It’s all about Customer Service – lessons learnt from 30 years of Omfax

Thirty years ago, social housing didn’t have customers! Social housing then was dominated by Councils, many retaining old paternalistic attitudes. Grenfell has dramatically shown what happens when customers (tenants) are not the priority – before the disaster and after.

The key lesson we have learnt after 30 years of working alongside social landlords, is that a successful housing business is all about customer service. There are no short cuts. The key is the culture of the whole organisation and the commitment of the leadership, putting customer service front and centre.

To ensure the customer is the focus, the landlord’s commitment to residents must be backed by an equally important commitment to staff. The Customer Service Advisor is the key person, with direct contact with residents and their role has to be given the status it deserves and requires – it is not a junior position and must be valued. Social landlords need to ensure the right people are recruited with personal empathetic skills and then retained, with a commitment to on-going training and personal support. Effective support systems have to be in place, but systems are not the panacea to cover other underlying problems.

Homelessness remains a burning issue because social housing is not currently valued as it was in our society, a society which is seemingly obsessed with status. Sixty years ago, to get a Council house was a real joy to families. Space and build standards were high, but long-term maintenance of assets was largely ignored and dealing with day-to-day repairs requests from tenants was regarded as low service priority. Trust was lost and is now difficult to restore.

Over the last 30 years, perceptions have gradually changed, with some housing associations indeed placing the customer front and centre within their own organisations. Some Resident Boards, Scrutiny Committees or Panels, oversee repairs and maintenance budgets of millions of pounds and are truly an integral part of the organisation’s success. Clearly this makes sense, as who is better placed to suggest priorities and efficiencies than the residents themselves who are at the sharp end. But still, some landlords continue to pay lip-service to resident involvement, not valuing the insights which residents can bring.

Only now do we see the idea of the tenants as customers being treated with respect and being able, for instance, to order their own repairs without having to seek prior ‘approval’. This is where Keyfax has assisted thousands of residents over the years using call-flow intelligence to transform conversations and online self-serve to diagnose solutions. This has promoted the same high levels of customer service being delivered to residents both in the contact centre and online, providing first call resolutions to repairs and maintenance issues.

Over the coming years, we will see the domination of AI, with machine learning responding to ever more complicated customer needs. There will be the proliferation of new technologies providing solutions to problems that we haven’t even imagined yet. Self-serve will be taken to further levels, and such things as ‘intelligent’ homes, driverless cars and ‘ether net’ conferencing will be a norm.

Customer-facing roles in shops, administration and warehouses, as well, no doubt, as social housing, will soon be taken up by automated robots, according to a recent report from the Centre for Cities. The report suggests that the rise of AI could take more than a quarter of jobs in the North and Midlands by 2030.

Much the same as humans learn and adapt, Jo Causon, CEO of The Institute of Customer Service, said recently: “Technology is becoming ever more intuitive, anticipating what we may need or be interested in based on our previous behaviour. This is service as it should be – making relevant suggestions and giving us prompts that smooth the way in our time-pressured lives.”

Causon is clear on one aspect however: “Don’t confuse intuitive technology with an understanding of human behaviour and emotions: there is a limit to what the technology can do.” Although many of us now stream our news via digital or social media channels, there continues to be a need to read a physical copy of a newspaper. The same can be said for books, with many using Kindles, whilst enjoying the familiar look and feel of paperbacks when on holiday. And for customer services, whilst data sets can be refined to answer a plethora of enquiries, there continues to be times when there is a basic human need to speak with an advisor to resolve your inquiry. Keyfax provides those advisors with a record of contact between the resident and landlord, so there is a history of conversations, building on the familiarity and trust between landlord and resident. In this way, the need for customer services and for an overarching Customer Service Advisor, may never die. For now, it is my hope that Omfax has assisted to enable residents to find consistent solutions to issues when they have needed them, on a 24/7 basis.

 

Improving customer services at the First Point of Contact

With the Autumn Budget next week, housing is higher up the political and media agendas than ever before. The need for more truly affordable homes is rapacious; it is unlikely that supply will ever meet demand for affordable homes, with the much-vaunted target of one million homes by 2020 seemingly a long way off.

Against this landscape, we are in the midst of a customer service revolution in social housing, with the development of on-line self-service, coupled with the power of social media. The overarching concept of customer service is that ‘the customer is always right.’ Does that apply to social housing tenants? Most providers have a customer services function but can sometimes lack true commitment to the real principle of the tenant as a customer. Customer care and customer service should be integral to the whole ethos and operation of social landlords.

