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We’re going digital…

As a service founded on delivering advice face-to- face, Citizens Advice Westminster has had to deal with an unprecedented challenge in maintaining support for clients who, more than ever, needed our helping hand during the Covid lockdown restrictions. As we prepare for a post-pandemic world, we are using our experience over the past year to develop a digital strategy to enhance our traditional in-person service delivery.

Since March 2020, clients have been able to access advice via email and telephone, however this has highlighted the importance of being able to provide a range of service delivery channels to meet the changing preferences of clients.

It is interesting to note that there has been a slight shift in channel popularity, with digital up from 38% last quarter and 35% a year ago, to 40% in the first quarter of this year, with a comparable fall in phone enquiries, from 65% a year ago and 62% last quarter to 59% this current quarter.

In April, we introduced a once a week evening Zoom drop-in employment advice clinic aimed at residents in work or on furlough. This enabled our supervisors and volunteers to gain confidence and experience using this platform, which provides clients and assessors with private break-out room spaces for confidential discussions. We have now expanded this approach to cover all our advice categories on Wednesday morning as part of our new look Advice Shop.

Our planning for hybrid working following the pandemic is now well advanced, and we are excited to be working actively towards our new strategic objectives, including to deliver an agile advice service.

Our pilot video advice sessions for vulnerable clients with mental health issues are proving popular.

“Clients are now offered a choice of a video advice session or a return phone call from an adviser when they first contact us”, explains adviser/caseworker Gurminder Bhangra, who has been leading on this pilot, and reports on the benefits for both adviser and clients who have greeted this innovation warmly.

“Clients who choose the video option are sent a link via email and just click on download, so there is no software required. The worst problem is often poor broadband, for example one client contacted us from the pub where they went to get access to decent broadband! About 25% of clients are now using the video service each week. When they first call us, the gateway assessor will offer them a video appointment and they also have the option to scan or photograph their documents and email them to us. Sometimes the appointment takes a bit longer because I have to give them a bit of technical support, such as how to position the laptop so the camera works better. But most clients find it very easy to use.

“Clients really value the service and are very pleased to see a face. Many of them haven’t spoken to anyone in person for months, so say it is brilliant. It also helps to be able to see a client’s reactions and body language so that I can adapt my style and offer greater reassurance if needed.

“ It is also so much more convenient and, I think, may reduce “no shows”. For example, getting to our office in Paddington for a 9.15 am appointment can mean a rush in the morning, and there were frequent cancellations for that slot. Now a client can speak to us from their bed.”

As a further option, we have also introduced the use of WhatsApp to speed up communication between clients and advisers.  Adviser Barbara Korneluk (pictured) has been piloting this new approach with some success.

“WhatsApp is a familiar tool for many in their personal life for family or friend groups, so clients are naturally predisposed to finding it convenient.They can take a photograph of a document we need to see, just as they would take a picture at a family event, and send it to us. The gateway assessor will ask a client in advance if they want to use WhatsApp, but sometimes I suggest it during our call if it looks like the most convenient way, and it is instantaneous if they are out and about. About 10% of clients are using it at the moment.

“I think  the days of us using a large photocopier in the office are probably numbered post-Covid, as we move to a more hybrid way of working and take advantage of the various digital tools. This is already happening in councils and other agencies we work alongside, with many application procedures for benefits or making complaints moving on-line.

“I also get a sense that one interesting development in developing our digital strategy is that we are accessing new client audiences, particularly those in work and young professionals. They can take advantage of us being accessible on-line during their lunch break, or while they are working from home. In my own area of housing, I am seeing a shift from  clients predominantly in the social housing sector towards more informed clients, who have some ownership rights in their property. They have usually done some research using our website, so come to us prepared with relevant questions. Through our conversation, we can empower them to deal with their problem themselves. This is very satisfying for an adviser to be able to offer guidance and to be able to reach out to many more clients.”

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