Creating genuine engagement through data

 

Paul Carhart
Guest Contributor, Paul Carhart, ForViva

The sector has long come to terms with the fact that if we are to keep pace with changes in society and how our customers live their lives, we need to adapt the way we deliver services and communicate.

However, knowing what you need change is one thing, implementing it is quite another.

Some organisations have already travelled a long way on their digital journeys, while others are still taking their first steps. But wherever you are on your journey, having a clear strategy is the key to sustained success.

There is plenty of evidence out there that can help organisations as they look to develop digital strategies. But while all the report papers, think tank sessions and magazine articles are useful to a point, at ForViva our transition to a more digital service began with some serious number crunching.  

To be meaningful, digital strategies must be grounded in a genuine business case. Too often such strategies can be viewed as a ‘nice to have’ or ‘soft’ by Boards or exec teams. But this couldn’t be further from the truth – digital strategies are absolutely integral to the future of housing associations. 

Last year, across our organisation we had more than 250,000 contacts with customers either over the phone or face-to-face. Not only is this an outdated and expensive way to do business, it’s a huge drain on time and resources as well as taking energy and focus away from our wider organisational goals. Moreover, our data shows us that the majority of customers would rather engage with us online.

In short, our digital strategy allows our customers to contact us when they want, and how they want, while freeing up cash and resources within the business.

This strategy impacts every part of our organisation, and has caused us to fundamentally question the way we work and the targets we set for ourselves. If we want customers to use our online services as a first port of call, then do we need to reconsider the KPIs we set for our customer service centre, for example? And how to we ensure consistency of service across all of our channels?

Changing the way we think as a business is challenging. It takes bravery for staff to part with tried and trusted ways of working, which is why strong leadership is crucial.

From the executive team to the receptionist, our goal is to make digital part of everything we do. Everyone across the business has a clear understanding of the strategy and where we are heading, and we have hammered home the message that our approach is not about hollow words or vague ideas, but creating real and lasting change in the way we engage with our customers and deliver excellent services.

This month, we took a major step when we re-launched the websites for our group members City West Housing Trust and Villages Housing Association. A huge amount of planning and preparation went into this, but throughout we have continued to ask ourselves a few basic questions. What do our customers want? What do they need? And what will keep them coming back? 

The sites have been stripped of dozens of pages, with services front and centre at all times.

But a shiny new website is not much use in isolation. Our strategy has stretched across every channel – a new 12 month content plan for Facebook, re-thinking our approach to how we handle calls in the call centre, and working with stakeholders in the community to help them get our ‘do it online’ message out – to make sure we have a truly integrated strategy.     

Our data shows that around 75% of our customers have access to online services, and of those who don’t well over half have identified barriers that we can help overcome. Through our Digi-smart campaign, we’re working with people who need a bit of extra help to get online, and the clever use of our data means we can adopt a very targeted approach to make sure we’re offering this service to those with genuine need.

What has become clear as we have developed our approach is that having a digital strategy is not just about creating portals with the potential to do clever things, it’s about creating a genuine two way engagement with customers, and developing a simple and effective service that means people will keep coming back.  

Customer service counts

The recent Your Call event in Scotland was a great opportunity to catch up with colleagues north of the border and to think about the current state of customer service in housing.

One thing that we agreed on, was that while the aspiration to deliver great customer service was apparent in many organisation – actually delivering it is somewhat less simple.

We are all customers, so we all know what great customer service looks and feels like to us –  the friendly face at the local shop, a well informed and courteous voice at the end of the phone, or a highly usable online process.  We also know what it isn’t – a messy, disorganised face to face environment, rude or unknowledgeable staff, the need to queue while waiting to get through to someone or online processes that aren’t intuitive.  Poor customer service in whatever form is a missed opportunity – and over time erodes customer confidence in and loyalty to the overall brand.

And ‘brand housing’ has had a tough time.  The government has had social housing firmly in its sights over the past 12 months and while some will welcome noises about housing organisations becoming more independent of the state, there has clearly been some ‘meddling’ with the 1% rent cut, changes to the grant regime and the various new policy announcements that have come as part of the Housing Bill that is currently making its way into law.

There also appears to be a view that the combination of large surpluses, some high senior salaries and the number of houses actually being built just do not correlate.  Maybe this is unfair given the regulatory constraints that housing works within – it’s fair to say that the HCA doesn’t reward associations for taking risks.  But is it right to challenge the sector in this way?  I have contact with registered providers on a day to day basis – and while some are agile, forward thinking and customer focused, many others are not, and can take too long to make decisions and implement change when those decisions are no-brainers.

There are too many examples of senior managers getting together to design customer processes that actually are not customer focused – irrespective of the fact that this would also make savings.  It is silo working at its worst – and an example of why putting customers first should be a business and organisation priority, particularly in the current climate.

Maybe we all need to do more to demonstrate better value for money – and to showcase the great work that social housing providers are capable of  once the shackles are off.

So can customer service make a difference to some of the negative perceptions of housing that currently exist?   Of course it can!.

On the one hand, credibility is definitely built when organisations are able to reflect their values through a combination of consistent behaviour, service delivery and effective communication – and effective customer service is central to this.

On the other, according to the recent Observer poll about Issues facing Britain, whilst immigration and NHS are cited as the two most important, housing continues to rise in significance –  more important than education, employment and cuts to public services.  58% stated that more social housing was a key option to tackling Britain’s housing crisis.  Changing perceptions of social housing without having the public (and media) making it a priority is a tough call but there is no doubt that many people still believe  that social housing is a vital part of our society.  Reflecting this aspiration in the quality of service offered is essential to gain public support .

As with anything it will be actions that matter over time and while perceptions of the housing sector won’t be changed by customer service alone, delivering poor service can only have a negative impact and further undermine the overall brand.

The fact is that good customer service is now expected – it’s not a ‘nice to have’, it’s a minimum that is expected – and for many people is likely to be an indication of how the organisation is performing more widely.

As organisations change, merge, form partnerships and look at new ways of working there is a significant opportunity to genuinely prioritise the customer experience and to simultaneously increase satisfaction and to reduce costs.  If increasing the likelihood of brand advocacy (or simply reducing the number of negative headlines) is a by-product of this, wouldn’t that be a positive step forward for housing overall?

Peter