From processing blue badges to working tirelessly to help refugees from war-hit Ukraine settle in our communities, staff at Nottinghamshire County Council’s customer service centre truly are making a difference to people’s lives.
Described as ‘unsung heroes’, the network of teams works around the clock to help Nottinghamshire residents who get in touch with the county council by telephone, email and online.
The community-boosting work carried out by the service centre, which is based in Annesley, was praised last autumn when it was revealed it had answered more than a million enquiries during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Then, earlier this year, staff were singled out for praise after a survey of service users produced ‘tremendous’ results.
The feedback showed 98.6 per cent of those surveyed found it ‘very quick and easy’ or ‘easy’ getting through to the team, 99.4 per cent thought their advisor had ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ knowledge and professionalism, and 99.2 per cent described their overall experience as ‘good’ or ‘excellent.’
In addition, 98.9 per cent of those who took part in the survey said they would recommend the CSC to friends and family if they need help with council services.
Comments from service users about their CSC staff interactions included ‘very polite, patient and helpful’, ‘I was highly satisfied’, and ‘couldn’t do enough to sort my issue out.’
Louise Hooton, who has been with the county council for 14 years, works as a customer service social care advisor in adult social care and health and public protection.
She explains how a key part of her role is to show empathy to the person she is talking to.
Louise said: “It could be supporting and advising them, or it could lead to a full referral where we need to get a social worker, or an occupational therapist involved – or sometimes it can just be talking to the person.
“Sometimes people are very lonely or don’t know where to go and just need a chat really, so we do lots of different roles within one call sometimes without realising it.”
At the height of the Covid 19 pandemic, staff were working seven days a week as the country was plunged into lockdown and residents, many of whom were elderly with no families, faced isolation.
Now with the country facing the challenge of tackling cost of living pressures, the team has played a pivotal role in overseeing the delivery of millions of pounds to those in need across the county via the Household Support Fund.
Back in 2010, the customer service team managed around 250,000 enquiries a year – an annual figure which now stands at more than 600,000.
Enquiries range from potholes to care packages, recycling to school admissions, registering a birth to issuing of blue badges, which means the team is the front door for over 400 county council services and demand has never been higher.
The team is often called upon to support government programmes and, during the pandemic, fielded vaccination enquiries for the NHS – providing advice, guidance and support around the vaccination programme.
This took a lot of pressure off the NHS, with the team handling more than 18,000 calls over six months about the programme and booking of slots.
In recent months, the CSC team has been at the forefront of the Homes for Ukraine scheme to help refugees resettle with host families in Nottinghamshire.
Louise added: “That’s what I like about this job because we can adapt. It’s like the Household Support Fund which some of my colleagues are dealing with.
“We literally just take on what the Government asks us at the time and deal with it.”
Tom Knowles, a business partner in the design and build team, was 19 when he joined the county council as an advisor when the customer service centre was expanding in November 2007.
His role as business partner is to be a link between the council departments and the customer service centre.
Tom’s ‘day job’ is adult social care but he played a key role in supporting the response to the pandemic by helping to develop the community hub and the council’s track and trace process, which was managed and maintained at the customer service centre.
He said: “I like the variety of my job. With social care, it’s massive – it’s huge. But then equally, in my lifetime we have had two of the biggest events that’s ever happened – Covid and then the war in Ukraine.
“To be involved with those is really interesting, often quite emotive and involving a lot of tension and stress.
“For people out there, it’s hugely impactful on their lives, but it’s been interesting to be able to work with different people; people within the council, people from outside the council, and try and develop ways of working and do things to support people when they really need it.”
Michelle Thorpe is a senior practitioner and part of the team which deals with blue badge enquiries.
She has worked for the council for 10 years and says high customer satisfaction ratings is borne out of working in a ‘close-knit’ team with a determination to improve performance.
Michelle said: “It’s gone through a lot of changes in the 10 years I’ve been here, and to be part of that and to be pushing the positive changes has been really enjoyable.
“I think what has kept me here is the environment and the people at the CSC. It’s always been a positive, happy place – driven by Marie Rowney.
