Agenda item


Purpose of the item:


To provide an update on the Council’s Customer Services operation following recommendations made by the Customer Experience Task Group.




Mark Nuti, Cabinet Member for Communities

Marie Snelling, Executive Director of Customer and Communities

Sarah Bogunovic, Head of Customer Strategy and Registrations

Susan Grizzelle, Head of Customer Services


Key points raised during the discussion:


1.    The Cabinet Member for Communities introduced the report, commending the work undertaken by the customer services team throughout the pandemic which included the implementation of the test and trace and vaccination programmes. The Cabinet Member for Communities added that Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) around call times would be considered carefully going forward as calls became more in depth and lasting longer as a result.


2.    The Chairman queried what were the three main challenges faced by Customer Services. The Executive Director of Customer and Communities said the first challenge was workforce, explaining that customer services could be a time limited job. Surrey County Council (SCC) had a good track record of people remaining within the organisation which in turn could cause issues with retention and the delivery of the customer services operation as staff move into other roles. This coupled with the challenges faced more broadly around recruitment across the County Council required creative and innovative methods of attracting applicants and retaining staff to be considered. Secondly, the nature of calls had become more complex, resulting in the need to provide staff more training and adjust the operation to support residents successfully. The third main challenge was to continue running a good operational service whilst fulfilling a wider corporate role, providing training, guidance, advice and support across the organisation to support customer culture.

3.    The Chairman asked what innovative and creative methods were being considered to address the recruitment and retention challenges mentioned previously. The Head of Customer Services explained the current buoyant employment market meant that some staff were returning to pre pandemic jobs. Recruitment campaigns were emphasising the interesting and diverse services offered to attract applicants in addition to offering permanent roles rather than fixed term contracts, providing more job security.


4.    The Chairman queried if the contact centre currently had a full complement of staff. The Head of Customer Services confirmed that there were vacancies within social care areas but overall, the current staffing profile was as expected.


5.    The Chairman questioned if the longer, more complex calls mentioned previously would affect the ability to deliver efficiencies. The Executive Director of Customer and Communities said that the service had delivered significant efficiencies during the last five years noted that there were no efficiency profiles for this year. She added that although the financial outlook going forward was expected to be challenging, the ability to deal with efficiencies would not be affected. 


6.    The Chairman queried the average staff turnover and length of service within customer services. The Head of Customer Services noted that most staff stay for a year as roles within the department were entry level and part of someone’s development to remain with the service. The Chairman noted this reiterating the benefits of encouraging staff to stay and move on to roles within the organisation wherever possible 


7.    A Member asked what support was given to staff to prepare for roles within adult’s social care. The Head of Customer Services explained that adult’s and children’s social care teams were embedded within the contact centre with staff often being promoted to within these social care teams having gained transferable skills from other areas of the contact centre.


8.    A Member queried if the initial training provided to customer service staff would be suitable for Members who often find themselves in a customer facing role. The Head of Customer Services confirmed that Member inductions had highlighted the need for guidance on handling difficult situations and a new suite of training for Members was planned for the autumn. The Cabinet Member for Communities said Member development workshops were planned for September and October 2022 and it would be helpful to include some customer services training as part of those sessions.


9.    A Member asked if school appeals training was available to Members. The Executive Director of Customer and Communities noted that suggestions from Members for topics to be included in the Member Development sessions planned for the autumn would help to provide information of use and allow the service to understand and support Member’s needs.  The Head of Customer Strategy and Registrations explained that that the annual complaints report had recently been to the Audit and Governance Committee to address some of the complexities that families had to navigate as part of the school appeals process and discussions to simplify some of the processes had taken place with that committee. 


10.A Member said that training for Members in how to deal with people in distress was required. The Head of Customer Strategy and Registrations said that ensuring Members are aware of the support available to families would be addressed in the new training package available in the autumn.


11.A Member asked how peaks and troughs in demand were analysed and prepared for and what were the plans in place for a county wide emergency. The Head of Customer Services explained that data was analysed every half an hour to identify when to expect high and low call volumes. In the event of an emergency, staff would be redirected to accommodate cover as required. Business continuity plans had been drawn up to plan and inform in the event of a county wide emergency.


12.A Member asked what work was being undertaken with libraries, what was the role of the library service in providing customer support and were digitally excluded residents being considered in this area. The Head of Customer Strategy and Registrations confirmed that the need for cooperation between the library service and customer services function had been identified and the aim was for residents accessing the service through libraries to receive the same level of customer service as if they had telephoned the customer service centre. Training of the library workforce had been rolled out as part of the library transformation program in addition to linking up with the digital buddy infrastructure. The Cabinet Member for Communities said that Members would be signposted to areas where this service was prevalent to allow Members to guide residents to those libraries.


13.A Member queried if customer service staff were working from the office or home. The Head of Customer Services explained that the intention is for staff to be at the office for 40 per cent of their time and at home for 60 per cent of their time.


