Customer and Citizen Focused Public Service Provision
Chapter 3 - CUSTOMER FOCUS FINDINGS
This chapter presents the research findings and examines how public sector organisations in Scotland handle feedback from customers. It draws on evidence gathered through the postal surveys of public service providers and follow up telephone interviews with a sample of respondents. The surveys were used to gather information about the various methods used by public sector organisations to handle feedback from customers. The questionnaires were divided into three sections; the first section asked some general questions about each organisation's overall approach to handling customer feedback while two further sections asked more specific questions about handling complaints and undertaking customer surveys. The follow up telephone interviews and the case study research was used to examine the issues in greater detail and provide some illustrative examples of different approaches to handling customer feedback used by different organisations.
The first part of this Chapter examines a number of different methods used by public service providers to collect and analyse feedback from customers. The remainder of the Chapter looks at some general issues involved in handling customer feedback and using it to help improve public services.
3.2 Methods used to get feedback from customers
Public sector organisations are using a wide range of methods to get feedback from customers. Some of these methods are designed to encourage customers to provide feedback on an ongoing basis by submitting complaints or comments after they have had contact with a service. Other methods are more pro-active, involving public sector organisations seeking feedback from individual customers or particular groups of customers on specific issues that can be used to inform decision making about potential service improvements.
Respondents to the postal surveys were asked which techniques they had used over the past two years to collect and record feedback received from customers. The responses to this question are shown in Figure 3.1 below.
Figure 3.1 - Customer feedback mechanisms used during the last two years
The results show that: -
- The most commonly used method for getting feedback from customers is the recording and analysis of complaints with over 85% of respondents saying they had used this method during the last two years.
- Almost 70% of respondents said that they also made use of response, comment or suggestion schemes as a method of getting feedback from customers.
- Surveys are a well-used method of getting feedback from customers. While over 60% of respondents said they had conducted surveys of a sample of customers, considerable use is also made of general household surveys (47% of respondents) and citizen's panels (42% of respondents) to get feedback from customers.
- Only 23% of respondents said they had conducted recent contact or "exit" surveys as a way of getting feedback from customers about their experience of using a service.
- Over 60% of respondents said they had made use of qualitative techniques e.g. focus groups as a method of getting feedback from groups of customers.
- Limited use is made of technology to assist in collecting and analysing feedback from customers. While 53% of respondents said that they offer customers the opportunity to provide feedback via the Internet or e-mail, only 23% said they currently make use of customer tracking or Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems to collect and monitor customer feedback.
The following sections describe the main techniques being used by public sector organisations to handle customer feedback and provide some illustrative examples of their use in practice.
3.3 Customer Complaints
The most frequently used method of getting feedback from customers is the recording and analysis of complaints with over 80% of public service providers saying that they have used this technique in the last two years.
Most public service providers in Scotland have well-developed systems and procedures for handling customer complaints. As the table below shows complaints systems are generally well publicised with a variety of media used and customers can register complaints using a wide range of different channels.
Table 3.1 - Customer complaints access arrangements
Local Authorities Corporate
Local Authority Services
Other Public Service Providers
Posters in offices etc.
Standard text in letters etc.
Publication of dedicated telephone numbers
Face to face
Proactive logging by staff on behalf of customers
The main priority in complaints handling should be to investigate and if possible resolve the individual customer's grievance. The information provided by complaints from customers is, however, also potentially valuable for other purposes such as setting performance standards and identifying possible improvements in the way that services are delivered. As the table below shows, only a minority of public service organisations make use of complaints data for these purposes. In fact, only 40% of respondents said that they made effective use of complaints data to monitor trends and identify potential service improvements.
Most organisations have set targets for the time taken to respond to complaints with 71% of local authorities and 68% of other public service providers saying that they have such targets. They are, however, far less likely to have targets for early resolution of complaints with only 21% of local authorities and 43% of other organisations saying they have set such targets.
