WhatsApp and a new chatbot; the progressive policy of the municipality of Goes

The municipality of Goes is one of the first Dutch municipalities to use the WhatsApp Business Solution. Goes is a municipality with an enterprising spirit and a clear vision toward the future. This historical municipality has a progressive policy where new communication channels are embraced. In fact, this municipality wants to be a leader and believes in new ideas and moving forward. Rutger den Toom, Policy Advisor of Customer Service, tells us all about the benefits and challenges of the WhatsApp Business API and chatbots for municipalities.

Goes seized an opportunity and went for the WhatsApp Business Solution

The WhatsApp Business API has recently become available for municipalities. This means that residents can contact their municipality in a fast, easy and personal way and with a low threshold.

“As soon as the opportunity arose to start using the WhatsApp Business Solution as a communication channel for our residents, we seized it. This entrepreneurial spirit is ingrained in our organisational culture and we are flexible in adapting our customer contact strategies. If something goes wrong, we learn from it, and tackle it differently the next time. The benefits of using the WhatsApp Business API speak for themselves, and we don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to use it to enhance our services.”

The benefits of the WhatsApp Business Solution for municipalities

An accessible channel

The target group for WhatsApp is quite broad. This channel is used by residents both young and old. “Everyone has WhatsApp on their phone these days”, Rutger explains. “Because many commercial organisations have been using it for so long, people have become used to using it as a channel for contacting organisations. Even older people who are less able to deal with new technologies seem to be familiar with the use of WhatsApp.

The municipality of Goes values inclusiveness. They understand the importance of being accessible to everyone. Some channels are less user-friendly for specific target groups than others. For example, people with intellectual disabilities may find it more difficult to reach us through traditional channels. Writing an e-mail can be more challenging for this target group than sending a simple app. Because the threshold should be low with regard to contacting the municipality, this makes WhatsApp a highly suitable communication channel for this specific target group. WhatsApp is also simple to use and very easy to manage from our side”.

Easy to use

Through WhatsApp, it’s also very easy to share photos. The Goes municipality receives photos on a daily basis from, for example, people who don’t clean up after their dogs or of wrongly parked cars.

The app Fixi was created for these types of public reporting, yet the preference still seems to be for WhatsApp. A large part of the population already has WhatsApp on their phone, unlike Fixi. People generally don’t download an app specifically for the purpose of reporting something.

“It takes very little effort to look up the municipality chat in WhatsApp and report something with a photo and short accompanying text”. 

Quick answers

According to Rutger, the WhatsApp Business Solution fits perfectly into the workflow of customer contact staff. “We make clear that we always respond to a message within 24 hours. Internally, during office hours, we even try not to let it take longer than an hour. In general, this usually goes well. Compared to email, you can expect a much faster response on WhatsApp.”

Why is it that WhatsApp messages can be handled so much faster? “The length of the messages and the types of questions asked plays a role, but especially the fact that we have to register e-mails officially in our case system. The informal nature of WhatsApp contributes to the fast handling time”.

“Sometimes a quick handling time is crucial. For example, the other day we were sent a picture of a truck loading and unloading several times at three in the morning. At that point, we were able to immediately shift gears when we saw the message in the morning and send in reinforcements. If this had come in via email, we wouldn’t have been able to react so quickly.”

Referral function

Of course, the municipality of Goes strives to help every citizen as quickly as possible. Some questions are excellent for the WhatsApp channel and can be handled quickly. Other questions, due to their formal nature, for example, must be entered through the case system. Facebook has indicated that municipalities may only use the WhatsApp Business Solution for matters such as crisis response, permits, appointments, municipal services and tourism. If other questions come in, WhatsApp has a strict referral system. Residents are then quickly and efficiently directed to the right channel.

For example: A resident would like to apply for a building permit. If this question is received via WhatsApp, the customer contact centre will refer it to the correct channel. A building permit has legal consequences. All archive-worthy messages, which may also have payments attached, do not belong on WhatsApp.

Personal contact

Through WhatsApp, residents receive a personal response from a customer contact employee. This personal attention is greatly appreciated. Residents need human contact, which is not possible if, for example, a system automatically handles your report. “Residents want to hear from us directly that we are sending someone to the situation or handling a report”.

