Council welcomes new virtual member of staff

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Published: 06 Oct 2017

The latest addition to Timaru District Council’s Customer Services team is on the job 24 hours a day, without a tea break.

Now sitting in the corner of the council’s homepage, ‘Tim’ offers a friendly “Hi, need help?” greeting in a speech bubble in a chat window.

Customer Services Manager Grant Hamel, said that Tim’s initial job is to answer customers’ most common queries - saving them the time to browse the website, or phone the council.

“While we’re still here to give people help in person or on the phone, an increasing number of our customers are going online, Tim can help people unfamiliar with the website get to some of our most requested information quickly,” said Grant.

“If Tim can reduce the flow of common, simple enquiries by phone, email and visit - Customer Services staff will have more time to help people with more complex issues. He also adds a friendly face on the website, enabling people to get help whenever they need it.

“Although chatbots are getting more common in commercial settings - we’re not aware of any other council in New Zealand using a chatbot for customer service, so we think it’s pretty innovative.”

In-house testing has shown that Tim can help people find answers to a limited set of questions, around 26 seconds quicker than browsing or searching the council website, whether that’s on desktop, mobile or tablet.

“Council sites have to provide a vast range of information, from council meeting minutes, to annual plans, consultations, and services. That makes simple customer service information like swimming pool hours, or recycling days, harder to find in the crowd,” said Grant.

“Tim deliberately keeps it pretty simple. He just answers the queries we’re being asked most often.”

Tim was developed by council staff working in collaboration with technology company Squiz. It is the latest in a series of improvements making the council website easier and faster to use.

Squiz New Zealand Managing Director Patrick FitzGerald said that although Tim is relatively simple at the moment, the next steps could be to add more complex customer service enquiry handling, through natural language processing and AI.

“It’s great to work with an organisation that looks for ways to use technology to help customers more, and is prepared to try something new,” he said.

“While Tim will save some customers time, or a phone call, the Council will gain valuable experience with a customer service channel that’s relatively new in local government, but is set to grow.”

Timaru District Council has been working to refine and improve its website over the past few months, most recently upgrading the search system to offer more intelligent and predictive search as well as adding new features such as a bin calendar and social feeds.

“People expect to be able to go online to do everything and as one of our main customer service avenues it’s important that we have a website that meets people’s needs and expectations,” said Grant.

“Continually improving our website and giving people a variety of options to access council tools and information is vitally important.”

Last updated: 06 Nov 2019