Table 3.2 - Making use of customer complaints
Local Authorities Corporate
Local Authority Services
Other Public Service Providers
Measurement of satisfaction with outcome
Measurement of satisfaction with process
Use for Performance Indicators
Some organisations are making efforts to make more use of the information provided by customer complaints by introducing new systems to monitor and respond to complaints on a collective as well as an individual basis. One problem with this approach is that many organisations receive very few "formal" complaints, which makes it difficult to identify trends. However, individual complaints can be used as a trigger for further research to establish whether the problem was the result of a systemic fault as opposed to a "one-off" incident.
A recent survey conducted by the Lothian Health Council was organised in response to a specific complaint made about the Primary Care Trust's elderly care service by an advocate representing one of the service users. The Trust was unable to satisfactorily resolve the issue raised by the complaint, and the Health Council was asked to conduct a consultation project with service users, incorporating a focus group and follow-up questionnaires. The focus group and questionnaire survey were aimed specifically at users of the elderly care service - notices were displayed within the service asking service users or other interested parties to volunteer for the focus group, which was also held within the service. Questionnaires were also made available, with reply envelopes, within the service for any service users or relatives to complete, and were also given to focus group members.
Edinburgh City Council has established a corporate group on complaints led by the housing service, which had pioneered a scheme that solicited complaints and other comments. The departmental scheme is now subsumed in a new corporate complaint and comments form is called "Make Contact". Complaint handling takes place within the context of the Council having produced a Customer Care Charter in 2000-2001, which is very specific about service standards and which has been widely publicised and distributed. This Charter informs users about the service standards that are in place and explicitly invites people to report any failure to meet these standards. Implicitly, it also educates people about what is not on offer in terms of service standards.
The monitoring of complaint information is currently done mainly at service level, within an overall corporate framework. The corporate Quality and Customer Care Unit, however, does undertake a follow up telephone survey of customers whose complaints or queries have been forwarded to individual departments. For housing complaints, an investigation panel, with representatives on it from outside the department, has been established in order to improve complaint handling. To add a further element of independence, customers are interviewed by researchers as part of this process. A number of changes in housing procedures have been made as a result of complaints.
Complaints systems normally only collect information about people who have been prepared to register a formal complaint rather than comment about the standard of service they have received or report a service failure on a more informal basis. Some organisations log such comments on an ongoing basis, however, the research suggests that limited use is being made of this information to identify potential service improvements rather than responding to individual comments or problems.
West Dunbartonshire Council has a centrally monitored system of complaint handling, able to measure performance across the board against common performance standards and targets. It has developed an in-house database, developed to be consistent with the best practice of the various departmental systems. Reports are submitted to the Council and to the management team every six months, setting out the issues raised, timescales and whether or not the complaints were found to be justified or not.
A new leaflet on complaints and an advertisement on the procedure carried in the council newsletter resulted in a doubling of the number of formal complaints. However, many of those contacting the council in response to this publicity did not wish to make a formal complaint that goes through the process. The individuals concerned simply want to talk to somebody about their concerns. This highlights what is seen by officials to be the main weakness of the system, namely that informal complaints are not captured by it.
There is also evidence that some organisations are not making effective use of feedback from customers because they don't have the resources to analyse the data collected and produce management information that can be used to inform operational decision making. This can be a particular problem within individual services where there is pressure to commit resources to front-line, customer facing, services at the expense of support services. This may mean that valuable information that could be used to improve service delivery is not being captured.
Dumfries and Galloway Social Work department use an Independent Appeal Group to assess serious complaints, with the results of each assessment reported to department committees. However, there is no service-wide system to analyse any trends in complaints being made. The sticking point seems to relate to staffing resources rather than IT capability - the IT system used to log complaints is capable of producing statistical analysis but is not used due to the absence of an individual to co-ordinate complaint analysis. There seemed to be a need for a position, whether locality or service based, to co-ordinate the collection and analysis of complaints at a local level, with the responsibility of reporting findings to the Management Team.
3.4 Customer Comment or Suggestion Schemes
One way of encouraging informal customer feedback rather than more formal complaints is the use of customer comment or suggestion schemes. This might involve the provision of suggestion boxes in offices or other facilities such as leisure centres, libraries or other service points. Alternatively, customers may be actively encouraged to complete comment cards that ask them about their satisfaction with various aspects of the service they have received or highlight potential service improvements. Almost 70% of the organisations that responded to the survey said that they had made use of this method of getting feedback from customers over the last two years.
Renfrewshire Council's Leisure Management Service makes use of a variety of techniques to gather feedback from customers using the council's leisure facilities. The methods used include: -
- "Points of View Comments Cards". These cards are predominately displayed in all leisure centres and customers are actively encouraged to complete them on a regular basis. The cards are used to gather quantitative information that is used to monitor the performance of individual centres in terms of customer satisfaction against a number of agreed standards on a quarterly basis. The cards are also used to encourage customers to make comments about the quality of services or suggest potential improvements. Although this is an informal scheme all comments are responded to within the timescales set out in the councils formal complaints scheme.
- An annual satisfaction survey of customers using each leisure facility is used to gather information about, participation rates and trends; satisfaction with specific aspects of the service, suggestions about potential savings and trends.
- Each leisure centre also maintains a manual log of comments received from customers and convenes regular user group meetings, which provide an opportunity for organised groups and regular customers to provide feedback about the quality of services provided and comment on future developments.
These various feedback mechanisms provide valuable management information about service performance. They also provide information about potential service improvements and have resulted in a number of developments including better catering facilities, upgraded fitness facilities and improvements in the way activities are scheduled.
The impact of the development of modern information and communication technologies (ICTs) is demonstrated by the fact that a majority of respondents said that they provided opportunities for customers to provide feedback electronically via the Internet or by e-mail. Most public sector organisations now have a feedback section on their Web site, which allows customers to submit comments electronically. This provides customers with more choice in terms of how and when they submit feedback. There is, however, limited evidence of the actual take up of these facilities and the extent to which the information is analysed and used to promote improvements in the way services are delivered.
The use of computer systems to record, track and analyse customer feedback, including complaints, on an on-going basis is still only used by a minority of public service organisations and manual logging of feedback is still more common particularly at an individual service level. This may change in the future given the interest in public service organisations making use of computerised systems e.g. customer relationship management (CRM) systems to record customer feedback via contact centres and/or one stop shops.
South Lanarkshire Council's one-stop shop, known as the Q&A Service has a computerised customer tracking system that is used to record and monitor individual customer contacts. It is mainly used to ensure that individual customer information is kept up to date and to monitor progress in dealing with individual enquiries. However, it is also used to monitor customer care performance standards such as average waiting times. The system allows customer services staff to record customer complaints and feedback about service failures, this is mainly used to resolve individual customer's complaints but has the potential to be used to identify trends in terms of regular service failures or problems with operational systems.
3.5 Customer Surveys
Public sector organisations have a long track record of using questionnaire-based surveys as a method of collecting and analysing information from the public. Surveys have generally been used where there is a perceived need to canvass the views of a representative cross section of the public and produce quantitative results that are statistically robust.
In the postal surveys respondents were asked what methods they had used to survey customers or service users over the past two years. As can be seen from Figure 2.2 below individual council services and other public service providers were much more likely to say they had used surveys targeted upon customers (either a random sample or recent contact or exit surveys) than corporate respondents from local authorities. This suggests that this type of survey work is most effective if carried out an operational level where there is likely to be more accurate information about customers and service users.
Figure 3.2 - Types of survey used to get feedback from customers.
The results suggest that a substantial number of public service providers are using general household surveys or panels as a means of getting feedback from customers. This type of survey has many practical uses including: -
- Ascertaining public opinion on broad policy issues.
- Gaining an understanding of people's attitudes and perceptions about the area they live in.
- Finding out about people's individual and household circumstances
- Understanding people's behaviour and lifestyles
- Measuring demographic, economic and social trends
Renfrewshire Council conducted a survey of a random sample of 10,000 council taxpayers in 1999 and only received 800 responses many of whom had no direct contact with the council tax collection service other than receiving their annual bill. The council now conducts an annual survey with a sample of 2,500 residents who have had direct contact with the Council Tax and Revenues Section within the previous year. This produces an average response rate of between 30% and 40% from people who had both direct and recent experience of contacting the service. This provides managers with feedback that is much more relevant and can be used to inform decision making about changes to the way the service is delivered.
If the purpose of a survey is to get feedback from a particular group of customers or is concerned with a particularly sensitive or complex issue it may be better to seek the views of a sample of people who have a particular involvement or interest in the subject. Community and voluntary groups can often be a valuable resource in identifying people who have a special interest and involvement in a particular topic and who may be prepared to provide feedback on the issues involved. This approach is likely to provide feedback that is more informed than simply surveying a random sample of customers.
Edinburgh City Council undertook a survey into the issue of women's safety. A questionnaire was distributed to 3,000 women identified through contact with community groups, voluntary organisations and selected employers. Field workers were engaged to talk to groups about the survey and distribute the questionnaire. This approach produced a response rate of 1,100 completed questionnaires, which is higher than would be expected from a random sample of women. The findings of the survey were based on first hand experience and have helped inform the work of the Community Safety Partnership and the development of an action plan for the promotion of women's safety.
It is sometimes argued that surveys of the general public are a useful way of finding out the views of non-users of particular services. However, experience suggests that the most common reason for most people not using a particular service is that they have no need to use the service. More targeted samples are, therefore, often necessary in order to find out why particular groups who do need services do not make use of the services that are provided.
South Lanarkshire Council conducted a survey of users and non-users of the Hamilton One Stop Shop four years after it first opened. The aim of the survey was to gauge customer satisfaction of people who had used the service and also to determine why certain members of the public had not used the facility. Postal questionnaires were sent to 250 customers who had used the facility over the previous 6 months as well as 326 members of the Council's Citizen Panel who lived in the Hamilton area. The response rate from customers was 22% while the response rate from members of the Citizens Panel was 59%. Only 25% of respondents from the Citizens Panel had visited the One-Stop Shop and were therefore able to comment on the quality of services provided. Half of the non-users said that they had no reason to use the service and a further 14% said that they preferred to contact the council using the telephone. However, 55% of non-users said that they did not know about the facility suggesting the need for better publicity to raise awareness about the services available.
3.6 Customer Contact or Exit Surveys
Many surveys are based on a random sample of all customers or a representative sample of the population. While this may produce results that are representative of the whole population or customer base they will not necessary provide information based on customers' recent experience of using a particular service. Two possible approaches to collecting feedback from customers in this way are: -
- "exit" surveys where customers are either interviewed or asked to fill out a questionnaire immediately after they have used a service.
- Recent contact surveys where a sample of people who have had recent contact with a service are interviewed or asked to complete a questionnaire.
Recent contact or "exit" surveys have a number of advantages as they involve people who have had a recent experience of using a service. This often results in higher response rates and can provide more informed feedback, as people's experience is more likely to be fresh in their mind.
Renfrewshire Council's Development and Building Control Service issues an "exit" questionnaire to everyone who has contact with the service including those applying for planning permission or a building warrant as well as those who object to or comment on an application. They receive an average response rate of about 20% to these questionnaires. Responses are analysed on a quarterly basis and the results are displayed on notice boards and reported to a users forum together with statistical information about service performance in terms of key performance indicators such as the time to process applications.
|Stirling Council's Environmental Operations service, which incorporates pest-control and public health/hygiene, undertook a 100% postal self-completion survey of recent service users. The Council's UNIFORM IT system keeps records of all users of its Environmental Operations service, and this resource was used to identify recent service users. The questionnaire design, survey co-ordination, analysis and reporting were all managed within the Environmental Operations service with advice and support from the Council's Research Unit. There were few frequent users of the service and many had only contacted the service once or twice. In light of this, a questionnaire-based survey, which aimed to gauge users opinions of their recent contact with the service, was favoured over a user group approach as a method of identifying ongoing issues with the service.|
|Strathclyde Police undertake postal surveys of people who have made contact with the service. The sample is stratified, so that 50% is composed of those who have reported a crime, 20% have reported other incidents that are not crimes, and others made contact for other purposes, such as loss of property, road traffic accidents etc. A common core of questions are asked by forces across Scotland along the lines recommended by Audit Scotland. Strathclyde Police believe that the postal feedback that they receive is more open, honest and considered than in face to face or telephone interviews. Response rates are high. When they used to send two reminders, they would regularly achieve a 70% response rate.|
Other public agencies undertake exit or recent user surveys as a strand in their feedback strategy. For example organisations like the Passport Service or the DVLA know who has recently used their service, and can survey them by various methods. The DVLA carry out telephone surveys and postal self-completion of customers, as well as qualitative research. The Passport Service carried out an exit survey of personal callers to their office to find out why some customers preferred to apply for a passport in person than by post.
Some organisations have adopted a collaborative approach to getting feedback from customers using a variety of techniques including surveys of recent customers.
Seven of Scotland's eight Fire Brigades participate in a joint scheme for conducting customer research. The Fire Information, Research and Evaluation Service (FIRES) involves 45 individual Fire Brigades who conduct customer research on a collaborative basis. Customer research includes self-completion surveys of different categories of customers including people who have had fires, have reported and incident or been involved in a safety inspection. As the questionnaire design, analysis and reporting is done centrally this method provides a cost-effective method of getting feedback from customers. It also allows comparative information to be produced that can be used for benchmarking the relative performance of individual Fire Brigades.
In the private sector a number of organisations make effective use of telephone exit surveys to get feedback from customers about services they have received. BT conducts telephone surveys of customers a few days after they have had a new service installed. These surveys are used to get feedback about the quality of service provided and any problems experienced. The advantages of this type of approach are that it is relatively inexpensive and as it specifically targets customers who have had recent contact with the service they are more likely to be able to provide accurate feedback about their experience. As more and more public sector organisations are establishing customer contact centres the potential exists to make more use of this type of approach to getting feedback from customers in the future.
There are a variety of methods that can be used to conduct surveys e.g. using postal self-completion surveys, household interviews, telephone questionnaires etc. Each method has its limitations and there are a range of advantages and disadvantages associated with all of the methods. As Figure 3.3 demonstrates, public sector organisations use a wide range of methods to conduct customer surveys.
Figure 3.3 - Methods used to survey customers
The responses show that:
- Postal surveys are the most commonly used method with over 80% of all organisations saying they have conducted a postal survey of customers during the last two years.
- Respondents from individual local authority services were more likely to say that they had conducted customer surveys using the telephone or the Internet/e-mail. Only a small proportion of respondents from other public sector organisations have conducted surveys using the telephone (34%) or the Internet/e-mail (15%).
- A substantial proportion of respondents (43%) said that they had used household face to face interviews as a method of conducting customer surveys.
The choice of method used will depend upon the objectives and circumstances of individual surveys. It may also depend on the availability and reliability of contact information for customers and this is more likely to be available at an operational level within individual services or departments. In practice, the choice of methodology will also be determined by the resources available for conducting the survey as some methods e.g. face to face interviews are likely to be more expensive than others e.g. postal self-completion questionnaires.
3.7 Qualitative Feedback Mechanisms
A majority of respondents said that they had made some use of qualitative methods of receiving feedback from customers over the last two years. Within local authorities qualitative research involving customers is more likely to happen at an individual service level than at a corporate level.
There are a number of reasons why qualitative methods can be an effective method of getting feedback from customers, including: -
- Establishing a dialogue with regular or frequent customers or service users in order to identify possible service improvements.
- Examining complex or contentious issues in greater depth than is possible using quantitative feedback mechanisms.
- Getting feedback from "hard to reach" customers whose views may be missed using other methods.
