Citizen Contact Strategy
Establishing the most efficient strategy for the collection of council tax and business rates is a critical challenge for all local authorities. One of the biggest difficulties is caused by the variety of ways to communicate with citizens.
We constantly read about the pressure on councils to move towards digitisation and self-service but the fact remains that the collection and retention of data relating to mobile phones and email addresses is an onerous task. In truth, local authorities have a poor grasp of data records for digital channels, understandable when one considers that most people have more than one email address and that mobile phone numbers can change every few years. Compare this complexity to a fixed postal address which rarely changes.
For now, when it comes to receiving council rates and bills, postal communications remain the channel of choice for the majority of citizens. The psychology of the paper bill is important to many – a physical reminder that remains in sight until dealt with. Undoubtedly, this mindset will evolve but nobody has a timescale for this evolution. The danger for local authorities is to assume that, because they are currently using the most appropriate channel, the documents they send are therefore doing their job.
In fact, postal communications represent a missed opportunity for a lot of councils. Through our work with the private sector we have built up a real understanding of the importance of document design to open-rates and bill payment efficiency. The sole purpose of billing communications is to drive response and swift payment – the more efficient that response, the less money that is spent on fielding queries. Making the communication immediately understandable, with a clear call-to-action reduces the time spent handling calls and allows for a more efficient call-centre service. Resulting savings can run into many thousands.
Too often, documents are simply not fit for purpose, or not designed in a way that maximises their potential. Forward-thinking councils are undertaking a complete top-to-toe audit of their communication processes, looking at audience demographics, available data (and quality of that data) and communication design.
Sometimes, simple changes can transform the effectiveness of a document. Subtleties such as font usage and positioning of words on the page, along with intelligent use of colour can make a tangible difference. Changes can also be applied to the envelope itself, again using colour or adopting different designs more akin to the pressure-sealed documents common to financial services communications. The documents can also be made to ‘work harder’ with any white space utilised to carry additional messaging.
Ultimately, councils simply cannot afford to discriminate – communications must be inclusive. Somewhat surprisingly, nearly seven million UK adults have never used the internet and, of those that have, millions still choose paper bills over digital alternatives. The picture will continue to change; indeed some councils are already successfully combining digital and physical communication techniques. Typically, the communications cycle for council tax or business rates can run to four or five touch-points with each citizen receiving an original bill, reminders and confirmation. Does this work best as an entirely paper-based process? Would reminder prompts work better as text messages or emails? Questions of this nature will continue to arise as councils seek to further reduce inefficiency and cost.
In every case, the answer is to regularly review and test, refining processes and staying ahead of shifting trends. Not every authority will have the capacity to conduct this regular review pattern which is why third-party expertise can be invaluable.