solutions such as online self-service portals (where citizens can do everything from pay their bills to report faulty street lights), to collaboration and community engagement activities;
  • act smarter – by applying emerging technologies to business processes to transform the way our sector does its business, for example through using smart meters, asset management tracking and smart lighting technologies;
  • encourage innovative community dialogue – via working with communities to develop platforms and systems that better allow Councils to engage with their citizens (such as ‘community hubs’ and ‘social listening’);
  • increase online transactions – this effectively gives 24/7 access to Council services with all the benefits, convenience and improved access that goes with it, using automated intelligence to provide basic decision-making online, and back-up telephone-based support providing round the clock service with minimal staff intervention;
  • business analytics – applying advanced business analytics (the practice of iterative, methodological exploration of all data stored) and real time information on the go, to improve operations and productivity, increase service efficiency and reduce costs.

To deliver on these opportunities, digital thinking needs to be fully embedded in the council’s broader business change agenda. Adopting a digital approach is not a ‘techy thing’, to be left to the gals and guys in the IT division. Rather this is one of the most important challenges facing Mayors and Management teams alike. Digital thinking introduces a whole new corporate paradigm, and one which sees emerging technologies meshing with cultural and organizational transformation, embracing innovation, technology and change management in equal measures across the entire council. Looked at it in this way, we could conclude that Councils don’t so much require a digital strategy, more that they need a business strategy fit for a digital era.

The digital agenda therefore needs to be at the heart of Council wide strategies and the programs for change contained therein. Delivering large scale transformation requires strategic vision and leadership, along with a willingness to take risks and experiment. But as the challenges of digitally empowered citizens rise, and need to reduce operating costs increases, the digital challenge is an agenda that local government cannot afford to ignore.

Will Taylor is a freelance writer, consultant and public speaker. He is a former HR Director, Council CEO and Management Consultant, with extensive public, private and voluntary sector experience in the UK and Australia. He can be contacted via: