Exploring the use of video calling appointments to improve the efficiency, accessibility and effectiveness of customer services through face-to-face communication.

Full Application: Not funded at this stage

This project aims to allow councils, through video calling, to gain the benefits of face-to-face communication without the traditional associated costs. When redeveloping its website in 2015, AVDC found that costs for managing customer interactions stood at £0.17 per website visit, £5 per phone call and up to £14 per face-to-face visit. The cost benefit of digitising customer services is clear to see. However, the advantages of face-to-face interactions should not be disregarded if a more cost-effective way of managing these interactions were possible.  

In 2018, WhatsApp alone hosted 55 million video calls worldwide. The widespread use of smart devices with video calling capacity in modern society presents an opportunity for local government to continue to harness modern and cost-effective working practises and technology, whilst also benefiting from the advantages of face-to-face. Albert Mehrabian’s communication theory – the 7%-38%-55% rule – is a widely used theory on communication and highlights the relative impact of words, tone of voice and body language when speaking. Non-verbal communication plays an integral role in understanding and is not possible to convey through a website, automation or phone call. 

Face-to-face interactions are often found to be more effective than email or phone calls in regards to customer satisfaction and understanding. Being able to use the full range of people skills through a face-to-face interaction can vastly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of customer services. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology – face-to-face communication 34x more effective than email. We’re looking to facilitate that face-to-face through video calling.  

In April 2020, Buckinghamshire’s current two-tier authorities merge into a unitary authority, with the new council operating over the whole geographic area. This project could contribute to accessibility for residents to the new council. Technology can support accessibility e.g. people don’t have to travel from home or only travel a short distance to a local hub rather than a central office.  

The stakeholders we would look to directly engage in this project will be the teams and services within the collaborating authorities, and their customers, who currently attend face-to-face meetings in person or are involved in delicate and complex issues which would benefit from face-to-face interaction.  

With advances in the capability, accessibility and common usage of video calling in day-to-day life, councils could be missing the opportunity to benefit from the pros of face-to-face interactions while vastly reducing the costs by using video calling technology. Please see resident survey results.   

Initial research from residents was largely positive towards the idea of video calling with the council. 76% of residents surveyed said they would like the option to use video calling to speaking with their local council. Furthermore, the usage of video calling, smart devices and video call-enabled messaging software, was high. Based on these results we feel that this is a worthwhile area to explore further. 

Comments from residents include:  

  • “In some cases, video calling would be better”. 
  • “It would be easier to talk to someone face to face”. 
  • “Fantastic for elderly people on all accounts”. 
  • “Hoping you can install video chat”. 

The initial assumption on how video calling would work in reality is currently as a tool to be used at officer discretion to assist in certain situations requiring a more personal approach e.g. existing staff housing advice, debt advice, or any service dealing with delicate or complex issues.  

Councils would have a designated area with appropriate devices installed which can be booked out on appointment by officers upon agreeing on video calling appointments with customers. However, this idea is very much dependent on further research before a firm proposal can be reached. We’d also be looking to test when using video would work in a customer service environment as a replacement for existing face-to-face appointments. Housing, Debt Advice, Homelessness service managers at AVDC have all expressed a desire to trial video calling in their service areas to assist with delicate conversations, to better maintain relationships/contact with customers, and to have access to a tool which could provide first point resolution to certain customer queries. 

If successful in our funding application, we will look to employ market research professionals to undertake detailed studies across the councils’ localities and demographics including surveys, focus groups and trials. This will include uncovering local preferences in regards to video calling software; compatible devices most commonly used for video calling; attitudes towards video calling with the council; preferred services to include a video call option; and whether council supplied devices at locations such as libraries and partner buildings would encourage usage. 

External research from the private sector is available and can help inform the project – Useful article from Salesforce on video calling in customer services. 

Please see findings from preliminary resident survey on video calling. 

The financial cost of the issue is hard to quantify at this stage and it is easier to define it as an opportunity lost – the opportunity being to use existing video calling technology to benefit services through face-to-face interactions at a reduced cost. Indirectly, there will be added time and financial cost where issues cannot be resolved satisfactorily in the first instance, e.g. through a phone call, or email, and follow up meetings and actions are required. 

When communicating face-to-face, the speaker can draw on visual cues from the audience to gain quick, immediate feedback and make rapid adjustments as necessary. In appropriate situations, this makes for more effective communication, builds trust and increases the feeling of importance in recipients. A face-to-face interaction over video could have a more beneficial outcome and thereby removed the need, and the costs, of follow up actions. By trialling video calling alongside other forms of communication for the same issues i.e. phone, email, webforms, a clear indication of its financial benefits will be uncovered.    

Reducing costs and improving the customer experience has been the driving force behind the digitisation of services and the growth of self-serve automation in council services. The use of video calling need not, and should not, act contrary to this transformation. Instead, it should complement digitisation as the project proposes to take advantage of existing technology and offer the customer an improved service. 

In theory, if video calling can facilitate better outcomes through face-to-face interactions, then this can be applicable to any council service, at any council, with a customer facing aspect. 

A fortnightly working group is already established between Bucks councils for the unitary merger due to take place in April 2020. This project will be included within this group and allow for all project partners to work together effectively. 

Box cloud-based storage will be used to share project files between partners and allow joint editing. 

Guidance on specialist suppliers to conduct market research from the Local Digital Collaboration Unit, based on their experiences through running the scheme would be beneficial and appreciated.