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Your spotlight on local services

Phoning Adult Social Services: a mystery shopping investigation


In 2016 we were told it was very hard to reach social workers by phone...

We'd heard anecdotal reports that people were waiting on hold for upwards of an hour when trying to get through. We decided to carry out some mystery shopping, to see what the experience of phoning the service was like. Islington Council’s Adult Social Services team gave us an up-to-date list of all practitioners in the social work teams, along with their phone numbers. Healthwatch staff and volunteers called social work team members at random between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday. They knew we would be calling. We decided we would wait for no longer than ten minutes for each call to be answered.

Key: one of these four was the outcome each time we phoned the service. We kept a count.


Round one, October 2016

89 calls were made in total. 50 of these calls were answerred, or transferred, within seven rings (the target response time for social workers). We were unable to get a response on 28 occasions. 21 of these calls failed to get any response at all, and seven got no response once they had been transferred to the Business Support service.

Chart showing where phone calls were answered in the first round of mystery shopping

16 calls were transferred to Business Support. Once there, we faced a long wait, and sometimes a fruitless one:

  • Five of the calls were not answered within ten minutes, so we gave up waiting.
  • Two further calls were disconnected while we were still in the queue.
  • Of the six calls that were answered by support staff, one was answered after nine minutes of waiting, one after seven minutes, one immediately, and three after an unspecified period.
  • The outcome of the remaining three calls was not recorded.

17 calls went through to voicemail. Eight of the recorded messages did not identify the staff member we had reached (6), or belonged to someone other than the person were trying to call (2). It's a small sample size but that's nearly half of them. If you were ringing to cancel or rearrange an appointment, you wouldn’t feel confident that your message would get heard by the person for whom it was intended.

The half-time verdict? Definite room for improvement

Half time report

Having some independent feedback from Healthwatch gave Adult Social Services the opportunity to look again at the way they managed phone enquiries. They made some changes:

  • Staff answer phones were reinstated, to make sure most calls went through to the named worker, rather than to the Business Support service.
  • Staff were given a script for their answer phone message, meaning callers would know that they had got through to the right person


Round two, February 2017

206 calls were made in total. 192 of these calls were answered, or transferred, within seven rings. We were unable to reach a response route on only seven occasions. Big improvement.

11 calls were transferred to Business Support. Calls were responded to much more quickly than previously:

  • Eight of the calls were answered by support staff within 4 rings.
  • One call was answered after 10 rings.
  • The final two calls were answered after one minute and two minutes respectively.

113 calls went through to voicemail. 6 of those 113 recorded messages did not identify whose phone had been reached. Bearing in mind the large increase in the volume of calls, this was a notable improvement.

The final verdict? A much better experience

Half time report

The experience of phoning the Adult Social Services team was much improved by the end of this project. We devoted a similar level of resources to both rounds of mystery shopping. In October 2016 we completed 89 calls. In February 2017 we were able to complete 206 calls in the same amount of time. It was much easier and quicker to get through to someone, or to leave a message.

Service user feedback supported this conclusion, 'It’s less stressful now because you know you’ve at least left a message. Also, if I call after 7pm calls are free so it prevents us from having to make such expensive calls like before.'

Special thanks to Healthwatch volunteers Mark Austin, Angela Dobson, Alice Godman, Rose McDonald, Helen Mukerjee and Geraldine Pettersson for their work on this project. The information presented above is also available as a pdf.