In the private sector, understanding different types of customers has long been recognised as essential to driving engagement and sales. And many consumers now expect the companies they shop with to “understand their individual needs.”

The public sector is beginning to catch up – one of the driving themes in the shift to digital public services is finding ways to tailor those services to meet the needs of different users.

The Digital by Default Service Standard calls on providers to:

“Understand user needs. Research to develop a deep knowledge of who the service users are and what that means for the design of the service.”

Yet in our experience, services in the public sector tend to take a “one-size-fits-all” approach, with little attention to the needs of different users. To find out more, we surveyed public sector professionals from various departments about how they’re implementing personalisation.

Only 21% of our respondents said they allow users to request both the types of information they want to receive and the channels they prefer to interact on. Thirty-nine percent said they don’t ask about users’ channel or content preferences at all, but “provide the same service to everyone.”

How do public service providers tailor their services?

And at first glance, this seems like a reasonable approach – surely giving everyone the same service is the fairest option, right?

The trouble is, every citizen is an individual with different needs and preferences. Presenting a service in a particular way might provide a great user experience for one type of person, yet be quite complicated or inconvenient for another.

Finding out what channels and content a user needs is key to creating personalised services that foster citizen engagement and reduce costs.

So how can government organisations find out what citizens prefer? And how can they use this information to create more personalised public services?

Channels are still important

Different users will want to access services in different ways. Some will prefer to use online services, while for others a phone call will be more convenient. And the channel they choose may even depend on the task they’re trying to complete.

How do service providers personalise by channel?Yet 43% of the digital service providers we surveyed said they do not collect information about their users’ preferred channels. And of those that do, a little over half never use that preference information to actually direct users to their preferred channel.

Although the Digital by Default initiative aims to phase out everything aside from digital channels, there’s a way to go before truly online-only services are feasible. A recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO) found that 17% of the population is still offline – and many of these are people who need to access government services the most.

And channel considerations shouldn’t just account for the way people access services – you’ll also need to think about the way they want to be communicated with. Do they prefer to receive information through email, SMS or a combination of these?

One of our clients in the public sector began offering SMS notifications advising its service users when a payment was going to be made into their account. The service now has over 60,000 users signed up to receive SMS messages. Calls enquiring about payment date have dropped significantly – meaning a significant cost-savings for the department as well.

The right content for the right people

Although Amazon is the go-to example for product recommendation in the private sector, a growing number of businesses are now using technology to predict what products or content users will be interested in. This is typically based on purchase history, browsing history and other data about customers’ stated interests and preferences.

How do service providers personalise content?Our research showed that about 54% of public service providers capture information about their users’ content preferences, but only 14% use this information to tailor the communications they send.

So how can the public sector learn from private sector companies like Amazon? A simple way would be allowing users to specify the content they’re interested in – for example, local events, business-related news, or information on services and activities available for children.

Consider using citizens’ transaction history to send them information on related services, as well. For example, when someone completes a Council Tax Change of Address form, the email confirmation that follows might include links to related information such as the bin collection schedule for their new area.

Convenient and cost-effective

Users stand to benefit immensely from a more personalised approach to service channels – but so do service providers. When a user can’t find the information they need quickly, they may turn to other, more expensive channels. Sending tailored content and recommending related services can pre-empt the need for users to ring up in order to find what they’re looking for.

By quickly connecting users with the information and services that are most relevant for them, service providers can make completing tasks more convenient and more cost-effective.

Obviously, data and privacy will always be a concern when citizens’ personal data is involved. But these days, most people understand that to receive more personalised service, they have to give away a few details about themselves.

And according to the NAO report, most people were more comfortable providing personal details to government organisations than to banks or ecommerce sites. As long as the benefits of providing their details are made clear, most citizens will likely be willing to share the information need for more personalised comms.