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How COVID-19 is changing the way public services reach customers

Paul Johnston
5 May 2021

The last 12 months have profoundly shaken up the way governments and public services react and respond to their customers and citizens.

The channel shift in customer service has been rapidly accelerated by an increased need for engaging customers in new ways in the past year – creating a dependency on digital channels and experiences. Customers are continuing to look for new ways of interacting with organisations, seeking and receiving information about services and products, which has created a greater demand on contact centres and in particular on digital channels. Alongside this, today’s customer wants answers that are more frequently focused on care, wellbeing, and safety. Particularly in unprecedented times, a customer’s interaction with a service can trigger an immediate and lingering effect on their sense of loyalty.

This increased demand for digital experiences and customer care is expected to continue in 2021 and beyond, resulting in a strong investment in customer service capabilities across various organisations. Within the public sector, a continued demand for digital services is anticipated, building on the increased willingness of citizens to engage online, through mobile and the contact centre for scenarios that would previously have been in person or by post. Examples include in healthcare, welfare and tax in particular, where video calls and apps are increasingly considered as an accepted form of engagement. Historical concerns over data security and privacy that have impeded significant uptake of digital services across the public sector are still important but perceived as something that can be managed effectively both by public services and many citizens themselves. This continued adoption of digital services and investment in digital experiences will keep accelerating change for customer service organisations.

The imminent question is – How can governments and public services maintain relevance, improve customer experience and optimise costs when faced with unexpected circumstances?

  1. Moving towards new ways of working

Over the past 12 months, customer service organisations have experienced a shift to remote working, new working practices, office consolidations and relocations, adjusting technologies used and behaviours adopted to inspire trust and resilience – all of which have resulted in different employee expectations around work. Several government bodies like HMRC in the U.K. have kickstarted the trend of flexible working contracts, whilst there is more acceptance of sickness across most public sector service organisations. Coupled with the gig economy*, wider societal trends of people changing roles more often and a pattern of flexible outsourcing supporting peaks in demand, public sector organisations face a lot of change ahead.

With the move to homeworking, customer service organisations have also faced the challenge of accessing sensitive data, manipulating personal information and contracts, whilst navigating a secure infrastructure. Governments and public services can sometimes bring on the added layer of rigid processes to comply with, which may require real time monitoring and reporting, oversight and additional management overhead. This implies that new behaviours need to be embedded and there is a stronger focus on analytics as an answer. Public sector organisations need to start shaping a flexible response to future resource challenges by meeting increased demand and managing increased capacity across different services.

  2. Accelerated shift in the channel mix

Over the past year, digital services have become a necessity for most customers who are confined at home. In the past, more traditional customer support would include walking into a physical location to ask for help or calling a contact centre. Overnight, demand patterns have changed. Today, the increase in self-service, at-home, low touch options (including websites and web chat) has allowed for some organisations to ensure continuity of their services, understand customer preferences, and offer immediate information. For governments and public bodies, this is a trend that has increasingly gained importance – one where a consistent, user-friendly, and accessible experience across all digital channels is needed. Digital-led experiences will continue to grow in importance in a post-COVID-19 world, and public sector organisations that help their customers navigate their services safely and effectively will maintain relevance. This will not only be applicable within government departments but increasingly require collaboration and seamless service experiences across departments.

Today’s customer also demands quick, first-time resolution when they ask for assistance. They want a timely response. As a result, there will have to be a push in public sector organisations to ensure they are supporting capabilities to self-service, whilst providing a joined-up experience across digital channels and contact centres.

  3. Putting people at the centre of customer service

Overall satisfaction with customer service directly impacts how customers feel about using a government service, for example. Improving the experience of a customer and ensuring it is positive is an evolution that requires care and connection, inclusive design and empathetic advisors.

The average citizen of today expects far more care and connection in their interactions with public services than last year. Anxious customers that are going through a health related issues don’t behave in the same way. People feel like they need additional information, extra support and specific answers to navigate the set of changes they are going through. The customer of today wants information to be delivered immediately and safely. A lot of this relies on experiences and services being delivered by empathetic advisors with strong people skills, who focus on care and concern. A challenge faced by public sector organisations is how to keep a pulse on changing customer preferences, and rapidly embed those new needs in the way that a service is delivered.

This also implies that public services need to be designed with inclusivity and ease of access. The pandemic has made the digital divide of the UK population more visible and apparent. Public sector organisations should ensure the same level of care and assistance to those who don’t have access to digital channels, aren’t digitally savvy or have disabilities – to name a few.


In the overwhelming challenge of COVID-19, delivering a seamless experience to customers has been intensified. This comes at a time when expectations for impeccable customer service has never been higher, given the increase use of digital channels and speed of technology. This is particularly important for the public sector, one of the biggest service providers in many countries.

In a downturn, cutting costs becomes inevitable. But this does not have to come at the expense of good customer experience, which can create immense value. A year after the start of the pandemic, the adoption of flexible ways of working, increased self-service, and a focus on customer care will help governments and public services establish a strong advantage.

* To understand more about the fluid workforce, please read our latest report on the topic:

** To understand why the digital divide should be a priority for organisations, please dig into our latest report on the topic: