Can customer service save social housing?

Can customer service save social housing?  That was the question I posed at our Annual Omfax Conference held on 7TH June, and was a question we explored through a variety of presentations and discussions throughout the day.


What follows is taken from my opening presentation, further elaborated from thoughts from the day.


To answer the question ‘Can customer service save social housing?’ we have to address three key questions:

  1. Does it need saving?
  2. Is it worth saving?
  3. Who can save it?


First – does it need saving?

I think all commentators would agree that this country is facing a housing crisis – too few homes, the ones we have are often poor quality or too expensive for most – and are seen by others, here and abroad, as investments rather than shelter.


When people are asked to name the issues most affecting the country (outside the current cacophony of issues raised by the EU referendum), in recent times immigration and health/the NHS have tended to be cited as the two most important.  Just below them however, there is one issue – housing – that continues to rise in significance; more important than education, employment and cuts in public service.


Tragically, as part of this crisis, social housing is at risk.  It is under threat from government policies, the current funding climate and from forces within.   Chartered Institute of Housing estimates that there will be a net loss of over 400,000  social rent homes by 2020. This is a staggering figure given the increasing demand, yet too many are allowing this to happen.


We all know about the cuts in welfare and the impact this has on benefits and, therefore, on those dependent on social housing – epitomised by the bedroom tax – and we can see the effect of RTB, pay to stay, and of course, the 1% cut in rents.  The rumblings and antipathy to social housing in the corridors of Westminster is fuelled by MPs’ post bags containing complaints against social landlords.  This is further exacerbated by the view that the combination of large surpluses, some high senior salaries and the number of houses actually being built, just do not correlate.


Added to this, as organisations diversify, as they merge to create new ‘mega associations’ and as they become more commercial, there is a real danger that they could lose their social purpose and connection with their customers.


To quote one of my favorite bloggers, Tom Murtha, who retired as CEO at Midland Heart, is Chair of the HCT and is on the Board of Plus Dane HA, he said: “I began working in housing to provide a decent rented home for those on low or no incomes. If I had wanted to devote my energies to selling homes to those who can afford to buy or providing homes that many can’t afford to rent, I would have become an estate agent or a property developer”.


In a recent Observer poll, when asked; ‘From a number of options, which option do you think would help tackle Britain’s housing crisis’ – 58% said ‘more social housing’.  I was surprised – pleasantly surprised – that it was as high as this.  So there is underlying support and belief in the role of social housing. BUT recent research by the Fabian Society shows whilst the public may be supportive of the principle of social housing – crucially, they are less likely to see it as something for them. The majority of people see it as a social service for other people, not the answer to their own need for affordable housing or security.

The same research shows real stigma attached to social housing – half of the respondents thought people living in social housing were stigmatised.

And it is that stigma that is fuelling the decline.


Another blogger I was reading recently, Fiona Elsted, encapsulated the problem:

“When I left university, my parents advised me to put my name on the council house waiting list. ‘You’ve got nothing to lose’ they said, and you might need it one day. I wouldn’t need council housing I thought. I’d got a degree. I was going to have a profession. My path was one which wouldn’t take me into but would lead me out of a council estate. I appreciated council houses (I’d been brought up in one after all) but I’d outgrown them. I never did put my name down”.


That response is echoed by Campbell Robb, who writes in the Guardian Housing Network, and notes ‘a positive public responses to the concept of social housing but a concomitant sense that it’s ‘not something for them.’ That inability for many to identify with actually living in social housing might, Robb suggests, “be a contributory factor in its demise. The general public might support the idea of social housing but not enough to be bothered to put up a fight for it”.

So, if it is true that people think social housing is not for them, it’s because they know it is literally is not for them – others take priority so they have to think of homeownership if they don’t want to be in the Private Rented Sector.


The problem is that social housing has this bad image.  The myth is that tenants do not get a good service – despite the many plaudits and awards that we have been given to social housing customer services over recent years.


So I do believe that there is a real threat to the future and especially to the ethos that under-pins social housing – the commitment to social values.


The threat is all to do with ideology:  the provision of services for our general well-being – health, education, housing, especially for the more vulnerable – is this a public service and who should provide it – public bodies or private enterprises?


And I admit, I have strong views about the role and value of public enterprise – organisations that operate with social objective and where money is for the service, not for distribution to a few.


And, underlying all this, is the quality of service provided by social housing. There needs to be a collective commitment to the highest standards of service, provided by all, so that a few are not allowed to tarnish the reputation others are striving to build. Social housing needs to provide and finance an independent regulator to ensure standards are met.


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 it is a clear indication of how an organisation is performing more widely.  It’s about giving the same commitment and importance to measuring your performance on social values, as you do to measuring performance on our other business objectives.



Is social housing worth saving?


You can answer that – the fact that you are all here and all work in social housing is a testimony to the fact that you think it is worth saving.


For me, of course it is – it is a mark of a civilised country to ensure good housing and supportive services to its people. More than that, I firmly believe it is worth expanding – both with new building and with broader customer and community services – meeting the needs of the wider community and not just the most ‘in need’.



But who is going to save it?


Personally, I do not believe that social housing will be saved by the professionals, the bloggers – they are important but public services are only ‘saved’ when people value what they provide and are prepared to get out and object to any threat to the future of the service. The NHS, hospitals, schools, libraries, are all defended because the people value them – people who use these services now and people who want it there when they might need it; people who are prepared to shout about it.


