Supporting Northumberland County Council to digitally transform how its customers interact with the Council
The geographically largest and most rural Unitary Authority in the UK, covering 5,014 km² and supporting 350,000 residences and 140,000 households.
Putting its customers at the heart of everything it does, the Council is committed to improving access to, and delivery of its range of services. To realise key outcomes of its Digital Strategy, a need was identified for the development and delivery of a Contact Centre and Unified Communications (UC) strategy, enabling all customer contact to be intelligently serviced by the most appropriate person or automated service available, and increasing the availability of self-service features to provide round-the-clock support. The contact centre currently handles around 30,000 calls a month and the project will open additional, more convenient, channels for customers, such as chat and social media, with direct access to over 25 Council services, including tax, housing, benefits, parks and recreation, and refuse collection.
The Council’s ageing contact centre and telephony platform needed significant investment to maintain and was no longer able to meet the Council’s needs, nor the ambitions expressed in the Councils Digital Strategy: to “deliver services digitally, enabling more self-service so the Council can focus resources on areas of need and vulnerability…the service process needs to take advantage of ways technology can replace manual processes, and information from various sources can be used to inform decision-making.”
Furthermore, the platform was unstable and awkward for agents to use, frequently experiencing outages, and unable to support the new ways of working that COVID-19 had made essential. In addition, as a traditional on-premises solution, it made use of legacy underlying platforms which frequently presented regulatory security challenges. The Council, therefore, needed guidance on upgrading or replacing the legacy platforms in the short-term, while ensuring that its longer-term digital ambitions could be supported.
Our development of a Contact Centre and UC Strategy included a thorough assessment of the current state, requirements capture, and creating a set of user stories to quantify the limitations of the current solution, future aspirations, and compare potential solutions based on outcomes rather than technological functionality. We undertook an options analysis, including alignment with the digital strategy, solution feasibility, cost modelling, an outline business case and strategic roadmap. We recommended a Target Communications Model, unifying all contact across the Council, and offering customers consistency of experience with the most appropriate available resource.
Following a market assessment, we recommended and managed the delivery of a Pilot, based on migrating the Councils Customer Contact Centre to Amazon Connect Contact Centre services, supported by Microsoft Teams for UC, and an expansion of the existing mobile service, for a comprehensive contact experience which exploited existing Council investment. We also managed an agile sourcing strategy which offered efficient routes to market for different aspects of the solution, including Amazon Web Services, the identification of appropriate delivery partner and Microsoft for procurement of additional Teams licensing.
We then managed the delivery of the Proof of Concept supporting the Council’s operational business teams to clearly articulate requirements to the delivery partner, MissionLabs. Leading the Council’s technical teams, we provided architecture services to ensure the solution was designed in accordance with Council standards and a suitable support model was implemented. We defined a Minimum Viable Product specification, based on user stories, to replicate the existing solution, which enabled the delivery of a fully operational solution within three months and provided a more stable, user-friendly platform which fully supported remote agents.
After the migration of agents and services to the new platform, we oversaw the delivery of enhanced functionality from MissionLabs, including integration with Microsoft Teams to improve the agent experience and call flow with back-office, and with Facebook Messenger to provide new channels for customers. We continued to identify and implement subsequent transformation stages, including the wholesale migration of additional business groups to the new service, including Revenues & Benefits and Leisure, and the identification, design, and delivery of the business change to transform specific customer journeys.
As the first Local Authority to adopt Amazon Connect for frontline contact services, it was important for the Council’s CIO and team to adopt an iterative and agile delivery approach: new ideas were quickly tested, assessed and either adopted, adapted, or abandoned. Applying an agile approach to G-Cloud sourcing, selection, and onboarding of the Amazon Connect delivery partner, reduced a typical 12-18 month procurement and delivery cycle to 6 months, significantly reduced delivery costs, and gave the Council early, hands-on experience of the solution so it could feedback directly into the design iterations, whilst quickly delivering direct benefits to users and customers
The platform is highly available, with a contracted SLA of 99.99%, and, in practice, even higher platform stability than this has been achieved. Business Continuity processes have been simplified, with agents able to work from home, and emergency call flows easily initiated from anywhere. Agile deployment of this innovative cloud service has mitigated the risks associated with the legacy platforms and saved the Council approximately GBP0.5 million over five years against its expected costs. Furthermore, the capital expenditure required to achieve the transformation was lower than expected, due to the adoption of a consumption-based pricing model. This means that the Council’s operating costs are now directly proportional to its demand – if contact into the Council can be reduced, ongoing costs will drop accordingly. These funds will be invested in developing new transformed digital services to support its customers.
The innovative approach to sourcing combined with the use of modern cloud technologies, resulted in an accelerated delivery and migration, providing partner identification, selection and contract award within two months and delivery within three months, resulting in direct benefits to the Council and their customers 12 months earlier than expected timelines.
With the expansion of the service across the Council to non-traditional Contact Centre users, service to customers has vastly improved, supporting more effective interaction handling and active real-time management of more contacts.
The Contact Centre has already delivered significant benefit to customers by opening new digital channels for communication, and to staff, by providing a stable platform which fully supports location independent working. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability for Agents to work easily from various locations has made a huge difference to the Council’s ability to effectively service Customers, whilst ensuring the safety and wellbeing of its employees. Feedback from agents has been uniformly positive, with the simplicity and ease-of-use being highlighted as particularly beneficial. The adoption of Amazon Connect, combined with an Agile delivery has resulted in a reduced time to deliver new features and capabilities, and ongoing iteration means that the platform can adapt as the needs of Customers and the Council change over time.
The new platform can now also support rapid business change. During the recent Storm Arwen, the Council declared a Major Incident to deal with the disruption. This caused an unexpected increase in volumes into the Contact Centre, and also the requirement to open the Contact Centre outside of working hours – the new system was able to handle both of these unplanned changes seamlessly, with no additional licensing, configuration or change needed.
Moreover, the new platform actively supports the Council’s Digital Transformation journey. It provides advanced services and technologies on which the Council can build, such as Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, Chatbots, advanced Analytics including sentiment analysis. Critically, it removes the traditional cost barrier to enabling these technologies. Previously, the Council would have had to invest significant capital funds to build these capabilities, placing them out of reach – but, with the Amazon Web services consumption model, they are available directly to the Council to be used as and when they are needed, facilitating low cost innovation and experimentation, agile provision of self-service, exploitation of digital channels, and ultimately enabling the Council to innovate quickly and provide enhanced, intelligent and effective digital services to the people of Northumberland.
“Mason Advisory were initially engaged for a relatively small piece of work to help define our requirements for the replacement of our legacy contact centre and telephony solution. Following the success of this engagement we have now developed a true partnership with them and see them as a fundamental part of our team helping to define our network and communications strategy going forward, with them supporting us on our WAN procurement, Teams Voice Deployment and Amazon Connect Contact Centre implementation.”
Neil Arnold, former Chief Information Officer – Northumberland County Council