14.A Member asked for the road map to the website noted in the report to be shared with Members. The Head of Customer Strategy and Registrations said that a Cabinet Office accessibility audit was being developed to further inform future development and look at how inclusive the current website offer is, in addition to commissioned research with resident groups to identify what they would like to see from the digital offer, ensuring continued aim of inclusive and accessible information. The roadmap would be shared with Members when these pieces of work were concluded.


15.A Member asked if call centre information was shared with the districts and boroughs. The head of Customer Services confirmed that regular meetings were held with districts and boroughs to discuss cross over area with support offered each way to provide a seamless customer service provision in Surrey.


16.A Member said that a form of automation to integrate across the organisational boundaries would be beneficial. The Head of Customer Strategy and Registrations summarised work being undertaken at a strategic level to bridge some of the organisational gaps and create a more joined up experience for customers. Discussions were also taking place with districts and broughs and health to ensure smarter and seamless navigation in the digital offer in addition to sharing expertise and capability.


17.A Member expressed concern around link workers and asked what that meant for Members. The Cabinet Member for Communities agreed to come back with further information


18.A Member asked how prepared the service was to support calls from residents considering the cost-of-living crisis. The Head of Customer Services was confident a comprehensive service was being offered to residents contacting the service with staff having received training from the Citizens Advice Bureau to answer this type of enquiry specifically. Communications work had begun to provide leaflets for residents using food banks or surgeries signposting them to the support available.


19.A Member asked if a list of officers noting their remits and areas of expertise could be provided to Members so that they can contact the officer relevant to their query easily.  The Head Customer Strategy and Registrations said that data could not be captured if Members approached officers directly which would affect the insight required to improve. A Member casework guide was available on the Member Portal, providing information on the key pathways and advising Members of the processes in place. The Cabinet Member for Communities confirmed the response time for the current process was five working days which is often exceeded.


20.A Member queried if there was a back-up system incorporating communications and access to data and if so, had it been tested. The Head of Customer Services explained that resilience was much improved since the pandemic with staff now able to work from home. Risk around the telephony system remained and ways of building resilience in that area were being considered with the prioritisation of social care areas which held the greatest risk. All systems were tested quarterly.


21.A Member queried if the five-day response time related to highways calls. The Head of Customer Services said that the response time for highways was 10 days. A Member said that she had an example of a query awaiting a response after three weeks. The Head of Customer Services asked for the information of this call so that it could be investigated. The Head of Customer Strategy and Registrations added that work was being undertaken with regard to the Environment, Transport and Infrastructure directorate around their customer improvement plan which included a review of response times.


22.A Member asked if an analysis had taken place to determine if queries received through the live chat took longer to deal with than a phone call. The Head of Customer Strategy and Registrations confirmed the focus to roll out the live chat function further as a result of positive resident feedback and support of the live chat following recent commissioned research undertaken with residents with autism and people experiencing mental health issues.  [does not seem like the question was answered – perhaps add to the request for further information heading at the end][SG1] 


23.A Member, in relation to staff retention asked if a training needs assessment took place regularly and queried if there was a career path available to staff to improve retention. The Head of Customer Services confirmed that a team based within the contact centre trained other teams within Surrey County Council in addition to customer service staff. Agents were met individually to ensure they had access to the skills, knowledge and information required and were encouraged through career pathways. Staff were encouraged to develop skills relevant to any favoured subject area.


24.A Vice Chairman, in referring to the Select Committee’s previous recommendation around benchmarking, asked what had been learnt from the exercise. The Head of Customer Services confirmed that a wide group of councils had signed up to take part in the benchmarking group, meeting every four to six weeks and Surrey County Councils results compared favourably, particularly around areas of online uptake. The Head of Customer Services committed to share the detail with the Committee following the meeting. The Executive Director of Customer and Communities added that exercise had created avenues to focus on in certain areas.


25.A Member commended the focus on quality rather than quantity and asked if benchmarking the accessibility of the service in comparison with the NHS had been considered. The Executive Director of Customer and Communities said that officers were awaiting the results of an accessibility audit from the Cabinet office which would help to inform and continue the focus on ensuring the service is accessible as possible across all customer contact channels. 




The Resources and Performance Select Committee:


  1. Asks that, building on previous successful visit offer to Members, the Service encourages and offer a further opportunity to visit the customer services centre to all Members. 


  1. Requests that advice and effective signposting about cost-of-living queries continue to be provided to relevant callers/residents by the customer services team.


  1. Asks the Service continues to take possible actions (training, development, career progression pathway/advice, secondment, cross-working opportunities etc.) to improve staff turnover rate in customer services. This will not only help increase job satisfaction and enable the SCC/Service to become the employer of choice in a competitive job market but also enhance the quality and effectiveness of the service provided to residents.


  1. Requests (welcomes, if already planned) a Members information session by the Service; and more information about live chat programme.


Request for further information:


·           More information about link workers, benchmarking data including areas that required more focus.


Live chat takes no longer than a call and in some cases is quicker to deal with. [SG1]

Supporting documents: