Publication - Research and analysis

Social Security client and experience panels research: effects of the coronavirus pandemic on communication preferences

Published: 23 Aug 2021
From:
Director-General Communities
Directorate:
Social Security Directorate
Part of:
Coronavirus in Scotland
ISBN:
9781802012743

A report of findings from research with client and experience panels about communication preferences.

Social Security client and experience panels research: effects of the coronavirus pandemic on communication preferences
Attitudes about different methods for getting in touch

Attitudes about different methods for getting in touch

This chapter is split into six sections, one for each communication method as follows: telephone, post, web chat, text messages, online forms, and social media. Separate chapters cover feedback about video calls and in-person interactions.

Telephone

Survey respondents were able to choose telephone as their preferred way to get in touch for six different reasons. As shown in the previous chapter, across all purposes around 40 per cent of respondents said they preferred phone calls. Table 5.1 shows the proportion of respondents choosing telephone for each purpose before, during and after the pandemic.

Table 5.1: Survey respondents who said telephone was their preferred way to get in touch with Social Security Scotland (n=approx. 484)
Before the pandemic (%) During the pandemic (%) After the pandemic (%)
Advice and general information 50.2 47.4 44.5
Applying for a benefit 16.6 17.9 15.4
Asking about the progress of your application 50.5 46.8 45.8
To challenge a decision 34.5 39.0 34.6
An urgent situation relating to your claim 69.3 64.8 62.7
Advising a change in circumstances 39.0 35.7 34.9

Telephone was the preferred method for getting in touch for three purposes: advice and general information; progress updates; and urgent situations. This was true before, during and after the pandemic. Before the pandemic, telephone was the most preferred way to advise Social Security Scotland of a change in circumstances. These figures are highlighted in bold.

Views about phone calls

During the pandemic, some respondents said that their preferences had changed to include more phone calls due to limitations on meeting in person.

"I would want to reduce my risk of contracting COVID-19 so therefore I would hope to do everything by telephone. I don't like online forms as they can be complicated and you don't have anybody to ask for help while filling them in." (survey respondent)

"Previously [to challenge a decision] I would have preferred a face to face conversation but now this is not possible I would prefer a phone call or video chat." (survey respondent)

Some feedback said that phone calls gave callers the chance to fully explain their circumstances and ensure important details weren't missed. A couple of comments noted that phone calls were a good way to feel a reassuring sense of human contact.

"By phone I don't have to arrange to get somewhere but I can still speak to a real person in real time and be able to explain and put my points across." (survey respondent)

"When I have to phone, could you keep the recorded messages to a minimum? No-one likes machines and would prefer a person." (survey respondent)

"I like to speak to a person." (interview participant)

Some interview participants said they preferred the telephone as it meant they could get quick answers. Participants who preferred other methods also said they would phone Social Security Scotland if they needed a quick response. Respondents also said that telephone was preferred for initial contact.

"Still prefer phone calls. Phone calls are [my] first option. I like that someone would immediately answer my enquiries." (interview participant)

"If urgent, [I] might need a telephone number to get in touch with someone that day." (interview participant)

"Would phone first of all. Even if I had to leave a message, I feel I have a good phone manner and know how to do that." (interview participant)

Other participants said that they had experienced long wait times when calling organisations during the pandemic. Participants said waiting in long queues was frustrating. Some said they understood that staff working from home during the pandemic may have affected wait times. Some said they would now consider alternative ways of getting in touch because of this.

"I have changed some methods [during the pandemic] from telephone as it takes far too long and stresses me." (survey respondent)

"It's definitely changed [during the pandemic] …I know that people are not working in the office, people are working from home so you are put into a big queue and you either have to hang on for hours or you just don't get to talk to any of them. It has made a huge difference." (interview participant)

"As telephone calls are difficult due to lines being extra busy, trying to talk to someone would be frustrating so web chat/online forms are much quicker and more suitable. I would be quite happy to continue to use these forms of communication in the future so keeping telephone lines free for urgent matters." (survey respondent)

Post

Survey respondents were able to choose post or paper form as their preferred way to get in touch for six different reasons. As shown in the previous chapter, across all purposes around 15 per cent of respondents said they preferred post. Table 5.2 shows the proportion of respondents choosing post for each purpose before, during and after the pandemic.

