No Match Found
With PwC’s help, Hillingdon Council is the first UK local authority to have deployed an automated voice and web chat solution at scale.
Hillingdon Council has been able to quickly derive value from its investment with the solution able to handle the equivalent work capacity of between 20 to 26 full-time employees, helping it achieve a return on investment (ROI) that saves the Council £5 for every £1 spent.
Hillingdon Council was seeking to further improve, advice and transactional support to its citizens. Whilst enhancements had been made to its online support channels, the number of voice call enquiries remained very high. Because of this, the Council’s contact centre would either need to grow with demand, or not adequately serve all its citizen enquiries, with voice calls taking up a big proportion of its available query handling time.
Like most councils Hillingdon needed to simultaneously find efficiencies and maintain customer service levels. Rather than simply expanding or contracting the same approaches, they decided to take much bigger steps towards digital enablement to improve how it handled enquiries about services.
Working with PwC, Hillingdon Council has become the first local authority in the UK to deploy a conversational artificial intelligence (AI)-powered call and web chat facility at scale to handle citizen enquiries. The Council has been able to quickly derive value from its investment with the solution able to handle the equivalent work capacity of between 20 to 26 full-time employees. Put simply, it allowed the Council to handle more enquiries, with better service levels, with no additional staff required. Hillingdon Council now handles over 30,000 calls that would have previously been answered by staff with the AI Contact solution, helping it achieve a return on investment (ROI) that saves the Council £5 for every £1 spent.
PwC also worked with the Council to enable contact centre staff to add new automated calls to handle additional services enquiries. Hillingdon Council now has the confidence to focus on additional and innovative service improvements, without having to depend on third-party assistance—and it is continuing to strengthen how citizen enquiries are handled.
As a local authority, Hillingdon Council provides a wide range of services to its citizens in Greater London. These responsibilities include housing, social care, health, waste collection and environmental services.
Like many UK councils, it had been using a traditional approach when handling citizen queries. First, citizens were directed to online channels. Should these fail to satisfy an enquiry or if any citizen was not comfortable using them, a central contact centre operated by council employees was used as the next step, using automated telephony.
While Hillingdon had worked to enhance the functionality of its online channel, its call volumes remained high—even for low-level enquiries—with the Council needing to maintain around 70 full-time employees to staff its contact centre. In addition, the complexity of some calls meant the online channel was unable to deal with them adequately, putting further strain on the contact centre. Finding and retaining contact centre operatives was another issue, with private-sector employers offering more competitive pay rates.
Following the election of a new council leader and the appointment of a new council chief executive, the Council put a renewed focus on providing citizens with a digital-enabled, modern and well-run council. The Council believed that using smart digital services could do more than release efficiencies—it would also improve the delivery of services to citizens.
Hillingdon Council turned to PwC to help it achieve its initial aims at pace. Because of the popularity of voice calls, PwC suggested replacing first-line voice contact with an automated voice service using conversational AI—similar to those used in banking and financial services—rather than an online-only solution. PwC also recommended removing contact centre email channels, supporting automated calls with web chat capabilities and improving web content to reduce overall voice call demand.
To ensure the effectiveness of the new service and to maintain the customer experience, PwC conducted a study. It identified that a significant volume of customer contact was highly transactional—between 30% to 40%—and therefore suitable for automation. The business case also contained detailed analytics of the borough population, which indicated that take-up of such services would be high, reaching as much as 80% for some caller types. However, the Council needed to ensure that vulnerable residents across the borough and those who may struggle to use the automated line would not be shut out. To address the Council’s need for social inclusion and to ensure accessibility to services, PwC suggested retaining first-line voice capabilities for those with specific needs and vulnerabilities—and for those that found using automated voice call instructions difficult or confusing.
The resulting transformation found that 40% of those largely transactional calls would be best suited to conversational AI. This included items such as paying rent, finding out the day for rubbish collection or reporting when a rubbish bin had not been collected. It also factored in basic social care service support, such as requesting an adult social care assessment or reporting a change of circumstances.
