Telford and Wrekin council share their journey to successful AI driven channel shift
Updated: May 5
During a recent webinar (watch that here) with long term customer Telford and Wrekin Council, we were joined by Customer Contact Group Manager Gemma Hancox.
During the event Gemma shared her reduction in year-on-year call volumes compared to big increases in online self-serving. This shift in channel preference by her users has been accelerated by the deployment of Tom, the council's AI assistant built on ICS.AI's SMART Chat language model for councils.
Here are some of the talking points from her discussion with ICS.AI's own CEO and Co-Founder Martin Neale.
Hi Gemma, you've been able to review the business impacts. Can you share your key observations?
The decrease in call volumes has been huge and it's had a huge impact. We've seen a 37% decrease in calls into environmental services (bins), which is one of the most popular things that people call about. To have that reduction means we can use that resource and move it elsewhere in the team. It helps us without costing us any more money. With a 25% increase in reporting online, not only does it help answer questions that residents have, but it also points them in the right direction to be able to report more online.
We've had that decrease in call volumes across four of the largest call volume services. With council tax, we've had a small increase in call volumes. But when you look at the house building that's happening within Telford and Wrekin, we've had nearly 26,000 new properties added to our council tax register over the last three years. So all of those accounts equates to that small increase in core volume, but then we've had a 38% increase in reporting online.
Were you surprised by that level of decrease?
Yes, really surprised. Particularly in the environmental side of things. We knew we'd seen a decrease, but nearly 40% is just huge. It's meant so much to us from both a budget and customer experience point of view.
Could you give some background to your team?
We handled 251,000 calls, 60,000 emails and 10,000 web chats last year. I've got 30 staff (full and part time) who answer calls for 16 different services. That's everything ranging from council tax, to housing benefits, waste, theatre bookings, crisis calls like food parcel applications, library calls and registration services (i.e. registering births, deaths, marriages).
Keeping you very busy I imagine! So what impact has this had on on waiting times?
Absolutely huge. It's only when you go back and you look year-on-year that you actually realise what a huge impact this has had. The customer experience is really important to us; we've recently rewritten our customer strategy. To be able to prove that we've had these reductions in not only waiting times, but also abandoned rates as well is just fantastic and shows how much we're trying to support the customer in getting the right information.
For revenues (calls coming in for council tax and business rates), we've seen a 29% reduction in the longest wait time. That's equivalent to eleven minutes! Then a 32% reduction for the environmental calls, which equates to about eight and a half minutes off our longest wait time. It's just brilliant. We're also seeing a 3% reduction in our abandonment rate on our revenues or council tax calls. We've gone down to an average of around 5.6% abandoned within revenues. For environmental calls, we've seen a huge 10.3% reduction in average abandon rate, which means we're now below below 3% every month.
And how's the senior leadership reacted?
The counsellors are always talking to their residents and constituents. If they can say we're offering this amazing service where the wait times aren't long and their calls will be answered quickly, or they've got Tom that they can use 24 hours a day to quickly find the information they need, then it's always going to be a plus point.
I guess one of the concerns you might have had is how's your team and residents going to react?
It's all been fantastic really. As a team we knew it was going to help residents get the information from us quickly. Residents don't need to call us as they just need to find something online, so we always knew it was going to help.
It's also helping the residents that aren't so comfortable going online. We've got phone messaging and social media activity that tells them about Tom, so they know it's there.
We've had lots of positives, I think the customer satisfaction in Tom is something crazy like 99.4%. So the feedback on it is absolutely fantastic.
Additionally, from a staff wellbeing point of view, I could never have imagined how much it has helped. The majority of my team are home workers now and it's great to have this knowledge there that they can use to refer to if they need to; it's another resource and helps them feel part of a team, even though they're working from home.
Linked to this, we've seen a huge reduction (16%) in our short-term sickness in the last 12 months. It contributes to resources that we give our staff when they're at home, to help them in their day-to-day role.
That's amazing. So you recently deployed Tom into the MyTelford mobile app. How has that helped?
It's really important to us; we're always talking about the customer experience and we get feedback from our residents. We've got residents groups that we interact with, street champions who are out there litter picking and reporting things in the environment to us, and having Tom built within the app means they can do whatever they need, wherever they are. They may be at the top of the Wrekin, litter picking, or they may be dog walking - if they can't find what to do on the app, they've got Tom there to support them. It's amazing how much feedback we've had from the champions and our residents group who've said, "Oh, I met a dog walker, and we were talking about this and I said didn't you know, you can use this". They feed it to each other and let each other know what it's all about.
From the point of view of getting the word out there, we've got a lot of residence groups on social media and it really helps people do things online. You quite often see them talking about Tom on the app on Facebook, for example, and supporting other residents to use it.
I understand Telford recently got recognised with a nomination for local authority the year. How much of this kind of initiative is in improving customer service?
It's really important and it's at the heart of everything that we do. We really pride ourselves on customer experience, it's as important to us as our staff wellbeing. Our customer satisfaction rates for calls last year were around 92% so it's what we're striving towards.
When we get nominated for things like local authority of the year, you just feel the pride really. To have all these different tools that help us towards them, it's just a win/win and obviously when you're talking to cabinet and senior management team about it, t's all really positive.
A final question from me, why did you choose to work with us?
We weren't actively looking, we were thinking about it. Having something like Tom was on our wish list; it was a 'if we could do it we would'. We thought we'd put our toe in the water and have a look what was out there. We had a couple of other demos, and we just really didn't like the demos we saw.
Someone from from ICS.AI contacted our IT team to set up a demo and we all came out blown away by the art of the possible. You showed us what we could do, from answering simple questions to so much possibility.
It was never sold to us, it was always "what do you want to do?". You weren't saying "this is our product, this is our package, there you go". You would tailor the approach based on what we wanted to achieve. We found your approach very friendly and supportive; it didn't matter what we asked, nothing ever felt like a silly question.
They are just some of the reasons why we chose to work with you. That has been continuous from day one and it just gets more and more positive as we go along on the journey.
To close, we talked about how a council can drive their own inbound demand - I think you had something topical on just that?
What's really topical for a lot of us is the £150 energy rebate that's coming to band A-D properties. That was something that we had to process quickly. Over 40,000 properties in Telford and Wrekin got their £150 pounds no problem as they pay by direct debit. But,
we had just over 17,000 properties that didn't pay by direct debit. So, we've had to contact those and we're getting lots of traffic and inbound questions. That's a campaign we've done in the last couple of days. We saw we were starting to get these questions and we were able to get the answers and information into Tom very quickly, which in turn reduces the volume of inbound calls.
Find out more about Telford's channel shift success by watching our webinar. Presented by ICS.AI's own CEO, Martin Neale, and featuring Gemma Hancox, as a guest speaker.
Find out more about our AI assistants by visiting our Smart Chat page. Or simply contact us via our Contact page.
Note: This interview have been extracted, transcribed and edited from a live webinar event.