Know your customer and what good service means to them: what William Murphy has learned from the best customer service organisations

By David Donaldson

Friday July 17, 2020

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NSW has been on a customer service journey over the past few years. Department of Customer Service Deputy Secretary William Murphy on how the state government is improving services for citizens.

William Murphy
William Murphy

“The Department of Customer Service here is, as far as I know, the first department of its type anywhere,” says its deputy secretary for customer, delivery and transformation, William Murphy.

“The mission we’re focused on at the moment is how do we help the NSW government operate like one of the world’s great customer service organisations.”

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In the year since it was founded, the department has “spent a bit of time looking globally at the great customer organisations and saying: what do they do?”, Murphy tells The Mandarin.

A few key themes emerge.

“The great customer organisations understand their customers really well. They find ways to measure that in meaningful ways. The measures have diagnostic power for customers: what do customers need? What are the outcomes they need to deliver for their customers? What do they prioritise to have the biggest impact on customers?”

Successful organisations also have a clear idea of what good service means for their customer. For governments this should mean service that is timely and empathetic, with minimal red tape.

The other part is engagement.

“One of the pieces of feedback we consistently get through our customer surveys is that citizens feel there’s more government could do — to more than talk to them, more than consult,” he says.

“It’s really to engage with them in a dialogue about priorities, about what’s important, about how we deliver services so they work in the best way possible for customers.”

For public servants, the final step is taking these insights and working out how to influence government decision-making through the lens of the customer, which Murphy concedes is “not a natural historical fit for government” — but is one NSW has been focused on for eight years.

The journey

The creation of the Department of Customer Service follows years of work in NSW to improve the government’s offering and simplify the experience for customers.

Back in 2012 Mike Pratt — now secretary at the Treasury — was appointed customer service commissioner. He came into government from the banking sector, where customer service has long been a key focus, and started out setting up the infrastructure to better understand customer needs.

Then along came Service NSW. It was born out of the realisation that government appeared to customers as a confusing agglomeration of organisations, shopfronts, brands and ways of working. Instead, the idea was to take that complexity away from the customer and place it behind the Service NSW counter. Under the leadership of Glenn King, Service NSW opened its first shopfront in Kiama in 2013, expanding to around 100 today.

Then the government embarked on a brand consolidation drive focused around the state emblem, the waratah, to make it easier to identify what belongs to the state government.

“I think at the time pretty much every government agency or department had its own separate brand,” says Murphy.

“Many of them, it was hard to tell if they were even government entities at all, let alone whether you could tell the difference between a state government, council or federal government entity.”

This year the government has been consolidating its websites, and is in the process of reducing them from around 800 — with a wide variety of different looks, navigation and information styles — down to a single portal, nsw.gov.au.

Even the way information is presented on the new site has been approached from the view of customer needs, says Murphy.

“All that information is available there, and not just like chapters in a book, but brought together in a way that is meaningful for our customers, so when they’re looking for something, they can go there and get the whole story in one place.”

Customers in the pandemic

As the government’s experience has grown, so has its range of capabilities.

Murphy’s own team comprises several distinct functions.

“There’s what was previously the customer service commission, which really tries to understand the customer’s experience of government, what’s working, what’s not, how do we join things up in a way that makes sense for customers, rather than present things in a way that makes sense to departmental silos.”

Then there’s the NSW government behavioural insights unit, which applies understandings of psychology and norms to tailor services to how people actually work in the real world, and the state data analytics centre, which offers insights into how people are engaging with those services.

It also includes the state’s whole of government communications and engagement team, which runs nsw.gov.au and a range of social media channels, and has a centralised role managing the government brand and advertising.

This combination of functions has proven useful during the coronavirus crisis.

“There’s been a lot of deep interaction there between the customer experience unit, the data people, and the comms team in understanding what our customers are feeling on a daily basis, and using that information to make sure we’re targeting the right messages to the right places,” Murphy explains.

“We’ve been able to take those capabilities around customer insights and use that to really get a picture every day of how the community has been feeling around COVID, and responding to that in real time almost.”

For example, they’re able to watch what kind of information people have been searching for around lockdowns, which suggests what might be unclear in communications, and where other issues might lie.

“We can use that to make sure we front-foot that in our engagement, whether it’s through clarifying information on our website or using our social media channels to get messages out.”

There were a lot of questions from businesses about how to operate safely, and from customers about how they would know if their local cafe was abiding by social distancing measures. So the government worked with businesses to develop a COVID-safe help and registration process, which allowed them to change their practices and provide information for customers.

Customers could then also provide feedback about how well that shop or cafe was providing a safe environment, allowing the business to improve its performance.

Tell us once

The department has been doing work recently around the ‘tell us once’ concept, so citizens don’t have to give the same details to each agency separately, but can choose to have their information shared across government.

There are three main ways this can be useful:

  • Tell us once who you are, so you don’t have to fill out forms demonstrating your identity multiple times;
  • Tell us once if something has changed — your name, or a change in circumstances;
  • Tell us once if you need help — setting up a business, accessing services while in coronavirus lockdown, and so on.

The importance of third category was demonstrated in the aftermath of the bushfires earlier this year.

“A lot of people had their homes destroyed and damaged, and there was a whole range of federal, state and local government, and non-government, support set up,” Murphy explains.

“It was great to see all these organisations get around it. But what very quickly started to happen was if your house burned down, suddenly you’re confronted with 30 different organisations that all wanted to help you, but they all had different rules, application forms, phone numbers to call. You were in a difficult situation where you didn’t have a place to live, you barely had any power in your phone, you’re trying to contact all these places, and it all became really difficult.

“If you look at it from the perspective of any of those organisations, they were doing the right thing by trying to help. But from the customer’s perspective it was really confusing and challenging.

“So a great thing that was set up in Service NSW was the single concierge service, to allow someone to come to Service NSW and say: ‘my house has burned down, this is my situation’, then Service NSW would identify the opportunities, do the warm handovers to the various support services, so you didn’t have to go around and tell that painful story over and over again.”

Something similar has also been done with the Australian Death Notification Service, which allows you to tick a box when reporting the death of a loved one to a government department or bank, so that that institution will inform others on your behalf. It’s also built to give feedback to the citizen when that information has been registered.

“At the moment you might send out information to a whole lot of organisations and not even know if your loved one even had an account with them that’s closed or not, but this way you get a notification back,” he says.

NSW is also working to improve the customer experience at the start of life — as jurisdictions such as Singapore have already done — where parents need to engage with several different services — registering a birth, getting a birth certificate, obtaining vaccinations, and so on.

“When you look at it from the customer’s perspective, all those interactions are interactions with the government. So how can we turn that into a seamless journey that’s easy to follow, easy to know what to do?”

It’s all part of reimagining how government presents itself. Rather than designing services with the government’s own structure and silos as the starting point, Murphy wants agencies to think about what the citizen needs.

“It’s a different way of thinking about how we deliver government — from the customer’s perspective.”

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