User Groups or Forums
Many public service organisations are establishing user forums or customer panels as a way of getting feedback from regular or frequent users of a service. These groups can provide a useful vehicle for establishing a dialogue with customers and allowing them to identify ways in which the service can be improved. Regular users of a service are more likely to be able to identify underlying problems with the way a service is being delivered rather than "one off" service faults. They can also act as a useful "sounding board" that can comment on proposed changes in the way a service is delivered from a customers perspective. On the other hand, users groups comprising frequent or regular users will not necessarily be representative of all customers and care needs to be taken to ensure that they do not promote their own interests at the expense of other customers. For example, a users group in a Leisure Centre comprising representatives of organised groups may be more likely to favour more time being allocated to club use of facilities at the expense of individuals who are not members of clubs.
Argyll and Bute Council has established a Building Control Users Forum in Bute and Cowal area. The Forum allows regular users of the Building Control Service to raise issues about the quality of service delivery and potential improvements with Service Managers. In response to feedback received from members of the forum the Council has established local surgery services to make the service more accessible to customers. A direct mobile telephone contact telephone number has now been made available to customers in response to feedback that it was often difficult to contact building control officers as they were often out of their office for most of the day.
Public service providers are also increasingly using qualitative techniques such as focus groups as a way of discussing complex topics or exploring issues in greater depth than is possible using quantitative techniques. Focus groups can also be used in conjunction with other forms of customer feedback. For example, they can be used to involve customers in the process of developing questionnaires to be used in customer surveys or helping to design suggestion cards or complaints forms. This can help ensure that these mechanisms are focused on the needs of customers and therefore more likely to produce meaningful information.
South Lanarkshire Council has used focus groups to explore customers' attitudes to its one stop shop service, known as Q&A. The groups were selected from customers who had participated in a previous survey and said that they would be prepared to be involved in a focus group discussion about the service. The groups were selected to be broadly representative in terms of the age and socio-economic profile of customers using the Q&A Service. The groups met in the Q&A office in Hamilton which helped participants to practically demonstrate issues related to the physical design of the office and the facilities provided. The feedback received was generally very positive but a number of suggestions were made for minor improvements that could be made in terms of the facilities provided and the way the service was delivered. The Council was able to implement most of these recommendations and also take the comments into account in planning the development of other Q&A offices.
|Glasgow City Council has used focus groups to explore customers' attitudes and behaviour in relation to council tax payments. This was part of a "Pay Up for Glasgow" campaign designed to address high levels of non-payment. The focus groups were used to develop an understanding of people's motives and concerns about paying the council tax in a way that would not have been possible in a quantitative survey. The groups were also asked to comment on written information that was to be used in the campaign including the content and design of leaflets and council tax bills. This led to changes being made in the way information was presented to make it clearer how individual bills had been calculated and the provision of more details about different payment methods. This is seen as having made a positive contribution in terms of reducing rates of non-payment.|
Getting Feedback from "hard to reach" groups
Qualitative research is also seen as a valuable source of feedback from groups of customers who have traditionally been regarded as "hard to reach" e.g. young people, the elderly and people with disabilities. Many of these groups will have special needs in terms of the way public services are delivered to them and qualitative research provides a useful way of exploring how services can be tailored to meet these needs. People may also feel more comfortable discussing their needs in a group of people who share similar characteristics or interests than they would in a mixed group or by providing feedback through other channels.
Qualitative research with "hard to reach groups" can be used to get feedback about problems with the way existing services are delivered or identify improvements that could be made that would make it easier for particular groups to access the service. However, it is also particularly useful when new services are being designed or changes to the way services are being delivered are proposed. Getting feedback from groups with particular needs and requirements at the design stage can ensure that their needs are built in from the outset rather than changes or adaptations having to be made at a later stage.