Table 5.2: Survey respondents who said post was their preferred way to get in touch with Social Security Scotland (n=approx. 484)
Before the pandemic (%) During the pandemic (%) After the pandemic (%)
Advice and general information 9.8 8.4 7.9
Applying for a benefit 23.1 19.5 20.4
Asking about the progress of your application 5.9 3.8 4.8
To challenge a decision 47.9 47.3 47.0
An urgent situation relating to your claim 1.5 1.3 1.3
Advising a change in circumstances 9.7 9.5 8.8

Survey respondents said post was their preferred way to challenge a decision about a benefit. Around half chose post for this purpose before, during and after the pandemic. These figures are highlighted in bold.

Around a fifth (20 per cent) of respondents said post was their preferred way to make an application before, during and after the pandemic. This was the second most popular option behind online form. Post was not a popular option for advice and general information, progress updates or advising a change in circumstances. With social media, post was the least popular option for urgent situations.

Views about using post

During the pandemic, some comments said that delays in Royal Mail's service had caused difficulties with communication via post. Some respondents noted this in reference to submitting evidence, as noted in a previous chapter. Some respondents said that their previous preference for post had shifted due to these difficulties. One interview participant said that they took hygiene precautions with post during the pandemic. The participant said he sanitised post before opening it and washed his hands afterwards.

"Due to the pandemic and restrictions, the postal service is no longer reliable enough to have things done by post." (survey respondent)

"[Letters] took quite a while to arrive, especially at Christmas with Royal Mail being badly impacted. I understand why Social Security Scotland is sending letters but sometimes emails that are quite instant would sometimes be better for less confidential stuff.

Letters sometimes arrive one, two, three weeks late. There was an instance where I got a payment. So I saw a payment in my bank on a Monday and I got a letter about the payment the following Wednesday." (interview participant)

Some participants said they liked letters because they could refer to the information at their convenience. Another benefit of communication via post was that created a record of all information sent and received. Some said it was easier to explain personal circumstances in detail, or include supplementary documents, on paper forms or via letter.

"I prefer to challenge decisions by paper as that allows me to review what I'm trying to put over and I have a record of it for the future, but in all other instances I'd be happy to video call and communicate that way." (survey respondent)

"The kind of general communication…information giving I think I would continue like to have a hard copy like a letter, sometimes people need to see it." (interview participant)

One interview participant said that post was the best way for information coming from Social Security Scotland. For information going the other way, from the client to the agency, the participant said she preferred phone calls. One respondent said that Social Security Scotland should consider the environmental impact of sending letters.

"If communication coming from Social Security Scotland then a letter is probably the best way to do this, but if communication is coming from me the phone is preferred." (survey respondent)

"Receiving letters is alright, in terms of physical verification, but seems a bit environmentally wasteful." (survey respondent)

Text messages (SMS)

Figure 5 shows that around 17 per cent of survey respondents said they would use text messages to check on the progress of an application. Text messages were the second most preferred method for this purpose, behind telephone. This was true for before, during and after the pandemic.

Figure 5: Survey respondents who prefer text messages for progress updates from Social Security Scotland (n=approx. 484)

Bar chart showing survey respondents who prefer text messages for progress updates from Social Security Scotland. Total number approximately 484. Description of chart in text.

Views about text messages

Only a couple of participants mentioned experience of receiving text messages from Social Security Scotland. One survey respondent mentioned receiving duplicate text messages each time she was contacted this way. One interview participant said that they had received text messages from Social Security Scotland late at night. The participant had experience of Best Start Grant/Foods and said the timing of the text messages had made her feel "uncomfortable".

"Better text communication – but not in a bad way – I get two texts off you every time you send a message!!" (survey respondent with experience of Best Start Grant/Foods)

A couple of participants said that they had received more information via text message during the pandemic. One interview participant with experience of receiving text messages from DWP said this was a helpful way to receive updates about her application. Other respondents said that they checked text messages regularly and agreed they were a good way to get reminders.

