Automation could provide quicker access to answers from county hall

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Residents phoning Lancashire County Council could soon find themselves talking to technology for the first part of their call.

The authority is to start trialling voice recognition software next month, which will enable callers who know the name of the person they need to be put through to them – without having to go via county hall’s call centre.

Meanwhile, residents ringing about a social care case – which account for the majority of contacts with the council – could eventually be able to dial in their account number so that their call is answered by the person dealing with that case.

“The first minute and a half of a call is checking details,” Terry Hall from the Customer Access Centre, told members of the council’s internal scrutiny committee.

He pledged that the systems would not be rolled out if they were found not to be effective, but added: “If we do it successfully and the customer uses it once and enjoys the experience, then we’ve succeeded.”

Members heard that county hall is trying to reduce the reasons people have to make contact by phone – and instead encourage use of their website. The authority was contacted on 1.1 million separate occasions during 2017/18, the vast majority of which were phone calls.

The proportion of calls answered within a target time of 40 seconds has increased to more than half in recent months, but in the last financial year, between 10 and 15 percent of calls went unanswered.

The call centre has shed more than 40 staff in the past four years, as it attempts to make savings of £1.5m by the start of the next decade.

Terry White told members that there was little scope left to be more efficient without causing residents to feel rushed – which is why attention has turned to the online service.

“[We need to] develop our website offering so if people want to report something or apply for something, they can do so in a user-friendly way. It means they don’t have to contact us and we have the time and capacity [to help] people who do need to call.”

The meeting heard that there were no plans to outsource call-handling work – because evidence from other local authorities showed that it sometimes caused “the balance to tip away from customer service”.