Kent County Council to deploy webchat to support channel 'stick' and meet budget cuts

A 24-hour webchat service will go live in the coming weeks, allowing residents across Kent to resolve a range of local issues with a trained member of staff online.

Fingers on keyboardKent County Council will use webchat, which lets users communicate via instant messenger or 'IM', to save money as it meets budget cuts and to support its channel shift endeavours.

Initially, the service will be available for 'Highways'-related enquires, such as reporting a pothole or broken street light, or to book a speed-awareness course.

"We've got lots of evidence that people go to our website first to find our phone number", said Peter Brook, Customer Experience Manager at Kent County Council. "We wanted to support people when they are already on a digital channel and help them to continue their digital journey".

While Brook was unable to confirm the service's predicted savings to the council, he said "there is an expectation that webchat will support channel shift or, more specifically, 'channel stick'".

"Webchat is cheaper for us and better for customers", he said. The medium will also suit people for whom making contact with the council is difficult during working hours. Brook said for many people, the ideal time to contact the council is after around 8.00 pm.

Kent County Council later plans to extend the service to incorporate queries about more sensitive, personal issues. "After proving the technology on these services we will look at the suitability for social care", said Brook.

The Council was the first county council in the country to offer a 24-hour contact centre, although the service was suspended 18 months ago following budget cuts. Former "highly-trained advisors" from the now defunct Consumer Direct - a UK-wide Government-funded call centre that provided basic consumer advice - will operate the forthcoming webchat service, said Brook.

While webchat is widespread in the private sector, Brook said "it is surprising that there aren't more councils doing it", adding that a lack of the right technical architecture and the money to invest could be preventing deployment elsewhere.

One of the most high-profile local government users of webchat is Leeds City Council. A year ago webchat was allowing staff to handle 5,000 queries per month, 83% of which are fully resolved at the initial point of contact (read more).