[Customer] Service Design

Once you get past the FuturLOLogist job at Jisc (which I still maintain is a role full of interesting possibilities despite the silly title and baggage surrounding Jisc these days) I actually think one of the other advertised roles has even greater potential to do interesting things with.

The ‘Director of Customer Services‘ post is pretty vanilla at first glance;

..ensure the very best customer experience for our customers and communities and that all our representatives covered by the customer services function provide relevant advice, support, tools and guidance to enable customers to make the most of the Jisc portfolio of products and services.

So far, so snooze-worthy.

The thing I think that makes it interesting is that you are essentially starting with a blank piece of paper to design a customer service function for an organisation that is a self proclaimed “expert on digital technologies” and that opens up some interesting doors.

As far back as 2008 I was taken with the idea of ‘customer service as the new marketing‘ that companies like Get Satisfaction and Zappos were talking about and five years later expectations from customers has only grown and the need for a multi-channel strategy for customer service has only grown.

The tools are all out there. Things like Get Satisfaction, Zendesk, Radian6 are now incredibly powerful not to mention the possibilities of using things like Google Hangouts (the only worthwhile bit of Google+ in my opinion) and also the idea of ‘publish not send’ that is one of the really interesting things to come out of the GDS team.

I don’t think you could really go entirely ‘digital by default’ yet though and the reality is you’d still need to cover the phones – but I think the borders between social media and customer services teams in particular would need to come down.

The other thing to think about is that there is a fine line between proactive customer service online and being seen as a slightly creepy, corporate stalker and this isn’t something that is going to get easier.

There is also an element of community management and particularly that idea that all your community, in particular all staff no matter their actual job title, are your ‘spokespeople’.

There was a period where this was very much the case at Jisc – lots of staff embraced social media and became vocal advocates for the organisation. They were honest and not always 100% ‘on message’ but that just built even more trust. It was very successful I think in strengthening ties between the people actually working in the Unis, Colleges etc and Jisc staff. Unfortunately over time this has faded – mainly due to the uncertainty around the future of the organisation I guess but it is a pity and is something that could/should be encouraged again.

Anyway that is my tuppence on the topic. Good luck to whoever gets the gig.

Fight the future

Yesterday evening I came across a couple of job ads from Jisc and one in particular was interesting for quite a few reasons.

Let us get the obvious out of the way first. The job title. It is dreadful.


What the hell? I guess the term ‘futurist’, which god knows is bad enough, was too establishment?

Now once you stop sniggering at that it is actually really very interesting and goes to the core of what I always though JISC/Jisc should/could have been doing even before the recent ‘reboot’.

A couple of key phrases in the description are;

..forecast long term future events, conditions, or developments in technology and analytics that will allow Jisc to plan, present and develop innovation in support of research, education and skills.

.. prime purpose is to track developments across the whole field of technology, analytics and society as they come over the horizon, figuring out where it is all going next, and how that will affect our customers

I do find the use of the word ‘analytics’ so prominent in the description slightly odd. Not data. Analytics. It seems out of place between technology and society.

Jisc always had an element of forward looking in its remit. Things like Techwatch were initially explicitly charged with this and there was often talk of the ‘observatory’ elements elsewhere.

Even in my time(s) at Jisc though I think we lost sight of this and the focus became much more about the now or at least the very near feature (like next semester!) and the more horizon scanning stuff seemed to fall away. Phrases like ‘return on investment’, ‘risk management’ and ‘business case’ became more prevalent than ‘experimental’ or ‘research and development’ .

I remember being jealous of the Horizon Project publication that the New Media Consortium in the US used to publish (this is before I met Alan) because it was so directly focused on this idea of predicting the direction of things. Sure I rarely agreed with it in its entirety but it gave a starting point for the conversations and got some fun discussions going.

Part of the reason it is so hard a task (I think) boils down to that famous (in some circles) quote from the author William Gibson;

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

Just look around now. So many things that I consider pretty established are virtually science fiction to people not so immersed in the ‘geeky ghetto’.

Look at things like 3D printing and the interest in ‘wearables’ and the ‘internet of things’. I’ve been seeing examples and reading about these things for several years and it is only now that they are starting to make a wider impact. Often it is even not about the maturity of the technology but the accessibility of it’s story.

Look at the semantic web/linked date. How many years has this been the ‘next big thing’? The reality is the technology is now well established, it has some proven use cases but it still struggles to escape from that ‘geeky ghetto’ because it lacks that ‘elevator pitch’ that people can just click with. Unlike its cousins, Big and Open, which manage to move towards the mainstream despite nobody really having a clear understanding of their definitions.

Anyway despite the dumb name I think this could be a really interesting role and one where someone is going to get the opportunity to really have some fun. It is the sort of thing I think Jisc should be doing and where it can add some real value especially as higher education faces more and more financial pressures leading to the institutions spending less time looking forward themselves.

Despite all the trials and tribulations surrounding Jisc the last year or two I still think it is in a position to do important work and has retained a lot of great people to make that happen (though clearly it lost its share as well).

A Web Management Wake

Last night I attended a strange kind of conference after-party. It was in fact more like an after party (or a wake) for an organisation.

After almost two decades of service to HE geeks (especially of the library and web variety) UKOLN is soon to shut its doors and as a consequence of that this week marked the final Institutional Web Managers Workshop. Of this vintage at least!

I have a huge amount of affection for this event despite its many quirks (being invited to speak but then having to pay for your own ticket for one!) and would immediately like to thank Brian for his great work running the event over the years and building such a great community. I’d also like to thank Marieke who I think brought a huge amount to the event over the years and managed to reign Brian in on occasion 🙂

IWMW was the first proper conference I attended – at Canterbury in 2003. That was also where I met Sara for the first time and she has become one of my closest friends over the years so I am thankful for that. It was also the first conference I spoke at a couple of years later and really was the event that introduced me to the web community – it is funny to think back to just how few other people I knew who worked in the field back then.

