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 Not only is this an outdated and expensive way to do business, it’s a huge drain on time and resources as well as taking energy and focus away from our wider organisational goals.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?


Build it and they will come

Guest Contributor, Tony Smith ACIH

I have been involved with many clients, particularly in social housing, looking to ‘Channel Shift’. In fact if I had £50 for every time I have heard that expression over the years, I would have a tidy nest egg by now. While our ‘inner accountant’ might wish for a swift migration over to a cheaper channel to serve our customers in, the caring customer service soul, knows that it certainly won’t happen overnight.

In fact many organisations have implemented some stunning portals and then wondered, “Why are we only getting a 6% take-up?”. Also, why do we think only half of those, are coming back for more?

Firstly, if we have built it, will they come? Almost certainly not, unless you use lots of conventional means of letting all your customers know, it’s there at all.  It’s a bit of a paradox really. A big splash in the quarterly newsletter, with Mrs Migging’s, front, right and centre, making good use of her Android tablet, to pay her rent and log repairs, is a good start.

A pop up stand in your reception, with said customer, enjoying the experience on an iPad this time, pushes home your message to your footfall. Every piece of communication, should also introduce the customer self-service portal. Letters, emails and SMS text messages, need to press home the fact that, it’s quicker online and we are here for you 24/7.  Don’t neglect to add it to your on-hold music either, helpfully punctuating the Neil Sedaka.

Take over a corner of a few local libraries, with WiFi for an hour or two and turn getting on-line, a community tenant participation event. Distribute a few hundred free Smartphone screen cleaners, with your portal URL on it.

The easiest trick in the book is also one of the rarest used. Enrol all of your customers in the service and post/email them their passwords to initially log on. I have seen one organisation start with take up of over 35%, with this approach and retain approximately 25% as return visitors. Why not even consider rewarding on-line customers in some way too?

Organisations need to get customers, in the self-service mode, as soon as they sign up or take a new service. In the ‘Your Call’ sessions, last autumn, I recall a lively discussion at St Leger Homes, in Doncaster, around this very subject. Several customer service professionals in the room were somewhat horrified and sceptical that new tenants would ‘endure’ an induction, before obtaining their keys to a new home. Tellingly, a small group in the room, admitted they were successfully doing this already.

Another thing that some of the group were considering, was making customer services harder to reach by telephone. For years we have been used to that RSL KPI target of five rings. What do you think the target is at Ryanair? It’s not five rings, nor five minutes. Although in fairness, we are not Ryanair, are we? We have a lot of vulnerable customers and it’s only right we find an appropriate way to service them. Modern CTI (Computer Telephony Integration) systems are capable of identifying the caller, before we answer. So potentially we could have a two speed service centre, one for the digitally engaged and another for the more vulnerable and digitally excluded.

For customer self-service to be the go-to channel, it needs to be great. Don’t lose sight that it must support frequent transactions, in a fast, easy to use manner. Try to have more folk from the customer services, than the comm’s team on the project. When you go to shop on Amazon and eBay, there’s no big banner of rotating images of warehouse views and the like. However, the basket and checkout are always visible. Make it easy for customers, to do what they want to do most, based on the ratio of interactions received day to day, in the service centre. Start there, do it well. Build on it. I promise you, then they will come.


Tony Smith ACIH, is our guest contributor and blogs as ‘ThatHousingITguy‘ and can be found on Twitter as @HousingITguy


Tony will be facilitating the next Your Call event. This is a free event and open to customer service professionals working in housing. For more information and to book a free place contact Tina Hillman on 01869 242967. You can also find info available @OmfaxSystems.

Customer metrics to care about

As I travel the country talking to Heads of Customer Service and their teams, I am often surprised at how limited the use of customer service data is in informing organisational change.

While some housing associations have their contact centre metrics nailed and are fully plugged in to the change agenda, a significant proportion continue to use traditional measures such as average handling time, average speed of answer and abandonment rates, with customer satisfaction usually being sampled alongside.   While these measures are useful in informing day to day operations, they don’t tell the full story in terms of overall performance.

A recent Your Call survey found that 85% of associations don’t measure avoidable contact.  Yet captured in sufficient detail, this measure alone can provide a rich picture of process waste in an organisation and acting on it can generate potentially significant savings as well as improving customer satisfaction.  After all, who wouldn’t want things to be done right first time?

Lean end to end processes, supported by effective and efficient workflow should be what we all aspire to, but disjointed systems, inconsistent front end data capture and silo working practices are all too often the reality – and lead to avoidable contact – something that, with the right data, is entirely within the organisation’s control.

My real point is that we need to take customer service more seriously. As well as being the ‘face’ or ‘voice’ of the organisation, customer service needs to be seen as a strategic asset;  its interactions offer a rich seam of performance data that can provide early warning of wider problems.  Putting effective front end data capture in place means that organisations can then report on this; using the information gathered to prioritise improvement, aid the delivery of cashable savings and simultaneously improve customer satisfaction.

As budgets are squeezed, there is an opportunity to put customer service at the heart of the efficiency agenda.  The day to day contact with customers means that customer service staff are usually the first to know when things aren’t working.  But knowing that and capturing the data that allows actionable insights to be formed are two different things.  If we are serious about being as efficient as we can be, solid data capture and real time reporting capability become mission critical.

I’ll be attending the next Your Call event in Edinburgh to talk about this and more – feel free to join me (it’s free) – for more information and to book a free place contact Tina Hillman on 01869 242967. You can also find info available @OmfaxSystems.

To find out more about the Your Call survey, click here


Peter Graddon is the Managing Director of Omfax Systems

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