"Now, I receive more texts, I receive more information by texts; that didn't happen before." (interview participant)

"So it was like they [text messages] would tell me what stage they were at. So that took less pressure off me having to chase people up to say 'look, where's my application, what stage is it at'." (interview participant)

"Text messages are always good, you get reminder text messages from different places, that's really handy!" (interview participant)

One interview participant said text messages were an important option for her as she is unable to access the internet at home. Other feedback mentioned that it was important to note that not everyone has a smartphone with internet access. For these people, text messages with links to webpages were not a suitable way to send information. One interview participant discussed this in relation to text messages received from DWP which prompted him to go online. The participant described feeling uneasy about these as he is unable to access the internet at home. On these occasions, he makes phone calls to follow up and set his mind at ease.

"I am actually not online. I don't have any access to internet at all. That's why I have a lot of communication through texts. I don't have access to a smartphone." (interview participant)

"I don't have any broadband – I got to the library if I'm stuck. I was concerned, what happens if I don't respond to that message, because I don't have a computer, broadband, the library is shut…" (interview participant)

Two interview participants said they felt wary of text messages for security reasons. These participants said they had heard a lot about scams via text message. For this reason, these participants said would feel more comfortable talking to Social Security Scotland in another way.

"At the moment there are so many scams that you know if you get a text message saying that my national insurance number is going to be used by somebody and they are going to cut me off, stupid stuff like that and I am thinking for somebody older who can't understand, it's a shame, they get sucked in to these things. To be honest, if I get a text message now I would be very wary, even emails now I am wary because I just don't know where they're coming from." (interview participant)

Online forms

Online form was an available choice for two of the six purposes: making an application and advising a change in circumstances. As shown in the previous chapter, across these two purposes around 40 per cent of respondents said they preferred online forms. Table 5.3 shows the proportion of respondents choosing online form for each of these purposes before, during and after the pandemic.

Table 5.3: Survey respondents who said online form was their preferred way to submit an application or advise a change in circumstances (n=approx. 484)
Before the pandemic (%) During the pandemic (%) After the pandemic (%)
Applying for a benefit 43.8% 49.4% 47.1%
Advising a change in circumstances 37.1% 37.6% 36.8%

Online form was the most preferred way to apply for a benefit. Around half of respondents chose this method before, during and after the pandemic. Just over a third of respondents favoured an online form for advising a change in circumstances. During and after the pandemic, online form overtook the telephone as the most preferred option for this purpose. These figures are highlighted in bold in Table 5.3.

One interview participant said that online forms were quicker to complete and more accessible than paper forms. One survey respondent said that an online form should be available to allow clients to challenge a decision.

"Then there's no having to fill it with my terrible handwriting because of my eyesight. Then there's also getting someone to go out and post it for you. [Online] you can make it the font the size you want on the computer...it's sent direct and cuts out the chance of it going missing in the post." (interview participant)

"I think organisations have become more competent in using online systems. I'd be happy to appeal against a decision by completing an online form but this option was not available [in the survey]." (survey respondent)

Other suggestions for online communication

Several survey respondents and interview participants said that Social Security Scotland should offer the option of getting in touch via email.

"There should be a communication system such as email to keep informed about any changes and help." (survey respondent)

"The early questions [in the survey] gave options for my preferred communication method with Social Security Scotland that included SMS and live web chat, but not email. So I was forced to opt for post or telephone communication when I would probably have preferred email. I find both SMS and web chat to be limited compared to email." (survey respondent)

"I would look at the website first. If I couldn't find what I wanted I would send an email. I would find an email address and email my query." (interview participant)

Participants said email was a good way to keep a record of what had been discussed. Participants said this made them feel reassured that they wouldn't miss important information. This was compared to the sometimes stressful experience of trying to remember what was said during a phone call. This could also be helpful for clients with memory problems.

"My preferred contact method would be by email because then I have a record of what had been discussed / decided. Phone conversations are not much use to anyone with short attention spans or poor memory, which is why a printed record is best for them." (survey respondent)

Some participants said email would give them the opportunity to fully explain their personal circumstances or questions. Some said email allowed them to take their time whereas methods like web chat or phone calls could leave them feeling rushed.

"I haven't checked any of the choices to three of the [survey] sections because my preferred method of contact would be by email [option not included]. This was the same pre-COVID-19 issues too. I prefer email even to an online web chat as it is more flexible and allows me to digest any information properly and respond in my own time." (survey respondent)

There were also suggestions for a Social Security Scotland app, and a way to monitor the progress of applications online.