“I remember my first training session; it was my second day. She came in and I always remember her saying, we don’t like mood hoovers at the CSC. We like everybody to be happy.
“She has always come up with new ideas. The spirit of the CSC is fantastic.”
Sarah Lindley is a customer service advisor and began working at the council in 2020 on the Covid test and trace team.
Like Michelle, she cites the help given to her and colleagues by team leaders and managers for helping to produce impressive customer satisfaction results.
She said: “The reason that we work so well is we are very supported and it’s really enjoyable.
“It’s a huge role and you will always come across a question that isn’t on the process but we are trained well and we have daily updates to do with anything that has changed on the system.
“We are kept up to date with everything that is going on within the council just in case we get a question or any press calls.
“We are never really caught off guard with questions. We also have core floor support. There is a group of team leaders who are there, so if you’re struggling you ring through, and they know the answer.
“We’ve got a great support network.”
Sarah handles hundreds of calls each week, but rarely receives any abuse from individuals – quite the contrary, in fact.
She said: “I said to my manager that I wish I could bottle the times when I finish the conversation and people don’t put the phone down and you can hear them say ‘wasn’t she lovely?’
“It gives you a real boost. To have a job where everybody appreciates the work you do is brilliant.”
Residents can also use the county council’s MyNotts app to access services and report issues instantly.
Jake Warren, who has been with the county council for 10 years, is also a business partner and within his portfolio is the MyNotts app.
His work involves engaging with users and understanding what people want, as well as looking at bugs and fixes.
But, once more, customer service is at the heart of his work.
He said: “If a customer reports that there’s a bug or an issue, I’ll contact them directly to see what the bug is.
“We apologise and say that we’ll follow it up. We do that because it presents ownership and accountability for the issue rather than send a message saying we’re looking into it.
“I don’t want that. We want people to use the MyNotts app. We’ll also get feedback from members of the public as well around things that have gone live – so we might do very small pilot groups and focus groups on things. We do communicate with the public directly.”
Rebecca, who works part-time as a customer service advisor, says it is ‘very satisfying’ to be told by customers she’s helping to make a difference to their lives.
She said: “It might be something that may seem quite trivial to us but a big deal for them. They really needed to know about that blue badge because it will make a difference to their life.
“It helps that the management we have makes a difference too, because they care about us and how we’re getting on. They want to know if there’s anything we want to know or learn about.”
Marie Rowney, who is Head of Customer Service, Complaints and Information and has been with the county council since 2010, said: “The service my team provide is outstanding.
“Our aim is, and will always be, to provide the very best service possible to our residents.
“This can be challenging at times, we’ve had snow, drought, floods, a pandemic, a war, a building fire and most recently the death of dear Queen Elizabeth II.
“I am lucky to have a great positive, proactive team, always looking for improvements in customer experience, service and processes and finding better, and more cost-effective ways to save money.
“I feel very proud of the work they do, and the service provided and it’s a privilege to lead them.
“Taking call after call with little respite is not easy, but it is very rewarding, particularly when you know you are making a real difference – which my team often do.
“With recruitment the way it is currently, it has been challenging to get the right people in place to work in this fabulous team so please note that we are always on the look-out for customer service professionals and people with great technical skills and if you do apply and are successful, I am confident you’ll love it just as much as I do.”
Councillor Gordon Wheeler, the county council’s cabinet member for personnel, paid tribute to the work carried out by the CSC teams who he says are the authority’s ‘unsung heroes’.
He said: “The Customer Service Team has had to deal with unprecedented challenges in the last two-and-a-half years, firstly with the Covid 19 pandemic and more recently supporting the Homes for Ukraine initiative in addition to dealing with day-to-day issues which affect residents across Nottinghamshire.
“They are credit to their managers and the county council but more importantly to themselves.
“Cllr Jonathan Wheeler and I had the privilege of meeting the team earlier this year to find out more about the invaluable work and support they are providing.
“They truly are unsung heroes, and I would like to extend my thanks to all our hard-working staff for their commitment and dedication in supporting residents across Nottinghamshire.”