It’s hard to believe, but there was time when nothing was available on a self-service basis. If you wanted to buy a loaf of bread, you had to go to a bakery and wait in line to be helped. Some people appreciated the service, but the process was slow and cumbersome -- while the extra personnel costs were hard for businesses to ignore.

And so the people leapt for joy when shops started letting customers pick out what they wanted on their own. True, the experience wasn’t as attentive, but customers loved it because it was faster and it put them in control. Businesses loved it because it saved them money.

Self-service may have been a big hit in the world of retail, but it’s been slow to catch on in the public sector. Why is that?

When you go shopping for a loaf of bread, all you want is that loaf of bread. But when someone provides you with a service, you’re relying on their knowledge and expertise. That reliance creates a relationship and most of us are loathe to give up our relationships.

Still, the lure of self-service remains. Public sector organisations face mounting budget pressures, and there’s no denying that it’s cheaper for citizens to help themselves to government services. A 2012 report from SOCITM finds face-to-face meetings with a citizen cost an average of £8.62, while a phone call costs £2.83 – and a visit to a council website costs just £0.15. How can public sector offices convince citizens to take the cheaper option?

The key is to remember that people crave relationships with their service providers. If you can give citizens a way to embrace digital services without compromising that relationship, they’re more than happy to fill out a form online instead of walking down to the local branch office. Luckily, advances in technology mean that not only can an office preserve their relationship with citizens through online transactions – they can actually strengthen it.

Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council was ready to make the leap to digital services. They wanted to do more than just put forms online, however. They wanted to link their front and back offices, creating an end-to-end service that could nurture citizen relationships. So the council teamed up with Microsoft partner Asidua, whose Customer Contact PlatformTM is helping the council transform digital service delivery. The council was able to deploy ready-made configurable service packs tailored to specific needs, such as for environmental services and waste management. The Customer Contact Platform does more than just record customer interactions; it can also allow citizens to stay informed about their services with alerts on the platform of their choosing.

There’s a real financial incentive for local councils to be proactive in sharing information with citizens. As much as 20% of a government office’s interactions with citizens are completely avoidable – dealing with questions or needs that the citizen could have handled themselves if they’d only known where to look. By sharing information with citizens in a proactive, efficient manner, government offices can prevent unnecessary contact, further lowering service costs, while increasing citizen satisfaction. 

It’s a little like the way a baker might once have set aside a few loaves for regular customers. The customer was touched that the baker remembered their needs -- and the baker got to keep the queue moving along. Great service is good for everybody.

More information on Asidua’s Customer Contact Platform for local government is hereBlackburn with Darwen is a Unitary Council. If you have questions or comments, you can leave them below or e-mail them directly to ukps@microsoft.com.