Making Customer Headway in Medway

Customer Service
Customer Service

The British city of Medway is rather unique. Located in north Kent in southeast England and formally established in 1998, the city is an amalgamation of five towns-Rochester, Strood, Chatham, Gillingham, and Rainham-whose governing council serves about 250,000 residents.

But centralizing its government wasn't the only challenge faced when the five towns merged. Medway Council quickly recognized the need for integrated customer service as well, and opened a centralized contact center in 2005 under the aegis Customer First. The center is now the first point of contact-by phone, email, the Web, and in-person visits -for an increasing range of council inquiries that includes, according to Martin Garlick, Customer First head, "everything from social care and benefits for low-income groups to 'My [trash] bin hasn't been emptied.'

The real challenge during the integration, which took three years, according to Garlick, came from the different cultural aspects and processes and systems infrastructures in place. "It was bringing together a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces were never designed to fit in the first place," he says.

Moving from a variety of technologies and processes to one streamlined system-the Onyx OneServe 5.0-was key, Garlick says, both for contact center agents and for customers. Still, the cultural change wasn't as dramatic as it might have been otherwise, "as all of our employees had experience working with customers, and recognized the whole 'Customer First' approach." Still, he adds, there was an amount of retraining to be done as employees were weaned from other systems towards Onyx OneServe. "It was mostly unlearning old habits," he says. "For a function where you used to press this button, you now have to press that button."

The center's 70 full-time employees usually handle between 5,000 to 7,000 contacts per day, across all platforms-an increase of about 20 percent over the past year.

And while Customer First has been recognized via the Charter Mark, the national government's award for excellence in customer service, Garlick says, "the real measure of success is our customer feedback." As a result, Customer First regularly surveys customers both before their initial contact with the center and to ask about their confidence in making a second contact; those overall satisfaction ratings are in the 75 to 95 percent range, he says.

The Customer First website will be the focus for the next several months. "Unless your website works at 100 percent efficiency for an individual during his first visit, chances are you've lost them for the future," Garlick says. He cites an example of how housing benefits inquiries can take visitors to several different landing pages, depending on the routes taken by customers. "Different pathways do not all lead to the same core pages," he says, "and we have to address that."

Terminologies are also inconsistent: "Housing Benefits" can also be found under "Benefits" and "Rent Allowance." "They're all similar things," Garlick says, "but from a customer perspective it's not helpful."

Making such improvements to the website is also part of an overall strategy to encourage customers toward a self-service model, with a concurrent savings in costs to the center. Those savings will become all the more necessary as Medway's population grows; current estimates see a 25 percent increase by 2018.

"We're making good progress," Garlick says. "But there's always room for improvements in efficiency."