Citizens Advice & CTS use Google’s data services to support thousands
Citizens Advice decided to set up their own data dashboards using Google BigQuery and Google Data Studio, with a data pipeline engineered by CTS.
Established in 1939, Citizens Advice is an organisation that provides free, confidential and independent information and guidance to the general public. They also make a lasting impact at a local, regional and national level by improving the policies and practices that affect people’s lives.
The organisation is composed of a national network of 280 independent local charities across England and Wales. They are supported by over 22,000 trained volunteers and 7,000 paid staff distributed across multiple locations.
For many people in the UK, their local Citizens Advice office is as important as their family doctor. Providing free, independent, authoritative advice on legal and financial matters, the organization is both the first port of call for information and the last resort for those urgently in need of help. People can seek help with everything from redundancy to eviction, debt, and the breakdown of relationships. Last year they helped to solve the problems of 8 in 10 of the people who were given direct advice, according to research by the charity.
Citizens Advice Manchester is one of the 280 independent charities that make up that national network. It offers support to Manchester’s 500,000 inhabitants, and although people can make contact online or in-person, most queries arrive by telephone, with the charity’s team of ten advisors handling an average of 6,000 calls a month.
“Every time we take a call, we need to understand if a caller’s problem can be solved immediately, or if it should be referred to someone else,“ says Stuart Pearson, Chief Digital Officer at Citizens Advice Manchester. ”People usually call us with serious concerns, so it’s important that we make time to handle them with sensitivity, but it’s also important that we can end conversations to let other callers get through.” This is a significant factor behind Citizen’s Advice desire to improve their current customer service communication; as they strive for continuous improvement.
To strike that balance, the organization looked to use call data to work out the best way to deploy their resources. However, reports from the charity’s telephone system were only available as raw spreadsheet data, and had to be manually processed to be understood. Citizens Advice Manchester decided to set up its own data dashboards using Google BigQuery and Google Data Studio, with a data pipeline engineered by CTS.
“A lot of organizations in the non-profit sector don’t have the resources available to employ in-house data specialists,” says Stuart. “But people still want analysis and reports, so the task of preparing them lands on someone else’s desk, leading to bottlenecks and frustration. We wanted a managed solution that anybody could use and self-serve.”
For non-profit organizations with tightly controlled budgets, business intelligence is rarely a top priority. Citizens Advice Manchester uses the same telephony system as every branch of Citizens Advice in the UK, which works well, but only produces a limited quantity of data, in the form of raw spreadsheet files. The national Citizens Advice team used to deliver a monthly snapshot of the previous month’s work. They have since moved to a daily update via Tableau, but this still didn’t fully meet the needs of some offices. Managers at Citizens Advice Manchester increasingly relied on Stuart himself for more relevant data.
To create those reports, Stuart had to request .csv files from the telephony system, process them in pivot tables, and produce a graphic for managers to understand. Requests for data would arrive almost daily, each taking almost an hour to execute manually, and keeping Stuart from other tasks. He looked to create a solution that could automate the process and directly provide data visualisation, so that managers could identify issues at a glance and decide how best to deploy resources.
As Google Workspace users, security and authentication integrations with the wider Google Cloud offering made it a natural choice for the team. Stuart was comfortable creating dashboards in Data Studio powered by BigQuery, but reached out to CTS for a solution to deliver zipped .csv files to the back-end database in a secure, automated way. In less than two weeks, CTS implemented an ETL pipeline using Google App Engine, Google Cloud Dataflow and Google Cloud Functions. By exclusively using Google Cloud managed services, CTS ensured that the pipeline would autoscale to match demand, without adding to maintenance demands.
“Once the ETL pipeline was set up, we sat down with the contact centre team and worked out what they wanted from a dashboard,” says Stuart. “We held regular meetings to tweak the dashboard based on their feedback.” The dashboards offer a more comprehensive vision of the way calls are handled, rather than monthly averages or highly specific snapshots. Rather than request reports, then wait for them, managers can move rapidly between metrics, making new comparisons and understanding relationships. And because the dataset is updated daily, the team can identify surges in demand and respond in time.
“On the front-end of the dashboard, a manager can adjust filters and see results almost instantly,” says Stuart. “On the back-end, Google BigQuery does a huge amount of work to make that happen. Other products would lag, but we’re able to provide a fast and responsive experience that doesn’t frustrate users.”
The data that the team gets from these new dashboards, created using Google Big Query and Google Data Studio, has had a big impact on the way they handle calls. The dashboards help the team predict when there might be call surges, so they are now fully prepared to meet that demand. In the first 12 months of using the dashboards, the team increased the number of calls it handled by 6,000, meaning thousands more people were able to reach the contact centre and find help. As well as aiding discussions about the best ways to work, the dashboards are also helping to map out expectations for new advisors and make training more effective.
The solution is making an impact on the charity’s national network, too. Across the UK, at the outbreak of Covid-19, Citizens Advice offices were inundated with calls and the organization set up a national overflow capacity to support contact centres. The Manchester branch was able to use its dashboards to identify when its advisors were in less demand locally, and then assign them to help the national effort. And other offices have reached out to implement the solution in their own areas. Because the dashboard draws on national data and the solution is built with scalable services, Stuart can easily replicate the dashboard for any team in the UK.
“On the back-end, Google BigQuery does a huge amount of work to make that happen. Other products would lag, but we’re able to provide a fast and responsive experience that doesn’t frustrate users.”
Stuart Pearson, Chief Digital Officer