The relationship between a local authority and their communities can be difficult. There are excellent examples of Councils in Scotland working well with communities or individuals to address an area of concern, or work together on a major community project such as the Perth and Paisley bids for UK City of Culture 2021. At the same time the hot button issues of bins (charging for garden waste collections), potholes, parking enforcement, and dog waste regularly draw criticism and complaints to local authorities.
This article will look at how the traditional approach to communications and customer service by local authorities, and in particular the tone of voice and language used, does not work in the social media age, and how this can be addressed. This is based on the experience and learning at one particular local authority.
What do we mean by a ‘corporate robot’?
For the purpose of this article let’s set aside for a moment the influence of artificial intelligence and chat bots on modern and future customer service channels.
For the purpose of this article a corporate robot is the use of stilted, overly formal, possibly jargon filled language, which sounds like an organisation, rather than a person. This is something the Plain English Campaign has been fighting against for many years, with mixed success. For examples see the most recent ‘winners’ of their annual Golden Bull awards for incomprehensible corporate speak.
In the social media age this formal language doesn’t stand – for Twitter, with its 280 character limit, using too many long words can make it almost impossible to finish a jargon-filled Tweet. Although that doesn’t mean that organisations, including both commercial and public sector, don’t give it a good try. The @PoorServiceUK Twitter account manages to share a large number of these, and a search for the hashtag #customerservicefail provides many more.
Before looking in details at the issue of tone of voice, however, it is worth looking first at the scale and challenges of social media as a customer service channel for organisations.
Social media as a customer service channel
Social media is quickly growing as a customer service channel. Nearly half (45%) of people who responded to the Sprout Social Index 2018 as consumers say they have reached out to a company on social media. The brand managers who responded to the Index survey reported receiving between 1 and 50 customer contacts which require a response on social media each week.
Local authority research shows a larger range of requests coming in, with 48% of responses to a 2017 Social SignIn and Comms2Point0 survey into the use of social media in UK Councils saying that they received between 0-250 inbound social media messages per month. While the 2018 version of the same research did not include the number of inbound social media messages, 86% of local government respondents reported an increase in messages received via social media in the preceding 12 months.
While Perth & Kinross Council did not begin recording the volume of inbound customer service queries received on social media until early 2018, there is certainly a perception that these have increased over the past year. In the first quarter of 2018 inbound customer service queries on social media on the Council’s corporate Facebook and Twitter pages have averaged 142.5 queries per month, reaching a peak in March 2018 during the heavy snow with 183 queries in that month allow. While in comparison the Council’s Customer Service Centre, from informal discussions with the team leader, receives over 1000 inbound enquiries a day by phone, email or text message, the experience of other local authorities as shown above suggests that enquiries via social media will only continue to grow.
Wider research also shows that it’s likely that there is a generational difference in the channels use for social media, with 59% of Millennials responding to the 2017 Sprout Social Index identifying social media as their first choice customer service channel to make a complaint.
Customer expectations on social media
One of the real challenges in managing customer service enquiries via social media compared to more traditional channels is the expectations of the customer. Research also shows the people who contact an organisation via social media expect a response within just 60 minutes. That may be an astounding expectation for many people, and a difficult one for some organisations to get their head around compared to their usual customer service standards. As an example, Perth & Kinross Council’s Customer Service Standards say that customers should receive a full response to written contact within 15 working days, with the timescale for acknowledging queries being within 5 working days. It is worth noting that these standards are currently being reviewed as they don’t acknowledge the growing use of social media as a customer service channel.
Tone of voice in local government customer services
The topics highlighted in the introduction are a big influence on the way the Council is likely to respond to customer service queries received on any channel. With issues such as bin collections and policy decisions the priority is to ensure that the information being issued is consistent across each of the channels. To ensure this consistency the customer relationship management used to manage inbound customer service queries includes step-by-step scripts for the questions to be asked, and the information to be given in response to each query.
The risk with this script-based approach is that the customer service experience can become more formal and less personal. Individuality is sometimes sacrificed for consistency and accuracy, and while these are important aspects of ensuring that customers get the right experience, it does not necessarily make it the best customer experience.
It is however possible to be consistent with the organisation’s messages, without sacrificing a human tone of voice.
In July 2016 a member of the public shared a photo of an unwanted leather sofa abandoned at a local bus stop to Perth & Kinross Council’s Facebook page. In the course of that customer engagement, which could have just been a complaint or a simple request to report an incident of flytipping, the member of staff responding on social media ended up in a friendly, very human conversation which attracted a significant amount of public attention purely because it was not the way people expected a Council to respond to customers. Reading through the comments on the post a significant number are commenting on the Council demonstrating a sense of humour, or tagging friends encouraging them to read it through. It is worth noting that the Facebook page is managed by Corporate Communications rather than Customer Services, but the query was very much a customer service interaction.
It shows how what could be a potentially negative customer service interaction, can on social media become a positive one for not just the original enquirer, but also the wider social media audience who can view it. If this query had been answered following the customer relationship management system’s script for flytipping it is unlikely that there would have been the same level of online engagement, and positive reaction.
Advantages of a human tone of voice
As can be seen above one of the advantages of adopting a human approach rather than a scripted (corporate robot) approach in social customer service is the ability to encourage people to see their local council in a new, and more positive light. However, there is also a potentially much bigger impact, in terms of growing and securing trust in the organisation.
The Edelman Trust Barometer is a well-established indicator of public trust in organisations and institutions. While the 2018 UK results showed that government/officials have regained some of the trust lost in the previous year’s figures, the trusted source which far outstrips all of these is ‘a person like yourself’. The example above of the flytipping report via Facebook was still a response by a Council spokesperson, every comment was labelled Perth & Kinross Council. However, the tone of voice was that of another human being having a genuine interaction, a person like the enquirer.
Moving customer service experiences away from that scripted approach, and training and trusting customer service staff to empower them to have a more human tone of voice, could make a huge difference to the trust customers have in their local Council. They still may not agree with the introduction of a garden waste charge, or how potholes are managed, but in their individual interactions with the Council they could have more trust in the information that is provided, and feel that they are being listened to, if they knew that conversation was with a person like them, rather than with a corporate robot.
In conclusion, being a human being rather than a corporate robot on social media can help to improve customer trust, and improve interactions. Why would you choose to be a corporate robot when you can be a human being providing services and answering enquiries from your other human customers.
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