Focus groups can be a useful mechanism for getting feedback from some "hard to reach" groups where they can be relatively easily identified on the basis of their demographic characteristics e.g. young people, older people etc. It may also be possible to use representative groups and networks to identify individuals from some groups such as people with disabilities or ethnic minorities. However, it may be more difficult to involve other "hidden" groups who are not easily identified and who do not participate in formal networks. One potential way of overcoming this difficulty is to employ a technique known as "snowballing" where one person provides the name of another who provides the name of a third, an so on. This method makes use of informal social networks as well as more formal structures to identify people who would otherwise remain "hidden".
|The Orkney Domestic Violence Forum was used to develop a questionnaire to reach the views of sufferers of domestic violence. The forum includes representatives from a variety of organisations with an interest in domestic violence including Women's Aid, the police and the Council's education, housing and social work departments. The forum developed a questionnaire that was used to identify the service needs of people suffering from domestic violence.|
|Aberdeen City Council used a focus group approach to consult with young people to find out their views about after school services. The results of the focus group were used to inform the design of a questionnaire about out of school services that was subsequently sent to a representative sample of pupils in a number of secondary schools.|
West Dunbartonshire Council did not know how many "deaf signers" it had in the local population - profoundly deaf people who use sign language. It therefore commissioned the West of Scotland Deaf Society and a freelance researcher to undertake a survey. The method used was to approach statutory agencies, such as education, the NHS, and the two local voluntary societies to identify individuals. People identified were asked to give other contacts. An important part of the exercise was that it was undertaken by people who themselves were deaf or were fluent in sign language.
As this was undertaken, people were also asked about services that they used. Any existing support from social workers and the type of the service required in the future from social services was discussed. For example, people did not want a dedicated social worker - rather they valued a source of information and advice about services.
In the event, few additional people who were deaf signers were identified in the local population. However, as a result of this survey, a local Deaf Forum was established. This is now the main vehicle of consultation with this section of the population.
3.8 Overall Approach to Handling Customer Feedback
Public service providers in Scotland have a range of different arrangements for gathering, analysing and responding to feedback from customers. Many organisations have someone who has specific responsibility for handling feedback from customers at either a corporate or operational level or a combination of both.
Within local authorities responsibility for handling customer feedback, including complaints handling, is likely to be either a service specific responsibility or a mixture of a corporate and a service responsibility. Some councils have developed a strong corporate capacity for dealing with feedback from customers including co-ordinating consultation, commissioning research and providing guidance or other forms of support to individual services.
South Lanarkshire Council has a corporate consultation team that undertakes corporate research projects and provides support and assistance to individual services in undertaking consultation with customers. The Council also has a corporate consultation group with representatives from individual services. The group meets on a regular basis to share best practice and develop a co-ordinated consultation programme. A consultation site on the Council's Intranet provides guidelines on consulting with customers as well as a database of current and previous consultation exercises being undertaken across the council.
However, some individual services have also developed their own capacity for dealing with feedback from customers and integrated this with operational management.
Renfrewshire Council's Leisure Management Section established a development section following a Best Value Review. The development section undertakes customer research and analyses customer feedback from users of the Council's seven leisure facilities. The section is also responsible for monitoring customer satisfaction, investigating complaints and responding to comments/suggestions received from customers.
Many public service organisations have produced corporate guidance for service managers on handling different types of feedback from customers. However, as is shown below they are more likely to provide guidance on handling customer complaints than using other forms of feedback or conducting customer surveys.
Table 3.3 - Corporate Guidance on Handling Customer Feedback
General Customer Feedback
Many organisations see their approach to seeking feedback from customers as part of a wider approach to quality management and service improvement. The most frequently mentioned approach was the use of the EFQM scheme that places an emphasis of customer focus as one of the key assessment requirements. Other approaches used included Charter Mark, Investors in People and IS0 9000.
Table 3.4 - Customer feedback as a wider approach to quality management
Investors in People
Quality management schemes provide a useful framework for developing systems and procedures for dealing with feedback from customers. They also encourage managers and staff to think about the needs of customers when they are implementing changes or making improvements to the way services are delivered.
Renfrewshire Council actively encourages service managers to adopt a customer focus as part of corporate strategy to gain Charter Mark status for as many Services as possible. The Council has established a corporate quality group involving designated customer service managers in each of the Council's Services. Individual Services are provided with training and corporate support to apply for Charter Mark status. Twenty-six individual services have already been awarded Charter Marks including Leisure Management, Development Control, Building Control and the Council Tax and Revenues Services. The Council's objective is to gain Charter Mark status for all public facing services.