PwC recommended working with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to jointly deliver the AI-based voice channel and web chat facility, using the cloud-based Amazon Connect. Amazon Connect is based on a usage model rather than on licence fees, thus costs would only be incurred when the service was actually used and could scale up and down to satisfy demand. With automated calls costing significantly less than those handled by a contact centre operative, the new service promised to deliver much better value for money.
Following a successful pilot, PwC put in place an implementation process to support the delivery of the new automated call and web chat solution:
The first step was user research. The project team looked at what users actually say when they contact the Council, rather than using official terminology that wasn’t used in conversation. For example, the research showed that when citizens called to advise that their waste hadn’t been collected, they mainly reported a ‘missed bin’ instead of using the official Council term ‘missed collection’.
After research, came design. This meant working in close collaboration with contact centre staff to define the future call flow needed to deliver an efficient and effective service to customers.
The design was then built, creating the call flows and connecting them to the customer’s data to enable call fulfilment—using APIs, to draw data from the Council’s MyAccount platform, which it uses to power its online citizen portal—and then testing the build with staff to make sure it worked. The automated system was also designed to automatically route calls to the Council’s contact centre to speak directly to an operative, should any citizen fail to be understood.
The final step was to go live and adjust the telephony system to connect to the new automated voice capability.
The implementation process paid off, with the entire programme completed in under four months. The new conversational AI solution has eliminated call waiting times, using cloud technology that allows for all calls to be taken instantly. The cloud-based solution also maintains the same levels of customer experience and outcomes of a human voice call. PwC was also able to help the Council provide a more integrated approach in handling calls so that, when needed, enquiries can be passed to the corresponding council department.
The solution powered by Amazon Connect, developed by PwC and AWS powered by Amazon Connect, now fulfils the Council’s aim of harnessing the power of technology, and forms the first part of its strategic digital transformation.
To build the Council’s capability and prevent any future dependency on third parties when setting up automated services, PwC instituted a ‘see one, lead one, do one’ process to inculcate learning for the contact centre operatives and technology team. This entailed showing how a journey works, working on one with them and enabling the team to develop one itself.
Buy-in for the new solution was essential. PwC worked closely with all Hillingdon Council stakeholders to ensure each could contribute their thinking to the project so the solution could meet the needs of all. This involved engaging with the actual people that would be operating the system, namely the contact centre manager and personnel—and ensuring the Council’s chief executive and its councillors were looped into the development process. By resolving all queries and issues early on, PwC was able to make sure that the new system would fulfil its original aims.
With PwC’s help, Hillingdon Council is the first UK local authority to have deployed an automated voice and web chat solution at scale. The cost per call using the automated solution is just 5% of the call cost when handled by human operatives. The solution also provides the net equivalent capacity of up to 26 full-time employees. We estimate that the AI-powered solution will provide a 5:1 ROI ratio over three years, delivering a cost saving of £5 for every pound spent.
The Council will also able to handle 40% of all calls with its conversational AI system, with the Council building new service automations itself. High call volumes can also be managed with ease, such as when the waste collection day was changed for 52% of the Council’s residents. The web chat feature can handle unlimited numbers of interactions as well, supporting the Council in dealing with the 20,000 plus enquiries it receives each year for council house rent and rent payment queries alone.
The new solution also provides a level of management information. For example, the system uses sentiment analysis to understand call success rates and identify when a caller needs extra assistance. The system also monitors call completion times and data consumption to assist the call centre manager in understanding where additional improvements can be made in handling enquiries.
Thanks to a successful start, Hillingdon Council now has more confidence in building out its digital transformation with a better supported culture of innovation and a structured approach to continuous improvement. Following the experience of working with PwC, the Council is working on developing a customer experience hub made up of service designers, automation specialists, web technologists and customer experts. Its aim is to continue to further enhance access to, and enquiries about, services so the Council can continually improve how it serves its citizens.