The Department of Human Services (DHS) promised three years ago that it would begin trialling web chat on its website but it is no closer to achieving this aim, despite a gathering momentum of dissatisfaction from people using the My Gov website and DHS mobile apps.
The beleaguered benefits giant – which runs critical services such as Medicare, Centrelink and child support – ran a survey in February 2012 and asked 650 customers and staff for ideas on how to improve the DHS website. One of the most popular suggestions was to introduce a live chat function, where people could get help navigating the website in real time without having to spend hours on the phone.
A DHS summary of the survey results said: “The majority of participants thought that a ‘live chat’ function, where users can communicate with a staff member in a text-based chat session, would be beneficial.
“We held another online discussion from 12 to 22 June 2012, to find out more about how and when you would like to use ‘live chat’, and what your expectations of this function would be. We expect to begin trialling this feature with users from September 2012.”
Live chat could prove a circuit breaker for a growing army of frustrated DHS customers who have been locked out or denied access to the MyGov portal or struggled with crashing mobile apps and poor functionality that has left them unable to load documents crucial to their benefit claims, for example, reporting a change of income or hours worked. Some customers have reported having their benefits stopped or reduced due to be unable to lodge these changes electronically and then unable to get through on the phone.
US-based company LivePerson produces live chat software that enables companies to engage with customers in real-time. The company already has a strong corporate presence in Australia and counts the big four banks as well as Qantas, Medibank and Telstra, among its clients and two local councils. It has also worked with Leeds City Council in the north of England on its live chat, which has been kicking goals since it introduced the function in 2014.
LivePerson’s Australian Regional Director Steve Fitzjohn said governments faced insufficient funding to handle the volume of customer contacts they received. He cited recent DHS figures which showed that 13.7 million calls never made it to interactive voice response (IVR) last year and of those that did, 13 million calls were left unanswered after callers gave up because of long waiting times.
“The customer has no choice. They need to interact with DHS. That means that the customer will either call back later or go to a service centre,” Mr Fitzjohn said.
“This artificially inflates the number of contact requests DHS receives. It also increases foot traffic in the service centres. This leads to frustrated customers, to critical press coverage and, ultimately, to political oversight and pressure.”
“The only way to handle more contacts is to increase the efficiency of the customer care professionals that handle the contacts and to decrease the number of contacts.”
Mr Fitzjohn said that LivePerson customer service staff could divert calls out of the IVR to chat interaction. Because they could handle more chats per hour than phone calls, more customers could be helped without an increase in staffing.
“LivePerson allows the government department to intervene in the exact moment that the customer is experiencing issues,” Mr Fitzjohn said.
“This can happen via chat (again much cheaper than a phone call or visit to a service centre) or via targeted contextual content that helps guide the customer to self-serve, without generating the need for a human interaction, thus saving the labour cost associated with that customer service request.”
Other features included co-browsing, where customer service staff can see the customer’s screen and help guide them; secure form, where staff can help customers fill out a form (while masking sensitive data and stop it being recorded) and video share, where customer service staff can show a customer a video explaining how to do something.
Mr Fitzjohn said LivePerson’s analytics also meant it could provide “a feedback-loop of actionable insights” advising governments on how they could change their website, mobile app or social media site so that the customer would be able to self-serve the next time they visited.
But while DHS has failed to deploy live chat, other government departments, agencies and local councils have embraced it and are reaping the benefits.
The Australian Tax Office and the Department of Industry and Science both use it to interact with small businesses, Service NSW is a keen exponent and local councils are also getting in on the act. Sunshine Coast Council, Lockyer Valley Regional Council and Fraser Regional Council all use live chat for Queensland ratepayers, raising the obvious question as: why the Department of Human Services is trailing other similar large organisations?
Service NSW has even generously offered to give DHS a hand to get the ball rolling.
“We would be happy to share our experiences with the Department of Human Services to help them determine whether it would be a suitable service for their customers,” a Service NSW spokesperson said.
Service NSW began trialling live chat with seniors’ transactions last year and is currently rolling it out to other transactions, starting with a new online account. Service NSW currently uses live chat with tablets and computers but it intends to add other devices, presumably smartphones, in later iterations.
The organisation said it had already noticed the benefits.
“Live chat gives people access to real time support from a real person when they are trying to complete an online transaction,” said a Service NSW spokesman.
“It provides another option for customers to communicate with us in a way that is convenient to them, it can also reduce the demands on face to face services. At Service NSW live chat is run by our digital and contact centre teams.”
A Department of Human Services spokesperson said the department was: “looking to incorporate in-channel customer support as part of the Welfare Payments Infrastructure Transformation” but did not say what this would involve or when it would happen.
“The Department of Human Services is always seeking to improve our digital services,” the spokesperson said.
“It is expected this function will provide added convenience for customers using the department’s digital services who want to seek assistance with their transaction without having to phone the Department.”
Asked why the department did not carry out a live chat trial the spokesperson replied: “We did not proceed to a trial of a live chat function in 2012”.