Local authorities must respond rapidly to citizen complaints raised through social media and other digital channels or risk reputation damage as people's patience grows ever shorter, one council web analyst said this week.
John Fox, reviewer for the public sector IT management body Socitm's annual "Better connected" survey of UK council websites, told UKAuthority.com many councils still applied the same response time targets to email as they do to letters - typically within 10 days of receipt - when this is no longer adequate.
"The general expectation is that an email will be replied to within a shorter timeframe, and not many customers would regard a ten day timeframe as short," said Fox. "These response times - often contained in customer 'charters' - must now be revisited to ensure customer interactions via social media are both recognised and suitably resourced internally."
The result, Fox said, could be that citizens shift their complaints to more expensive non-digital channels. "At a time when councils should be encouraging customers to use cheaper digital channels to access services as often as possible, delays in responding to emails may well lead to further unnecessary contact from the customer, either in the form of a follow-up email or a telephone call to enquire whether the original contact was received."
Failure by a council to respond to contacts or complaints by social media also create potential risks to reputation since social media are more public than other channels, Fox said.
"A failed attempt by a customer to engage the council using Twitter or Facebook, for example, may be followed up with a further, more exasperated attempt. This has potential to damage a council's reputation as 'retweets' of negative comments may occur, or worse still others may join the fray. One negative comment about the council could quickly go viral if an individual has a wide circle of friends or followers."
Fox's comments follow publication of a survey by Omnibus commissioned by customer service software firm KANA which found that the proliferation of digital devices and social networks has hugely shortened British consumers' tolerance of waiting times from several days to a matter of minutes.
The KANA survey found channels now used for complaints include email on smartphones, laptops and PCs; Twitter; texts; and Facebook. In fact, the average UK consumer has used 7.4 channels of electronic communication in the past six months, the report finds. Amongst 18-to-24 year olds, this figure rises to 8.4 channels. The figure is lowest in the 65+ age bracket, but even this age band uses 6.2 methods of electronic communication.
And once contacts are sent, a speedy reply is expected, the report found. It found that men then check a device for responses on average about every 23 minutes, while women check every 26 minutes. "The 65+ age group checks devices more frequently than the 45-64 year old group, reflecting the time they have available and their newly developed digital capabilities", the survey found. "This suggests digitally enabled pensioners will become the prolific and demanding complainants within five years."
"In the past 10 years, organisations have lost the 'time shield' previously offered by postal services", said David Moody, head of product strategy at KANA, in a statement issued alongside the research. "The sense that a letter was on a journey and could be anywhere between the sender and the recipient has been lost", Moody said. "Our impression today is that as soon as we press send, 'Mr or Ms Cosgrove in Complaints' should be reading our complaint and working out how to respond. If we don't hear back quickly, our impatience rises."
Organisations need to respond to this new environment, Moody said.
"Reductions in consumer tolerance can and should be met with a level of service that meets revised expectation", he said. "The technology already exists to support organisations that wish to monitor all channels and deal with queries and complaints in a rapid and personal fashion. Companies that don't adjust their processes in the age of the adept digital consumer will be the losers."
John Fox agreed adaptation is needed, and said council must make sure they allocate adequate resources to it.
"The other aspect of digital engagement is adequate resourcing and back office admin. Has adequate resourcing been identified to ensure personnel cover during sickness or holiday absence? How will customer interactions on Twitter or Facebook be recorded for customer relationship management purposes and for evidence of interactions for channel shift statistics?
"The whole operation needs to be thought through to include the back office activity that will support staff who are responding to customers via social media. I suspect many authorities learn this the hard way."
UK local authorities' use of social media will be examined in detail as part of this year's annual 'Better connected' council websites review from Socitm. The "digital engagement" survey will appear within the main Better connected report on 3 March.
Pictured: Mobile phones by Paul Clarke http://paulclarke.com
Better connected: www.socitm.net/research/socitm-insight/better-connected