Tone of voice

The Goes municipality has deliberately chosen an informal tone of voice, so that the conversation via WhatsApp feels natural and personal. Where possible, the language use is mirrored. “Of course we only mirror within professional boundaries. If someone suddenly starts apping something in a heavy dialect, we won’t go along with that.”

“Keeping the conversation informal is another way we hope to lower the threshold. Municipalities are often seen as bureaucratic and formal. We would like to reduce any distance between the municipality and its citizens. By using a human tone of voice, we hope that people will be open and honest in the conversation. People shouldn’t get the idea that we’re necessarily going to start a procedure right away. With our informal tone of voice, we want to inspire more confidence in citizens.”

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Integration of the WhatsApp Business API within OBI Engage

The municipality of Goes manages the messages within the WhatsApp Business Solution in the online environment of OBI Engage.

“With OBI Engage we can manage the WhatsApp Business Solution and other social media channels from one online environment. Customer contact staff can quickly answer questions that come in through various channels because of OBI Engage’s simple structure. And the system clearly logs who sent what and when. The ease of use of OBI Engage allows us to focus optimally on our core task; namely helping residents and entrepreneurs with their governmental affairs.”

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Major role for customer contact centre in chatbot development

Through the deployment of the WhatsApp Business API, the Goes municipality has already taken a big step in optimising customer contact. In order to be available outside of opening hours and to ultimately relieve any pressure on other channels, the municipality has implemented a chatbot.

The customer contact centre of the municipality of Goes is very busy at the moment. In addition to the many phone calls and emails they answer and the growing number of chats they have to keep track of via the WhatsApp Business Solution, they are also working on the development of chatbot Guus.

“We deliberately chose to involve customer contact staff in the development process of the chatbot. After all, these employees know better than anyone what kinds of questions come in and what answers are expected. They also know how questions are asked, and what the “question behind the question” is. After all, sometimes residents mean something slightly different than how they make it seem with the literal question.”

Chatbot in training

Their chatbot recently went live, but still has a lot to learn. The municipality of Goes therefore mentions in the chat that Guus is still in training. “This is an example of expectation management. We don’t want people to be disappointed or frustrated if their questions can’t be fully answered.”

Currently, about 30 to 40 people start a conversation with the chatbot each day. For now, the bot has primarily a referral function. Do you have questions about waste? For example, has the container not been emptied? Or have you noticed a lot of litter at a certain location recently? Guus can refer you to the right place to make the report.

“Eventually it would be nice if the chatbot could also handle complete processes. Passing on a move? The chatbot helps you from A to Z. That would be fantastic, wouldn’t it?”

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Prioritise and start small

You can do quite a lot with a chatbot; the sky’s the limit! You can pre-program every possible question and answer combination. However, you always need to ask yourself whether you’re achieving the desired goals. Are you creating more efficiency within the team by capturing all possible questions?

“We are careful not to add too many topics. You want to be able to maintain a good overview. We want to avoid spending too much time on what may be a relatively small improvement. We are therefore starting with a limited scope, and will then gradually expand it over the coming year. The most important thing is that the bot can currently answer the most commonly-asked questions. For questions that specifically deal with content, it’s better to talk to a customer contact person anyway.”

Looking to the future

These days, you don’t have to go to City Hall for most services. Today, 80% of municipal matters can be taken care of online. Of course, the corona crisis has given this rapid digitisation an extra push.

Rutger foresees enormous growth in the use of the WhatsApp Business API by municipalities. He also expects to see more and more chatbots in the municipal field. After all, the government often mirrors commercial companies. “If the bol.coms and Rabobanks of our society start using them, we can’t lag behind.” Rutger believes chatbots will play an increasingly prominent role on municipal websites.

“Chatbots will eventually be making less and less referrals and will increasingly be picking up questions and handling processes independently. The website will then serve only as a knowledge base. Actually, you’ll hardly even need the website anymore. Any questions? Chatbot Guus will be happy to help!”

Is your municipality future-proof?

Are you already offering residents the chance to contact you through their preferred channels? And are you curious as to how our solutions can contribute to less pressure on your customer contact centre employees? With a tool like OBI Engage, you can manage all your channels, including WhatsApp, in just one online environment. Our experts would be happy to discuss all the possibilities with you! Please feel free to contact us.