"Creating an app would make it easier to communicate and make applications." (survey respondent)

"There should be an online platform to monitor the progress of an application." (survey respondent)

Web chat

Survey respondents could select web chat for four purposes: getting advice and information, progress updates, urgent situations and advising a change in circumstances. As shown in the previous chapter, across these purposes around 20 per cent of respondents chose web chat. Table 5.4 shows the proportion of respondents choosing online form for each of these purposes before, during and after the pandemic.

Table 5.4: Survey respondents who said web chat was their preferred way to get in touch with Social Security Scotland (n=approx. 484)
Before the pandemic (%) During the pandemic (%) After the pandemic (%)
Advice and general information 24.7 29.9 29.0
Asking about the progress of your application 19.2 24.1 23.2
An urgent situation relating to your claim 16.1 20.5 19.4
Advising a change in circumstances 7.6 10.4 10.3

Advice and general information was the most popular purpose for using web chat. The proportion of survey respondents choosing this method for this purpose increased during the pandemic from 25 to 30 per cent.

Although web chat was not the most preferred method for any of the purposes, it was the second most popular choice for getting advice and information, progress updates, and getting in touch in urgent situations.

Attitudes about web chat

In response to the pandemic, Social Security Scotland introduced a web chat service in May 2020. Clients can use this for general enquiries and to ask for progress updates on their application.

One interview participant had used the Social Security Scotland web chat service to check on the progress of their application. The participant found the service helpful and convenient and was pleased with the quick response. A survey participant who had used the service said they hoped it would remain an option after the pandemic.

"Having that online chat was preferred, it was a really quick in giving me an answer and I wasn't waiting for ages." (interview participant)

"I hope you keep the web chat in the future as it's so useful." (survey respondent)

Other interview participants discussed the benefits of web chat as a way to engage with other organisations. Participants said web chat was a good way to get quick answers and to avoid waiting times on the phone. A couple of participants also said that web chat was useful when information was hard to find online or not detailed enough.

"It's [web chat] pretty instant – don't have to listen to annoying music." (interview participant)

"Basic information is easy, but once you start getting into it online, it's difficult to get all the information. But if there was a backup, like a web chat I've used before it was a fantastic. That would be good for asking questions." (interview participant)

Some participants said that web chat was a good option, as long as clients received personalised replies and not pre-programmed responses. Some also said web chat was a good option as long as it was possible to resolve issues without being re-directed to other channels.

"Same with urgent [situations], web chat might be ok sometimes if I could be sure who I was talking to and it wasn't either a scripted bot or someone talking to 5 people at once." (survey respondent)

"Online web chats give you more time to think and it appears to be a faster and more responsive service. This would only work if the adviser could see your records and provide answers on the basis of the information in the records." (survey respondent)

"More online 'chat' enquiries, with most organisations, though this can be pretty frustrating, particularly if you are required to get in touch with an organisation several times to progress or resolve an issue, as you rarely get to 'speak' to the same individual twice. So repeating the history of the same issue over and over to different faceless people makes you feel unimportant/worthless somehow, particularly if nothing seems to get resolved." (interview participant)

A couple of interview participants said they preferred not to use web chat. One participant said web chat could lack the human touch and provide only limited information. Another participant said health conditions could make extended periods of typing difficult.

"The video call in that instance [contacting Social Security Scotland] would be better, with open web chat I feel I'm talking to robot. If I had chance to talk to a person I'd prefer that." (interview participant)

"Sometimes it's a pain in the bum trying to type sometimes especially when I am really sore because I have to try to lean over." (interview participant)

Social media

Social media was included as an option for three purposes: advice and information, progress updates and urgent situations. Only around 1 per cent of survey respondents said social media was their preferred way to get in touch. This stayed the same before, during and after the pandemic.

One interview participant said that social media was a good way to find out information from the Scottish Government. Another interview participant said Facebook or Instagram would be a helpful way for Social Security Scotland to provide information.

"The amount of information that is now going onto social media [is good]. Like things are being put up on ScotGov twitter, [it's] good way to get into my demographic – a good way to deliver information." (interview participant with experience of Best Start Grant/Foods)

"If Social Security Scotland had specific Facebook or Instagram groups, they can share their achievement and support on this social media. They can alert people to new services. It would re-assure people in difficult situations." (interview participant with experience of Best Start Grant/Foods and Carer's Allowance Supplement)


Contact

Email: SocialSecurityExperience@gov.scot