3.9 Effectiveness of customer feedback mechanisms
The vast majority of respondents felt that the effectiveness of the methods used by their organisation to handle feedback from customers had improved in the last two years. While over 80% of respondents said that the effectiveness of systems used to collect feedback from customers had improved a significant minority also identified weakness and potential areas of improvement in the way that customer feedback is collected and used to help improve the quality of service delivery.
The main weaknesses identified by respondents related to the systems used to collect and analyse feedback from customers. Over a third of respondents said that the IT systems currently used were "not up to the job" and more than one in five respondents said that the systems did not measure the right things. A similar number said that data about customer feedback couldn't be analysed meaningfully and that the data produced did not provide management information that could be used to flag up problems at an early stage or track operational activity.
These findings suggest that in many organisations data relating to feedback from customers may be being collected but that there is a lack of capacity - both in terms of IT systems and human resources - to analyse this data and translate it into meaningful information that can be used to help improve service delivery.
Figure 3.4 - Perceived weaknesses in customer feedback mechanisms
The results also revealed that some channels used to provide feedback from customers
are perceived as being more effective than others are. Despite the increased use of new channels, e.g. customer contact centres and the Internet, for receiving feedback from customers respondents seem to believe that their organisations are more effective in recording and analysing feedback received via traditional channels such as letters and face to face contact. This may be partly explained by the fact that some of the other techniques have only recently been introduced and that customers have not yet become accustomed to using them as a means of providing feedback to public service providers.
Within local authorities respondents from individual services were more likely to say that face to face contact and letters were an effective mechanism for collecting feedback from customers than corporate respondents. On the other hand, corporate respondents were more likely to say that the Internet and suggestion schemes were effective channels for getting customer feedback.
Figure 3.5 - The effectiveness of recording customer feedback via different channels
3.10 Future Improvements
Respondents were asked if their organisation or service had any plans to improve the way that feedback from customers is handled in the future. As can be seen from Figure 3.6 below, the most commonly planned improvements relate to the use of modern technology particularly in the development of customer contact centres and the use of electronic channels to get feedback from customers. It is also interesting to note that these planned improvements were most likely to be referred to by corporate managers in local authorities rather than respondents from individual services.
Many of these new developments such as one-stop shops and customer contact centres are being pursued on a corporate basis rather than within individual services. This has the advantage of providing a "one-door" approach to dealing with feedback from customers. However, the research suggested that while the collection and analysis of customer feedback may be more efficient it will not be used to improve services if this information is not communicated effectively to operational mangers responsible for delivering individual services.
Figure 3.6 - Future improvements in customer feedback handling
The main conclusions that can be drawn from this aspect of the research in relation to the impact of using feedback from customers to promote continuous improvement in the way that public services are delivered are as follows: -
- Public service providers are using a wide range of different techniques for collecting and analysing feedback from customers. However, they are not always making effective use of this data to help improve the way services are delivered.
- The vast majority of public service providers have well developed systems for responding to complaints, comments and suggestions from customers. Many organisations, however, lack the capacity - in terms of both IT systems and human resources - to make effective use of this information to identify potential service improvements in addition to resolving individual cases.
- The research suggests that surveys that are targeted upon frequent or recent users of individual services are more likely to provide information that can be used to inform decision making. However, many surveys conducted by public service providers involve a sample of all customers or the public rather than being focused on customers who have had recent experience of using a specific service.
- Qualitative approaches such as focus groups have an important role to play in getting feedback on complex or sensitive issues as well as getting feedback from groups of customers who are traditionally regarded as "hard to reach".
- The increased use of ICTs e.g. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems offers the potential to make more effective use of customer feedback. However, care needs to be taken to ensure that these systems are capable of producing management information reports and that these are communicated effectively to service managers.
- Many organisations have adopted a corporate approach to handling feedback from customers. This can help provide consistency and economies of scale, however, it is also important that there individual services have the capacity to collect and analyse customer feedback and use this information to secure improvements in the way that services are delivered.