Leading by example

Every day, we hear from government that online service to the public is around the corner. But the fact is that government, and the whole public sector, is far behind the private sector when it comes to using the Web as a channel to attract or serve existing customers (i.e., the public) and, thereby, lower operating costs.

In Canada, the financial services community led the way for investing in the Web as a means to better serve customers and users and become more cost effective. This sector first identified the Internet as a competitive advantage in the early ’90s. The Web was initially viewed by most as a channel to attract new customers and increase revenues – “if we build it they will come.” This was part of the Internet frenzy that led to the technology meltdown. But the financial services sector saw it as more of a cost-savings tool when compared to other channels.

Big banks, trust companies and the like figured it wasn’t primarily about increasing revenue online, but decreasing costs. It makes sense that governments, which are typically cash-strapped, also invest in the Web as a cost savings measure so their budgets can go further.

While financial services firms traditionally spend liberally on technology, they also finetune their investment in the Web to derive the greatest efficiency from the Internet. Just like government departments, large financial services organizations have many lines of business and many layers; this can make sifting through a Web site a challenging experience. The financial services sector recognized this and spent time and money to streamline the online user experience so customers could find what they want easily. But many government sites still don’t have the IT budgets needed to streamline the Web user experience and derive the same cost savings that banks et al get today.

Here is an example. Employers must request a Record of Employment (ROE) form from the government for any discontinuation in a worker’s employment. Employers must file the ROE within five days of the employee’s departure or risk penalties. I needed this form for an employee, but it wasn’t available online, perhaps because of concerns over possible fraud. So I had to phone and provide verification with a business number and address. It took a week to get through and when I did they offered to send two forms in case I made a mistake. But what about the fraud concerns? Also, the recorded message, which was received at 4:55 p.m., said the office was closed and regular business hours were 8:30 to 5:50! So even the recorded message was inefficient. It would be easy to offer the forms online with the right security and authentication procedures in place.

What the financial services sector does is continually improve the online user experience by developing thorough business requirements at the outset and then testing Web sites on an ongoing basis. They ask up front: What business problem should the Web solution satisfy? And this happens before they begin development of the Web site (typically the most expensive phase of a project). They iron out their detailed functional requirements so navigation of the site is intuitive. They conduct exercises in usability analysis and site testing with actual users.

If the Web experience is frustrating, users won’t readily adopt the channel (a nice way of saying that using the Web becomes habit-forming, but so does not using it). And if they don’t take to it, they will want to be served through more expensive channels like visiting branches of a bank or trust company, or turning to call centres.

Competition enters the equation too. Government doesn’t normally think about competition, but the competition I refer to isn’t necessarily the Web site of another rival organization. Instead, “competition” for a government Web site may be a more expensive government channel (i.e., office call centre or a letter). All governments should encourage users to adopt the Web since it costs less to serve the public electronically, thereby freeing up funds to invest in public libraries, transportation, health and other areas.

Scotiabank’s “paperless” contest is a good example of an organization trying to build awareness of an online service by capitalizing on environmental concerns and rewarding behaviour; it asks customers if they want online statements instead of having paper statements mailed to them.

It’s in the government’s own interest to invest more money in the Web, to encourage users to adopt the online channel with financial incentives or other tactics that effectively change user behaviour, and to conduct usability analysis with existing Web sites in order to improve the user experience. 052096

Anthony Boright (aboright@vaultsolutions.com) is president of VAULT Solutions Inc., a professional services company that helps financial services firms use online communication channels to strengthen customer relationships. Find more information at www.vaultsolutions.com.

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