April 02, 2013

My Visit to City Of York Council's New Customer Service Centre

City of York Council's new HQ

Oh dear, where to begin? I have just had to endure the torture of City of York Council's new and improved Customer Service Centre and I cannot believe how shockingly badly designed it is. 

First off, let's remember that, according to S Harrison (the company that re-designed the place) The new building cost £32 MILLION to design and re-build (opens in new window). That's £32 MILLION of Tax payers money. As can be seen from that link, a lot of thought went into the design and sustainability of the building (apparently). However, no-one seems to have put thought into how the building was meant to be USED by COUNCIL TAX PAYERS. 

Here's an over-head shot of the new building from the link above:

Finding the Entrance
So to start off with, they've placed the entertance to the building (for customers) all the way around the far side (if you're coming from town, which many people I saw where). However, it's not immediately obvious where it is. 

To combat this, City of York Council (CYC) have sellotaped A4 laminated signs to the windows pointing around the corner. A4! That's great to see when you're up close to the building but when you stand on the street corner as I did, trying to suss the place out, they're almost invisible and I don't think it's my eyesight.

Following the laminated window-signs you eventually reach a set of double doors (this is a HUGE building)  "Great" you think "I've found the entrance". WRONG! That's the staff entrance. For customers you need to keep going all the way around the far side, almost hidden round the 'back' of the building. 

As I was entering, I passed a couple of elderly people who had to stop for a breather as walking all the way round had tired them out. Bearing in mind that the new offices aren't ideally situated for anyone (as they're in town, not near residential areas) and that a large number of people who need to use a face-to-face service (as opposed to telephone or internet) are likely to be elderly and I can see already that there's a problem.

I should've known that this wasn't going to be a good visit when I reached the snazzy, glass automatic doors to find a HUGE mess of bird-shit on the floor just in front of them. It seems that CYC has skimped on the bird detterent measures on the building (or maybe weren't allowed them as the building is listed) with the result that the first thing you see as you FINALLY enter the building, is a pile of shit. An omen if ever there was one.

The Experience

Upon entering the building I was greeted by a polite gentleman in a smart black suit who asked me what I was visiting for. "Renewing my parking permit" was my response. He wandered over to a snazzy looking touch-screen panel, whizzed through a few taps and a ticket came out. He handed it to me and advised me to wait in the far corner until my number was called.

I checked my ticket.

I was number 3234.

Oh dear lord, I hope they're not going sequentially.

I wandered through into the vast open-plan expanse that is the City of York Council customer service centre. 

Arrange this more haphazardly, remove SOME walls and add some comfy
seating  in designated waiting areas and BINGO. CYC's new Customer
Service Centre.

The vast area is out-lined with private rooms around the outside edge. Each room is given a letter. I'm assuming these are private rooms as the rest of the place isn't very private at all. Splitting up the room, in a seemingly random design are desks at which the Customer Service Operatives sit. These are all numbered (1 -> 18 as far as I could tell). The desks are sparten (monitor, phone and minimal clutter) giving a slightly clinical feel to the proceedings. 

Breaking up the random collection of desks are seating areas for customers. These are a collection of blue, comfortable seats arranged in a rectangle shape. These are positioned near pillars. Positioned high-up on these pillars are SCREENS OF POWER. These screens display ads for City of York Council services, alongside the numbers that the speakers call out and the desks you're meant to go to to be served.

Kind of like an upmarket "Till 5 please" announcement from the Post Office.

This is where the despair set in. 

As I entered the room at 11:35 everyone in the waiting area had a sullen, miserable look about them. Shortly after I entered, 2 ladies stormed out in a huff. AS they left I overheard one of the ladies saying to the other "...we could be waiting all bloody day in here".

I checked my ticket again, 3234.

The screen called numbers out at random "Number 55 please go to desk 10"; "Number 1032 please go to desk 1". Leaving me initially with no way of knowing when in all smeg my number would be called as there seemed to be no sequence to the system.

Also annoying (from a customer experience point of view) was that there seemed to be many York Council Employees (juding from their lanyards) walking about "ready to help" but not actually helping many people. 

Oh, and it should surprise no-one to learn that there weren't enough seats for people to use whilst waiting for their seemingly randomly generated number to be called by the great screens in the sky, so many people were milling about, or leaning on the walls of the 4 "Customer Access" terminal cubicles (Screens, keyboard and mouse with Internet Explorer opened at York.Gov.UK).

After waiting for half-an-hour without my number being called, I fell into conversation with a pleasant gentleman called Geoffry (sic). Geoffry was also bemused by this whole system and we lamented together over the previous system:

"When the parking services where at 9 St Leonards Place you could walk in, there were two people behind the desk and you'd have your issue sorted and be out within 5 minutes." 

I had to agree, that was true. 

I entered my 40th minute of waiting, which made Geoffry's previous comment seem even more apt.

Through team-work with Geoffry we eventually worked out how the numbering system operated and from that were better able to estimate how long we'd be waiting.

After my 47th minute of waiting in this £32 MILLION shiny headquarters I was called across to desk 8 which was staffed by a very pleasent gentlemen who seemed resigned to his fate who greeted me with a resigned "Sorry for your wait."

He informed me that he wasn't even meant to be working the desks today, that he should've been transferred to the telephone helpline side of things but, due to circumstances outside of his control, he was confined to his desk running the Parking Permits side of things. A desk where, incidentally, there should've been two people working but "I'm afraid it's only me today."

He served me as efficiently as he could but he was thawted at the final step, the printers that the IT people had arranged, were communal. Which meant that as each staff member wanted to print something, they could concievably be delayed by the person in front of them. Also, he informed me, "the parking permits haven't been printing properly all day". 

I felt like Kafka was watching me from above and laughing. 

He headed to the printer with the blank sheet of paper with the parking permit marked out at the bottom, all ready to print out my permit. 

Alas, he was indeed thawted by a lady who had sent something to print ahead of him and informed him that she'd be a "little while".

He headed back to my table: "Why don't I process your payment whilst we're waiting for the printer?"

I assured him that that was fine by me. At this stage, after nearly an hour of waiting, I was laughing at the whole experience more than angry. 

He was able to get to the printer, pulled all the trays out and eventually made it work. He came back with my permit: 

"Sorry, it's not printed correctly again. At this stage you can take this away, it's still valid as long as you cut the permit out carefully. Or you can leave it with me and when we get this issue fixed, I'll post you a new one."

I sympathised with him and took my existing permit away. After all, according to the time on my payment receipt, I'd waited 57 minutes to get it.

I thanked the gentleman and left, passing Geoffry on the way. He congratulated me for getting served and wondered when his number would come up. "It's worse than the lottery" he suggested. I agreed.

As of now it's 15:14 in the afternoon. I don't know if Geoffry is still waiting, I hope not (but wouldn't be surprised) however I know a great many are. 


City of York Council has spent over £32 MILLION of Taxpayers money to move everything into this central, specially designed office space.

In doing so they're made it so that a simple activity (handing over a form with payment and getting a printed letter and permit back) has gone from being a 2 minute job to a 57 minute job.

They've created a waiting system that gives people NO indication of when they might be served, there aren't enough staff to serve all who need to be served quickly enough and there aren't enough seats to seat everyone who might be waiting. 

Everyone who was waiting had a downtrodden, dispirited look on their faces as their problems and issues had been converted to random numbers to be shouted out by a faceless screen in the sky. 

I cannot concieve of who thought this was a good idea and would work smoothly. 

I cannot understand how £32 MILLION has been spent and things have gotten WORSE.

Bravo City Of York council.