Tenants and residents face so many financial challenges, with the roll-out of Universal Credit, reductions and caps to benefits, austerity cuts to services, fuel poverty, pre-Christmas and January debt and the real threat of homelessness. The haunting images of Grenfell and the seeming lack of two-way communication between Kensington and Chelsea Council and resident action groups is a graphic example of a continuing attitude towards tenants, not as customers but as deserving or undeserving of society’s assistance. In a Guardian editorial from 27/1/12, the Archbishop of Canterbury warned against “a quiet resurgence of the seductive language of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.” It is 50 years since the screening of Cathy Come Home, highlighting issues with homelessness, but when you look at the housing crisis across the UK today, the problem is getting more severe.

At Omfax, we are clear that our work is about customer service and that applies to our customers and our customers’ customers. The latter is being achieved by empowering residents with their own self-service options with Keyfax Inter•View Online. Residents can access the services they need 24/7, with the Keyfax technology acting as an enabler, empowering residents to, amongst other things, report a repair, enquire about a tenancy, make a complaint or place a service request.

The Omfax solution is multi-faceted with Keyfax Inter•View also supporting customer service advisors to deal with customer enquiries at the first point of contact. Most significantly, Keyfax enables customers to be treated as individuals, as a person, with a known history of past dealings and where the relationship matters, using call flow intelligence to inform the conversations. Advisors can confidently organise service responses as required, with the expert guidance from qualified technical and social housing specialists available at their fingertips.

Keyfax provides customers and customer service advisors with a consistent diagnostic system for handling all types of enquiries, problems or repairs, at the first point of contact. The Omfax system empowers residents and enables customer service advisors to successfully respond to a myriad of challenges.

Housing – A key battleground for the general election

Theresa May’s announcement of a snap general election has added even more uncertainty to the current political climate, with Article 50 also triggered on 29th March.

The parties are yet to publish their manifestos but, from recent debates and early statements, we have already been given a sense of what each party will set out to achieve.

One battleground on which policies and opinions will be contested in the coming months is housing.

With ambitious targets for housebuilding making headlines and cuts a continued threat for housing providers, housing is likely to play a big part in the result of June’s general election.

More homes means more people

The Conservative Party is likely to stick to its current policy programme, which includes a commitment to build one million homes by 2020.

Labour has also already pledged to build the same amount over the span of a Parliament, with 500,000 council homes to be built.

While one million homes is an ambitious figure, all parties are recognising the high demand and urgent need for housing. With major housebuilding programmes a certainty, it of course means more people and more tenants.

With welfare reform, cuts to resources and decreasing staff numbers, housing providers are already hugely strained. If one million homes are constructed in the next three years, how will associations cope with the mass influx of new tenants, new queries and new complaints?

Human customer service advisors can only do so much. Which is why technology must assist and improve customer service, wherever possible.

If we want to achieve these goals, that we’ll no doubt hear much of over the next few months, we must have realistic and sustainable processes in place. Organisations must think about resources carefully and how to better manage them.

Keyfax reduces the workload of contact centre workers, by resolving calls first time and directing queries to the most relevant person, avoiding wasted time. The technology is there to save precious time and money. It’s ready and waiting.

A data exercise

Early polls for June’s general election show the Conservative Party far ahead of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Of course, much can change between now and June and 50 day polls have been wrong.  Just look at the Brexit and American election votes. Polls for both of these were wrong, even up until the very last minute.

Polls, and indeed elections, are often little more than tick box exercises – simple data collection. They don’t show the true concerns, beliefs and opinions of the public.

Keyfax delves much deeper than just a tick box. It relates to your customers’, or tenant preferences. Not only this, Keyfax builds on acquired knowledge to help provide a highly personalised and reliable level of customer service, which is fit for purpose in these challenging times.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Customer service delivery is often a reflection of the culture within an organisation and the operating models that reflect that culture.

We are entering the Digital Darwinism age.

Private and third sector alike, will need to adapt operating models to achieve the channel shift that is expected as a result of digital transformation, as well as the structural and cultural shifts needed to reduce operating costs, while addressing universal levels of falling productivity and staff and customer engagement.

Digital alone is not the cure for all ills. Digital Strategies provide the foundations and platform for digital service delivery, but as Bill Gates famously stated, automation applied to an efficient process will magnify the outcome: automation applied to an inefficient process will magnify the inefficiency.

In the reality of today’s operating environment and the continued drive for Vfm, millions are being spent by start-ups on developing simple and effective app-based systems, to manage and maintain operations.

The real competition is coming from outside the housing sector, just like it has elsewhere. Amazon, Airbnb, Uber. Challenges will come in every aspect of simplicity and cost – delivering alternatives to manage and maintain social housing at half of the operating costs of the current top quartile housing associations.

The reality is that many and most social housing policies, processes, transactions and interactions with customers and partners, will have developed over time and been added to with workarounds and regulatory dictats to make them more complicated than they need to be.

Complicatedness will have taken root because of the traditional ‘hard’ approach to organising the organisation. In this hard approach, structure defines the role, processes instruct how to perform it, and incentives motivate the right person in the right role to do it. In this perspective, if there is a performance problem, then it must be because some key element is missing or not detailed enough. So managers jump straight from identifying a performance problem, to deploying new structures, processes or systems, to resolve them.

Smart, well-meaning people are also driven to demonstrate their talent, experience or ability to manage – in many cases by creating a work-around to any blockages. And work-around is, of course, just another term for complexity. And complexity has a way of breeding more complexity.

Global research by the Boston Consulting Group has identified that in the most complicated organisations:

  • Managers spend more than 40% of their time writing reports and between 30 and 60% of their time in meetings.
  • Teams spend between 40 and 80% of their time wasted on activities which add no value to the business or the end customer.

Research by Adobe identified that most workers in the developed world spend six hours a day checking email and, we have found across the housing sector, that up to 40% of front line staff’s time is wasted on non-value adding activities; writing, editing, rewriting and presenting reports, travel and the complicatedness bound up in permissions, processes, office politics, silo working and workflows.

The traditional approach to delivering efficiency and value is very much the hard way – via staff structures. Reduce operating costs by reducing the number of staff through restructures. Just a cold hard look at what is core or non-core to the business and what can therefore be cut, followed by a myriad of ad-hoc unconnected projects, such as lean reviews, alternative ways to work or markets to explore, etc.

Economy without a long term view of the efficiency or effectiveness of decisions.

Ignoring the root problems but trimming the branches anyway.

This approach fails because it does not address the inherently inefficient operating realities outlined above. In order to be able to maintain personal staff contact in aspects of services where this makes a real difference to customers, we will need to make other service aspects more efficient and on a self-service basis.

A Smart Simplicity approach.

Barry Marlow and Peter Hall

Cake

The cake depicts the temptation of multi-layering to produce something that looks nice but is inherently complicated to use. Much like many social housing processes.

For more details visit: smartsimplicity.uk.com

 

 

AI – The future of customer service?

Social housing is in the midst of a customer service revolution. The development of customer service centres, web sites and online payments over the past decade or so has seen the loss of repair workers, local offices and resident wardens.

The introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in customer services is set to bring about significant change. This technology is transforming many services, empowering customers to deal with their own queries or service requests, all remotely.

AI can help customer service providers get more out of the large data sets that have been available to service providers for many years but have remained largely unexplored. AI does not degrade over time, unlike other facets of production, but assists organisations to operate and enhance how people data is collated and interrogated.

So, are we seeing the beginning of the end of human domination?

It was forecast that by 2025, the computer would be able to outperform a human. That now looks like being well overtaken.

Google’s DeepMind, for example, does not forget how it solved past problems, using this acquired knowledge to tackle new issues. Sequential learning and the ability to remember old skills and apply them to tasks, comes naturally to humans. However, DeepMind is still not capable of the general intelligence that humans use when facing new challenges.

The ultimate aim is the creation of Artificial Intelligence machines which match human intelligence, and we are not too far away from this.

A recent report from Accenture and Frontier Economics, suggested that AI-enabled technologies could double the economic growth rates of many advanced countries by 2035. With such forecasts in mind, there can be no doubt that AI will enable many roles in housing, especially those in customer services, to become fully automated.

However, applying a human level of intelligence, to what is ultimately a machine, is still considered a dangerous prospect by many.

So, how do we make sure the machines we ‘train’ don’t perpetuate and amplify the same human biases and prejudices that plague society? Do we programme machines to maximise the happiness of the greatest number of people? How does this affect those who don’t fit the mould? How do we control what we have started?

To create an effective customer service AI, a human expert is required to initially give the system the knowledge and design flow pathways. Interestingly, that is exactly how Keyfax from Omfax works – using call flow intelligence  to initially reflect the known and repetitive pathways for a range of enquiries.  They are then refined and extended, based on feedback. Experts are called in to use their knowledge and understanding to help design the call pathways. Data sets relating to the resident, their property, their relationship with the organisation and their history, are then added to create intelligent, personalised responses.

There is power in the Keyfax system, which is so much more than a repairs diagnostic tool, just as AI aims to fully exploit the power of data sets.

AI is pushing at the boundaries of customer services and may, in the not too distant future, make current technologies obsolete.  The impact on social housing services has yet to be seen but Keyfax has already made strides in that direction.

Peter Graddon, Director of Omfax Systems

To read more of my thoughts on AI in customer service. Download the latest edition of Housing Technology here

The value of data

Simon Hollingsworth is the Managing Director of Housing Partners, which helps housing providers better understand their tenants through innovative data solutions.

Big data

‘Big’ data is something of a buzzword in the social housing sector currently. But what is it?

Big data is the collection of information from large, varied sources; combining and applying it for big results.

Amalgamating several strands of data can reveal trends or patterns that otherwise may have gone unnoticed when looking at individual data silos.

