Know your audience – how email helped us tackle school admissions days

Anyone with kids will know how exciting and nerve wracking securing a school place for their child can be. And those of us who work in councils with education responsibilities, will know how intense the experience can be too, as our contact centres get inundated with questions from parents wanting more information once the announcements have been made.

In Birmingham, the reception class and secondary school place offer days are among the busiest in our entire calendar. In 2016 our contact centre team of 18 answered 3000 calls about school places in a single day! It’s an important and sometimes emotionally charged time, and as a council we want to make sure that the parents and guardians in our communities are able to access the information they need in a prompt and timely way. We also want to make sure that our staff have the time and capacity to deal with the most complex cases.

With a small contact centre team we knew we needed to find a better way of managing demand and freeing up capacity so we started where all good comms professionals should start: by carrying out our research and looking at our data.

Working alongside the contact centre and the school admissions team, we analysed the type of calls that parents were making on school offer place day and in the days immediately afterwards. Breaking it down like this revealed that the vast majority of calls were actually about very straightforward process issues, which we could easily answer in advance. The problem was the huge volume of these types of calls was delaying how quickly we could get to people with more complicated circumstances, which was leading to complaints and frustrations.

Through our research we also realised that we already had the correct email addresses for the majority of parents and guardians in the city who were waiting for a school place offer as they had to use those address to apply for school places (over the past few years we’d taken the majority of our application processes online to improve the resident experience).

Working as a team we decided to experiment with creating and sending out a dedicated email bulletin to all of those parents in advance of the school place announcements, covering the key questions that we’d uncovered in our research. We already use email bulletins in the council for other things and we know they can be a great way of reaching highly targeted audiences so we thought it would be good to try this approach. We drew up the answers to the frequently asked questions, in simple, clear language, and included them in an email that we sent straight to our school place subscriber list one week before the places were announced.

Although digital was a key part of our strategy we wanted to make sure we integrated our approach so we also re-recorded our interactive voice response message that people would hear when they called the contact centre and shared our information with schools across the city in case parents approached them directly for information.

The results said it all. In 2017 we managed to reduce to number of offer day calls to our contact centre to 1985 (from 2780 the previous year), and in 2018 we only had 1341 calls. We’re hopeful that those numbers will keep dropping in the future and our talented contact centre team will have even more time to focus on the cases that need their expertise.

As communicators, it’s brilliant to have worked on something that provides such strong data and gives us some clear measurement. But most importantly, working on a project like this has allowed us to demonstrate the impact that a more targeted, strategic approach to communication can have on tackling a real challenge for our organisation and allowed us to directly support our residents with navigating a big milestone in their lives. After all, isn’t that the reason we work for local government in the first place?

You can read more about Birmingham’s experience and the role of digital communications in our dedicated #FutureComms chapter.

Guy Evans, Social Media Officer for Birmingham City Council
Laura Hendry, Communications Manager for Birmingham City Council

Posted on 8th August 2018