Our digital programme aims to reduce pressure on our contact centre by offering self-serve online solutions for routine queries to the council. However, for many people, telephone access is still the preferred option and for more complex queries, the only option. In this blog, Simon Percy, our Contact Centre Manager, explains how new technology has improved our telephony options.

We have 18 phone numbers into the contact centre, to access different services. Callers initially hear pre-recorded messages with options (Interactive Voice Responses or IVR’s), which explain relevant online service options and confirm that the caller is holding in the correct queue, for the staff in the contact centre who have the knowledge to deal with their query.

Under the old system, when call volumes were at their highest, the number of calls for some popular services, such as queries relating to council tax, often exceeded the number who could be held in a queue, so callers were likely to encounter an engaged tone and have to keep calling back to enter the queue. Those customers who did get through might have to queue for a considerable length of time.

What has been done

A new Queue Buster has now been introduced where customers who have been queueing for more than four minutes are offered the option of a call-back from us. Effectively this places the caller in a virtual queue, so although the caller is not physically holding, Queue Buster holds a position for them and the call-back is offered to agents in time order, in conjunction with the live queue. If a call queues for 4 minutes or more, any other call that joins that queue is offered a call back immediately.  

The Adult Social Care (ASC) example below demonstrates that the live queue does not have priority over the call-back queue.  The first call to be offered to an agent is a call in the live queue for which has been holding for 13 mins 41 seconds.  The next call to be answered will be the call in the call-back queue, which has been queuing for the second longest time.  The last call to be answered would be the remaining call in the live queue (currently showing as queuing for 4 mins 50 seconds).

Call-backs can be made to landlines or mobile phone numbers and each call-back is tried up to three times unless the call is connected.

If callers choose to remain in the live queue (holding for their call to be answered), there is now no limit to the number of calls allowed to queue. Whilst waiting times may still be long, the council telephone lines are no longer engaged.

Benefits to Stockport residents

This has led to an improved customer experience for all callers. Callers now get straight through to the queueing system, reducing the frustration caused by trying over and again.

Many choose a call-back as it means they can get on with other things knowing that their query will be dealt with in turn. We have received a lot of positive customer feedback – most people are pleasantly surprised and impressed when we call them back to help with their enquiry. One customer hadn’t been able to contact the refuse and recycling line and was delighted to be called back, ten minutes after putting in a call-back request, without having to stay on her telephone.

Benefits to the council

The number of abandoned calls has reduced and our answer rate, including call-backs, has gone from 87 – 90%.

Call-backs allow us to spread out calls from times of excess demand to periods of lighter demand, meaning we can deal with more calls overall. We have seen the number of calls dealt with increase from 3,000 – 5,000 calls per week. This will help us manage known peaks of demand, such as council tax annual billing, without having to bring in additional staff.

We can also identify areas of real demand, which may previously have been masked as callers couldn’t enter the queue. 

The new system has increased staff motivation. Access to their own dashboard shows them how many callers are waiting in both the live queue and virtual queue. It also takes pressure off staff at the end of the working day as they know call-backs will transfer to the next working day.

The Queue Buster technology also allows us to change our IVR’s much more easily than our old system. Netcall, who developed and manage the system, will record unlimited messages professionally with a minimum notice period. For reactive messages required due to unexpected issues, staff can quickly put in place ‘Type talk’ messages or record IVR’s over the telephone, with no need to set up specialist recording equipment.

There were quite a few challenges in setting up this new technology, but we’re really pleased with the way it’s working now. We’re still monitoring it closely and will tweak as issues arise. We currently limit to 9 the number of call-backs offered for each service area, but we can manually increase this number at times of heavy volumes, either anticipated, for example, when council tax bills go out, or reactively, such as during periods of snow or flooding.

We worked closely with Stockport Council’s IT Systems team to implement the new technology. Whilst some of the features worked ‘out of the box’ we had to tailor the system to meet our specific needs. For example, as the system records calls, we needed to develop a method to ensure we are Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliant, and not recording payment card details.

What’s next

The visual reporting tools have great potential as evaluation tools for managers and we will be exploring these further. With the ability to track customer journeys precisely, we hope to learn much more about our user journeys, pinpoint where they fall down and identify further improvements that can be made.

Equally we should be able to identify ‘positive abandonment’ of calls, such as people who leave the queue after hearing an IVR about online reporting.