Sara and I

I remember rows about the worth of content management systems, social media, the semantic web, mobile and many, many other things. I also remember being very drunk on many, many occasions talking geeky nonsense late in to the night.

The funny thing is I never did really fit in – I never have worked in a HE institutional web team despite all those years running .ac.uk websites – but there was always something that was useful and like so many of these things it was always about the people mainly.

So thanks again to everyone who has had a hand in running the event over the years – I hope Brian finds some way to keep it running but regardless it was a fun ride!

Specialist or generalist? Digital comms in 2012

Ann Kempster kicked off a really interesting debate over on her blog this week with a post titled And or neither nor: press and digital in 2012 [to be fair the title is the only clumsy bit of the piece!].

The post and the comments [so nice to see comments really being used to expand on the topic – seems so rare these days!] discuss how best to integrate digital into an active press team and whether we have reached the point yet where digital skills are just part and parcel of the job or is there still a role for specialists taking care of that side of things.

In this age of ‘digital by default’ it is an interesting topic and there really are some insightful comments covering all sides of the debate. The role of the Press Office in Departments and local government is clearly well established and was already challenging in a pre-digital age so there is some reluctance in some quarters it seems to take on this extra responsibility – even if it is becoming harder and harder to ignore.

In my little corner of NDPB-land it all tends to have a slightly different tone. The largest Press team I have ever worked with is three people (that is now) so I tend to always think in terms of Communications teams rather than just one [very busy] corner of things.

I was lucky enough to spend many years working for an organisation that was ‘digital by default’ years before Martha even considered dipping her toes into civil servant infested waters and have also worked in teams where ‘digital’ & in particular social media was seen as something of a fad that got in the way and would blow over. I know which one I preferred 🙂

The very nature of JISC [at the time] meant we were encouraged to experiment and the team embraced a pretty strong ‘digital first’ ethos across the board. I was very much a cheerleader for the possibilities of social media at the time but the way it got embedded into so many aspects of communications back then and then evolved over the years into the amazing portfolio of outputs they have today had nothing to do with me and everything to do with a team of people willing to take a bit of a leap and challenge the traditional boundaries of their roles.

Currently I find myself for an organisation slowly starting to engage more through digital and we are doing it in an integrated way. It isn’t my little digital team leading the charge – we are supportive and making sure guidance, tools and platforms are available to use – rather the drive is coming from editorial and policy people. It can be slow going as by nature we are a risk averse organisation but I think the fact it isn’t my lone voice calling for change has made the case stronger. The fact we are far from an early adopter also means lessons are there to be learned from and as always I’m thankful by how willing people are to share those lessons.

I guess what I am getting at is that where I have seen it work best is where thinking about digital isn’t the preserve of one or two people but rather is spread amongst the majority and the web/digital team does what it can to facilitate this and make sure getting on-board is as frictionless as possible.


This takes time – even in smaller organisations – and it is important to remain patient, identify supporters and pick your battles. The recent BIS Digital Day was an inspired idea for spreading the digital world and encouraging people throughout the organisation to think about digital in a different context. With the work from GDS filtering through to the bosses and initiatives like that at BIS empowering the ‘grassroots’ then the cultural changes many of us have sought for so long finally have a chance..

Revisiting the BBC’s Fifteen Web Principles

Back in 2007 I arranged for Tom Loosemore to give the closing keynote at the JISC conference.   At the time Tom was Project Director for BBC2.0 and it was a classic case of inviting someone because I wanted to hear what they had to say 🙂 In my opinion it was a great talk (and while there was a bit of grumbling from those who would have preferred *another* edtech talk it scored pretty well on the feedback forms so it all worked out ok!)

Tom structured his talk around the BBC’s Fifteen Web Principles and I took alot from those slides (including the list of ‘principles’ bluetacked on the wall by my desk for a couple of years). In the last couple of days I have seen them mentioned and/or linked to a couple of times again so I decided to revist them myself and see how helpful they were four and a bit years later especially as I am currently writing a digital strategy.

Turns out they are still pretty spot on. Mention of ‘Second Life’ dates them a bit (remember when that was the ‘future’..) but I actually agree with all of them as general principles still but have cut it down to 10 for my wall this time.

1. Build web products that meet audience needs: anticipate needs not yet fully articulated by audiences, then meet them with products that set new standards.

2. The very best websites do one thing really, really well: do less, but execute perfectly.

3. Do not attempt to do everything yourselves: link to other high-quality sites instead. Your users will thank you. Use other people’s content and tools to enhance your site, and vice versa.

4. The web is a conversation. Join in: Adopt a relaxed, conversational tone. Admit your mistakes.

5. Treat the entire web as a creative canvas: don’t restrict your creativity to your own site

6. Any website is only as good as its worst page: Ensure best practice editorial processes are adopted and adhered to.

7. Make sure all your content can be linked to, forever.

8. Consistent design and navigation needn’t mean one-size-fits-all:Users should always know they’re on one of your websites, even if they all look very different. Most importantly of all, they know they won’t ever get lost.

9. Accessibility is not an optional extra: Sites designed that way from the ground up work better for all users

10. Let people paste your content on the walls of their virtual homes: Encourage users to take nuggets of content away with them, with links back to your site

To one extent or another I think my proto-strategy addresses all of these to one extent or another but I am going to spend a little time sense-checking my current ideas against them as soon as I can.

As it turns out Tom Loosemore is now ‘Deputy Director, Single Government Website at the Cabinet Office’ which basically means he is running the Alpha/Betagov project which has the potential to influence my working life more than anything in the last few years.