Bristol City Council call centre leaving residents hanging on phone three times longer than two-minute target

Managers have admitted the current system ‘needs replacing’

Residents are being left hanging on the telephone to Bristol City Council’s helpline more than three times longer than the two-minute target.

Calls are being answered in an average of just over 6min 30sec by staff at the citizen service centre (CSC), which handles 700,000 enquiries a year about almost 40 of the authority’s services including benefits, council tax, bin collections, care and housing.

Waiting times have soared during the pandemic as a result of advisers having to work from home and the complex nature of many calls, as well as dated phone and IT systems, councillors heard.

Communities scrutiny commission members were told that council officers were now focused over the next six months on shortening the length people are put on hold, such as by introducing chatbots and more self-serve options and improving how people can contact the authority online.

Home working has been ‘huge challenge’ for advisers

Advertisement

Citizen services manager Darin Hedges told the meeting that the CSC’s 130 advisers were trained to deal with up to 10 different services and that while the team switched to working from home overnight when the pandemic began, this presented its own issues that affected phone waiting times.

It is thought the ‘overnight switch’ to homeworking at the start of the pandemic could be to blame.

He said: “There are a few different reasons why our wait time is unfortunately behind target, although that peaks and troughs for different services and different times of the day.

“Some have to do with the technology, the home-working, more complex calls, some are about training and development of staff and it being more difficult to do that at home because when you’re not sat next to people you can’t have normal conversations and if you get stuck you have to message somebody and wait for them to see it and answer.

“Home working has been a huge challenge. We were able to do it quite quickly because we had the technology but the challenges that brought made things much more difficult.

Advertisement

“We’ve seen a big increase in calls from vulnerable citizens.”

‘The current system does need replacing’

Commission chairman Green Cllr Martin Fodor said: “The call waits really affect a lot of residents who we are trying to help, especially if we’ve directed them to make the call to get something resolved.

“How is that going to be tackled to bring it back to a shorter delay?”

Mr Hedges said: “It’s something we are working on a lot at the moment.

“Hopefully as we move forward we can bring people back in, and we are getting new telephony because we have system issues that affect calls which can drop out. The current system does need replacing.

Advertisement

“Pretty much all our work over the next six months is how we address that waiting time and bring it down.

“It’s about us using our resources more effectively. We’re not going to get any more so we’ve got to manage with what we’ve got and try to find ways to support people who contact us and give answers quicker.

“It’s definitely realistic to reduce waiting times. Two minutes would be a big achievement in the current environment but if we can bring it down by a minute or two across the board, that’s probably what we want to aim for to start with, and then when we get the new technology and get people back into offices we can bring it down a bit more.”

He said they were awaiting the approval of a digital transformation programme which would make it easier for

residents to make contact via the internet.

Advertisement

“We have some services online but there are lots of services we could get online and have better integration, such as not having to put emails into the system.”

How the new system will work

A report to the meeting on Monday, February 21, said: “The new telephony will allow newer features such as chatbots and more self-serve options to be introduced which citizens now expect when they call a contact centre.

“The CSC aims to answer calls within 120 seconds.

The average wait time has been significantly higher over the last two years due to the nature of calls.

“The average handle time across most services has increased which does mean that during some periods of the day the average wait time is significantly higher than 120 seconds.

Advertisement

“The CSC is able to analyse the busy periods and where possible schedules more staff. “There are, however, still times where the demand for service far exceeds the available resource.

“During busy periods, citizens are offered a call back or are signposted to online services.”