To quote Campbell Robb again, “while there is public support for social housing, it simply isn’t strong enough to make any real demands of the government”.


So tenants themselves need to be front and centre and they need to be integral to the governance of the estates and properties. Every social housing organisation should have tenants in significant numbers on their board and involved through tenant committees in operational decisions. Maybe we need to go further and commit to real tenant democracy, as illustrated by the Danish model; where residents have the majority on the housing organisations board and every tenant can be part of the democratic process which runs individual housing estates.


I believe social housing will only be saved if the users – existing tenants and those who desperately want to be tenants – are prepared to shout about it.


And I believe that tenants, customers, will only fight if they value the service – in other words if the customer service is worth fighting for. So yes, customer service can save social housing – and is potentially a powerful force in the fight, that should not be underestimated.


Peter Graddon

Director, Omfax Systems Ltd


Artificial Intelligence in Customer Service

I read with interest, various articles earlier this year about the use of Artificial Intelligence in customer services.

In March RBS announced that a trial of advanced ‘human’ artificial intelligence has been successful and it is to be rolled out more widely to support employees.

Piloted among 1,200 staff who manage relationships with small businesses, the AI, known as ‘Luvo’, is able to understand questions and then search through large amounts of information before responding with an answer. If Luvo is unable to find the answer, it passes the query on to a member of staff. The aim is to support staff to help them answer customer queries more quickly and easily.

Luvo answers questions with staff through web chat and deals with queries such as:

* My customer has lost their card – what steps do they need to take now?

* My customer has locked their PIN – how do they unlock it?

* How do I order a card-reader for my customer?

Like humans, Luvo has to be trained when dealing with new subject matter and its answers become more accurate over time.

In the months to come, RBS plans to explore if Luvo could be used to answer questions direct from customers.  The aim is to reduce the need for people to wait for a human advisor to be free to answer a simple question and at the same time free up time for staff to answer more complex problems.

Then in June the London Borough of Enfield announced that they were introducing an artificial intelligence robot named Amelia to answer some customer queries.

Amelia will be included on the council website to help guide people quickly to correct information on self-certification for planning, and applications for permits and licenses.  If Amelia cannot answer a question, it calls in a human colleague and ‘learns’ from them.

Currently, waiting times on council call lines average between five and 10 minutes, and it is hoped Amelia will help to reduce this.  Amelia-powered services should start going live in the autumn and will be available 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

Frank Lansink, CEO EU at IPsoft, who developed Amelia, enthused: “With the rise of powerful cognitive platforms such as Amelia, government organisations have an opportunity to completely reimagine how frontline public services are delivered. Organisations can not only unlock significant cost efficiencies as routine, high-volume tasks are automated, but, more excitingly, can unlock the full creative potential of their people.”

Excuse me if I am not so enthused; social housing customer services have been moving in this direction of developing the full potential of their people for some time.  But the real point is the way technology is developing and being used in the workplace.

For a while now I have been talking to anyone who will listen about the impact that technology will have on the future operations of social housing.  Technological developments have had  enormous impact on other industries- banking and finance, travel and holiday bookings, newspapers and book publishing, retail and groceries, employment and recruitment, welfare benefits and other government services.  Other areas such as health services are beginning to explore the potentials.  There has been a virtual revolution.

My forecast is that social housing will see a similar revolution in the way its services are delivered.  We have seen it in many ways already with the development of contact centres, web sites, on-line payments, the use of emails and the rise in the use of text messaging and now of social media. As a consequence, over recent years we have seen the loss of rent collectors, repairs inspectors, local offices and resident wardens.  More recently, there has been the growth of on-line self-service.  Although this still in poorly developed, there can be no doubt that this will have the most dramatic impact on services over the next five year and more.  That’s why the development and introduction of AI in customer services is significant. It moves things forward, providing a system to empower residents to deal with their own queries or service requests (orders!).

One interesting thought – I believe one of the inhibitors to change has been our continuing commitment to the use of the keyboard – even with the introduction of SMS and web chat.  But how antiquated is that!!  We have SIRI, Skype, Miriam, as well as FaceTime.  I don’t think it will be long before voice recognition and communication becomes the norm.  Add AI to that mix and ………….  will we soon be speaking with a virtual person in customer services?

So what about AI?  Are we seeing the beginning of the end of human domination?  It was forecast that by 2025, the computer would be able to out-perform a human.  That now looks like being well overtaken.  Recently a computer using AI beat the world champion at the incredibly complex game of Go.  What was significant, and possibly worrying, was that the computer made unpredictable moves that ‘surprised’ its developers.  This betrays a lack of control inherent in the design, which may be OK with a game like Go, but raises important ethical and governance issues.

I don’t pretend to understand how it works, how computers ‘learn’, other than by tracking our enquiries, searches, decision pathways and landing pages – as  Google and others follow our internet journey and ‘learn’ by this what our ‘favourites’ are, to then direct ads and offers to us.  The examples of RBS and Enfield talk about learning from experts – so some expert has to initially give the system the knowledge and design the flow pathways.

Interestingly, that is exactly how Keyfax works – scripts are developed 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 help with their knowledge and understanding, to help design the scripts pathways.

So maybe Keyfax isn’t Artificial Intelligence – it’s Human Intelligence.