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Citizens Advice tackles cost of living crisis with Freshworks, contemplates AI potential

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett August 29, 2023
Summary:
Customer support and ITSM platforms have simplified a ‘Spaghetti Junction’ of contact points.

citizens advice

Sit down, get a coffee because it’s somber reading. It really, really is bad.

This was the warning from James Blackmore, Head of Workforce Technology at Citizens Advice, to anyone reading the latest cost of living data the organization collates and shares.

And he wasn’t wrong. As people across the UK struggle with rising bills and inflation, the advice service is seeing a parallel increase in demand.

By the end of May 2023, the organization had already helped 110,000 people with crisis support - food bank referrals and emergency charitable support - a jump of around 20% compared to the same period last year. And the number of people Citizens Advice has helped regarding homelessness has risen to 29,000 so far this year, higher than at the same point in any of the past six years.

The not-for-profit organisation offers help and advice to millions of people in need across the UK. In 2021-22, this included 40.6 million visits to its website, two million people using its phone service and 800,000 helped by email or web chat.

To continue providing advice when and where it’s needed, it’s vital that the almost 20,000 staff and volunteers working at the national organization and the network of charities it supports get resolutions to any inquiries efficiently and promptly. Simon Sheridan, Solutions Architect at Citizens Advice, explains:

We as an organization don't interface generally with the public. We have 250 autonomous charities, which are the local citizens advice, which work on operating their areas in England and Wales. They are the people that see the general public, but they, to us, are our customers.

We support them from a whole range of different aspects, whether it's to do with branding or communication, funding or grants, or to do with initiatives that are happening.

Support needs

However, back in 2016, there wasn't an efficient system in place to manage this process. Support was managed via a case management system and email correspondence, rather than via a single ticket used by multiple people interacting on an issue.

When Sheridan joined Citizens Advice, he was asked to come in and set up a new technology service desk from scratch. The existing Zendesk system was being wound down due to a relocation of the office, and the organization knew it wanted to use a ticketing system to manage the support process. It looked at several options. Sheridan adds:

We also knew that we wanted to expand the use from just beyond the very small team that was using it to a much larger audience.

Citizens Advice opted for Freshdesk and Freshservice from Freshworks. The former was chosen due to a need to bring on more CX-based teams to manage the many customer-based support inquiries coming from its network of 250 charities; the latter as an ITSM platform for IT and technology, and internal support teams.

Today, support for the 18,000 or so staff and volunteers in the Citizens Advice network of charities is mostly provided via the 32 customer-facing teams using the Freshworks helpdesk platform. The IT service desk also provides the individual charities and around 1,200 national staff with their IT support and requirements via Freshservice. The ITSM technology offers pretty much the whole service layer, with not only the IT service desk as a function, but the rest of technology, HR facilities and finance teams also using the platform as internal support for all staff at national Citizens Advice.

The Freshworks technology has achieved the desired effect of simplifying the support process. Sheridan explains:

There was a map drawn about six years ago called Spaghetti Junction of all the ways people could come into the organization. When we looked at that map and we ran it through the spectrum of what we've done with Freshservice and Freshdesk, that map became very linear in how we were directing people across the organization into existing places.

Sheridan deliberately designed the system to create as little friction for users as possible - if there was a shared mailbox or email that people were using, that would be brought into Freshdesk or Freshservice. Citizens Advice offered other channels as well, like portals, and added some level of automation and communication like auto responses to confirm receipt of messages. But the organization wanted the service to feel like it did before, just a much better offering and experience for users.

A lot of the customers that we transitioned in weren't really aware that we'd moved them to be managed through a ticketing system, and that was by design.

Change

It was a more noticeable change for internal teams, who had to learn new ways of working. But generally the response has been very positive. Sheridan notes:

With ticketing systems such as Freshservice and Freshdesk, the idea is to remove the noise from the work that they do, show them only what they need to work on, what they need to focus on. It made them more effective and more efficient, which ultimately generally made them happier in the work that they were doing.

For Blackmore, the main advantage of the Freshworks technology is the management information he can get out of the system. The ability to get so granular with data and analytics helps facilitate conversations about improvement. He explains:

Continually improving our services is really important but expecting managers and teams to be able to do that without an understanding of where they are now, and where they want to get to, they just can't do it. The biggest benefit for me is the management information that we're able to gather and that helps us understand the service that we're delivering to our customers.

Sheridan has a slightly different perspective, citing the improvement to the customer journey thanks to the provision of a single point of contact and a single repository for information. He adds:

We had some horror stories as we onboarded teams around how they were managing data and inquiries back then. No fault of their own, it's just that if anyone's ever tried to manage a shared mailbox, it's nearly impossible to effectively manage that in a good way. The impact to our customers’ experience with our ability to manage that, coupled with our ability to see problems, trends and issues in the backend, offer training and look at capacity issues, that's been huge for me.

AI futures?

Looking ahead, the organization is considering how AI could enhance operations. Citizens Advice is already using some basic AI within Freshdesk and Freshservice, and generative AI is definitely on the road map, Sheridan says:

We are very firmly in the discovery phase on generative AI. I can see where it will be incredibly useful and we are doing a lot of intensive studies.

However, Citizens Advice faces a few challenges on the technology side to ensure its use of AI is effective. One is having disparate data across the organization. Sheridan notes:

We hold data in different places and for AI to be truly valuable, it needs to be able to access all those data sets to be able to have a completely comprehensive view of what we store around what we want it to do. It's definitely on the roadmap and would definitely offer value, but there is a huge project that needs to go before it to do a big data cleanse and make sure that we are in the right place to be able to harness it.

The other challenge is around the user. Sheridan explains:

The other thing I’ve found with AI is you need very, very intelligent people to make the artificial intelligence work well and to a degree you also need a little bit of intelligence when you are asking the AI for something, which is also a little bit of a barrier. We do have very, very intelligent people that work in our network but the style is very disparate. There's an inconsistency of how people may use stuff at the front end, which produces variable results.

Moreover, Citizens Advice probably wouldn’t be looking at generative AI on its advice-giving side. Sheridan notes:

I can't really talk to the advice side because it's a very delicate subject. Statistically if we weigh it up, what's the chance of a human error versus an AI error? They're probably similar, but AI unfortunately has to prove that it's infallible before you can go down that route.

Blackmore also cited the many conversations going on at the moment around AI bias. He says:

It’s about fully understanding that stuff before we start moving to using it in Citizens Advice. As a technology manager, I'm incredibly excited about what it might be able to do for us in a far more controlled, safer manner.

One area where AI could prove of real value to Citizens Advice is around capacity management, which is currently its biggest challenge, according to Blackmore.

We're an organization that is largely staffed with volunteers. We have huge demand, we have a limited resource. If AI help us more intelligently work out where people need to go for advice, so if you're calling and you could be serviced by the website or web chat agent, you drop there; if you need more in-depth exploration with an expert, then that gets passed to a phone.

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