Steve Hawker is a Customer Service Floor Manager at the London Borough of Lambeth. Communicating with disabled clients is a key aspect of Steve’s role and the work of his team. Here, Steve shares his experiences.
Delivering for clients
We issue many services within the customer centre, including parking, council tax, housing benefits, housing management, rents and repairs, social services, school admissions, and homelessness. We deal with these as well as responding to non-face-to-face enquiries on other services, such as licencing and environmental.
As such we are extremely busy each day ensuring that we give the highest level of service to our clients. It is a very fast paced and quite reactionary environment so it’s about giving fast and efficient service; resolving client’s enquiries competently, first time round, and avoiding long waiting periods.
I manage a team of staff who issue our service and manage their development. I am also the lead floor manager for parking and school admissions and have regular meetings to keep communications up on any changes or issues that may have been presented. I also take on more complicated cases or that need higher authorisation or when clients have not felt happy about services. These cases can be quite challenging as the client can be angry, upset or distressed and it is my job to give the best resolution whilst managing their expectations. In my experience, if the client feels they are being listened to and understood, it is the biggest hurdle and the rest will fall under protocol.
Understanding client need
Because it is such a diverse and busy environment, we need to have a deep understanding of our clients and how we can meet their needs. In our customer centre, we offer many different services. We have to have knowledge within all of these services in order to give the correct advice and prevent unnecessary footfall in the future due to clients returning because their enquiry was not resolved first time round.
I come from a customer service background and have a lot of experience in the area. I try to look holistically at how we can give good service, especially when managing a client’s expectations.
In order to understand the many different clients that we see each day we also have training courses which further our knowledge. For example, we have mental health and also people with disabilities training. This is important because some clients with a hidden disability could go unnoticed, but with the right training, staff are able to recognise the client’s needs and provide the right service.
Meeting the needs of disabled clients
Before we opened the Customer Centre, we held consultations to look out how we could better serve local people in the new building. We included some of our disabled community in these discussions. We brainstormed and came up with lots of ideas. Then, before we opened the centre, we invited the same clients to come and do role play to work out the customer journey routes and how different situations would play out.
There is currently new work being carried out on the disabled customer journey. This is a continuous piece of work. It is important to us to ensure a comfortable and easily signposted journey for clients and visitors with staff competently being able to recognise individual needs.
For example, we have staff who floor-walk to spot clients who may find waiting difficult. For our deaf clients, all staff have SignLive on their phones and computers which is a digital interactive interpretation app to contact a sign interpreter as previously we have used paper in order to communicate when our deaf clients have not been able to lip read. We are also discussing signing courses.
Offering services in other ways
It’s paramount that all our residents have access to all the services they need and require from Lambeth Council, as such all our services are located on our website at Lambeth.gov.uk. We are aware that some residents are unable to visit in person and subsequently moving with the times we have tried to make all services easily available online and with relevant contacts details in case residents need to communicate with a specific department.
Normally if any of our residents have a severe disability they would be known to social services and have allocated officers and carers who would be able to either access or visit the customer centre on behalf of the client. For clients who are unable to leave the house they can either access our services online or to use our call centre. Again, moving to the future, we are always looking at better ways of doing things and to make it easier for our community to access online services.
One of the works that was carried out to enhance our services was to create a ‘contact tree’ as there have been times in the past where internally there has been grey areas of who can be contacted to further enquiries if it needs to be escalated. There was a contact list available, but it was tricky to navigate unless you knew specifically the member of staff and department. This work will help us to work together more efficiently and collaboratively as opposed to working as separate departments which will result in enquiries being answered and resolved more efficiently, especially for any of our residents who are unable to physically visit and make an enquiry.
During the current covid-19 pandemic it has made us to look at new ways of working and being able to deliver our services. We set up phone lines and emails so our residents can still access our services and have a human rather than an automated interaction.
There has been a team set up specifically for our more vulnerable clients and by collaborating with outside organisations we have been able to send food parcels to our residents who are over 70 or have medical issues where they are unable to leave the house. This time, although it has been tragic and difficult for many people and affected us all globally, has taught us important lessons for the future and how we might be able to move forward and make it much better and easier for our community without them needing to physically visit.
Listen and understand
I would offer the following advice to others looking to better meet the communication needs of their disabled clients:
- No two clients are the same. Even if two people have the same condition, they still have individual needs.
- People don’t want to be patronised or treated differently. They just want their enquiry dealt with efficiently.
- Listen and understand. Once you understand your client needs you can offer a reasonable solution.
- Do not feel upset or disheartened at criticism as it is a way to move forward and change things for the better.
- Give your staff the right tools for them to do the job and they will thrive.
- Without our clients, the organisation would not exist. We give them our best, build rapport and relations and create a happier environment and community for one another.