Welfare reform – the importance of data

With the introduction of welfare reform measures, including Universal Credit, it’s more important than ever for providers to know their customers, in order to manage risk proactively and be more efficient with resources.

Housing Partner’s Insight makes vast amounts of tenant financial and neighbourhood data available in one place. It takes information from a provider’s housing management system and combines it with data from hundreds of third party sources, including many exclusive to Housing Partners.

This data is helping social landlords engage with thousands of tenants across the UK and intervene in the situations that need support most, such as rental arrears and the use of illegal lenders.

Preventing debt and financial issues means that providers can better support tenants secure their main source of income – rent.

The value of data to housing providers

As neighbourhood services come under increasing pressure and resources get tighter in the current climate, making the first visit count when seeing a tenant is more vital than ever, allowing providers to focus their staff resources in the most needed areas.

Data tools, such as Insight, equip housing association staff with the necessary tenant information before they’ve even made their first visit to residents.

With time an ever more valuable commodity, it’s important that housing professionals are asking simple but powerful questions, and this is something new data innovations are allowing. Big data is a huge step beyond the traditional use of data.

The value of data to tenants

Big data is allowing housing associations to paint a full picture of their tenant’s situation, which in the context of welfare reform, highlights factors that are most likely to cause financial vulnerability and debt.

One housing provider we work with identified 570 individuals in high financial distress using big data. This approach enables officers to use their time as effectively as possible, visiting the most vulnerable families first and knowing what questions to ask. Spotting financial problems before it’s too late ultimately means keeping residents in their homes.

Data sensitivity

Housing providers are increasingly using big data collection and application alongside their financial inclusion schemes.

But as data becomes more widely used in every aspect of everyday life, from healthcare to housing, more questions are being asked.

Data security and privacy are hot on the heels of any discussion over the use of data in housing, so it’s paramount that we communicate the benefits of big data to both housing providers and tenants.

Housing Partner’s Insight collects a lot of third party data that is already available publicly anyway, but it’s the amalgamation of the data that makes the change. Insight displays the data in a clear, user-friendly way, ensuring housing professionals – at all levels – can make insightful use of the information available to them.

As our customers are aware, big data is helping providers drive efficiencies, better engage with customers and build long lasting relationships.

For tenants, information is helping to keep them in their homes and avoid serious debt.

Big data is allowing us to better understand the people we support. And this understanding is in the interest of all parties.

For more details visit: www.housingpartners.co.uk/Insight

 

It’s all about the data – vital infrastructure for the housing sector

Since my last blog, we have had the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, with new spending on housing projects totalling £3.7 billion. This is made up of £2.3 billion to be spent on infrastructure for housing developments to support the building of 100,000 new homes with a further £1.4 billion added to the Government’s capital grant fund that housing associations can draw down to build 40,000 extra affordable homes.

Housing is now at the forefront of national news agendas, with new affordable homes across all tenures needing to be delivered by providers up and down the country in response to the housing crisis. Unless social landlords face the lack of supply of decent, affordable new homes head on, this issue will perpetuate through generations.

Where does customer services and data fit into these hopes for regeneration? I would argue that the data extracted from social housing customers is vital to understanding how the sector is changing and how services can be improved. Even with the shift towards self-service solutions, customer services data is an inherent part of the infrastructure needed to support successful social housing, providing business intelligence which enhances customer satisfaction with the levels of service on offer.

With the onset of winter, repairs issues tend to be heightened, with the usual frozen pipes, faulty heaters and broken boilers. Being able to line up customer data with the internal culture of the landlord is key; repairs history for example, is worthless unless you have the correct data and you are doing something proactively with it; reviewing past actions and identifying inefficiencies to enable operatives to have the correct information about the job to deliver repairs which are right first time.

Our own web-based reporting tool, Keyfax Interview Online, enables tenants to report repairs around the clock, at a time that is convenient to them. Efficient and effective repairs service is at the heart of social housing businesses and because tenants have self-diagnosed the repairs issue they are engaged and have bought into the solution. The Keyfax system enables easy and accurate diagnosis of repairs by taking tenants through a number of highly usable steps with helpful diagrams to pinpoint the exact nature of the repair required. It then integrates with the organisation’s own systems to enable the repair to be raised and an appointment time to be selected that is convenient for them. The whole process takes less than a few minutes and delivers a seamless service from the tenant’s point of view.

The multi-channel landscape for customer contact is constantly evolving with new sources of data from digital platforms and social media. It is my belief that customer services are central to the success of social housing, pressing buttons for quality and efficiency including savings, but data can do so much more. Customer services continue to play a vital part for providers, assisting to deliver efficiencies which will be identified in the pending Housing White Paper, planned for early next year and beyond.

Peter Graddon

Director, Omfax Systems Ltd