When it comes to communication – we’ve never had it so good

Paul Taylor
Paul Taylor, Innovation Coach, Bromford

The explosion over the past 10 years of free to use social networking, instant messaging, and live chat means we are in a very different place to any generation before us.

On paper this should have meant the housing sector would be building new relationships, and deepening conversations with customers.

In reality the digital era has exposed a decline in trust in organisations – not just housing – as we collectively fail to step up the mark of truly transparent communications.

In reality only a fraction of the sector is genuinely experimenting with new forms of digital engagement. I haven’t the time or inclination to count how many housing CEOs maintain an active social media presence. But I’m taking a considered guesstimate it’s around 15%.

In the digital age we are getting ever more astute in spotting spin, marketing and reading from scripts. The most credible sources of information are not your comms team or your CEO – but a regular employee – “a person like myself”.

However the staple roles of the sector, housing officer, maintenance operative, support worker are – by and large – missing in action and failing to embrace golden opportunities to connect with communities. Board members are pretty much invisible although there are some very notable exceptions.

Organisations that livestream or share from board meetings?

CEOs doing Facebook chats or hangouts?

You could count them on one hand.

Additionally most organisations still have the dial firmly set to Promote rather than Converse.

Do a check on any housing brand account. Check how many of their last 10 posts directly link back to their own website. There’s a prize if you can name ten that don’t reference themselves 90% of the time.

Here’s a shot of realism: UK housing is about 10-15% operational on social media. At best.

This speaks of a lack of curiosity. A lack of adventure.

Of course this isn’t true everywhere: some are setting an astonishing pace. There are a raft of organisations and people who are connecting with others and reaching beyond sector boundaries.

However , endlessly broadcasting a housing “message” just isn’t going to work.

This is a world built on relationships and connections. It involves you listening to others, generously sharing and doing more than just following everyone else in your sector.

A ‘person like yourself’ builds trust – so we need to promote the voices of those engaged in frontline services, not the hierarchy. We need to hear from more tenants and users of our services – they are the best people to promote us and secure the future.

The trust-building opportunity lies squarely in the area of integrity and engagement. For organisations that means adopting behaviours of extreme transparency, honesty and sharing learning from failure.

Rather than gatekeepers our Comms and IT teams must become enablers. The more of our colleagues and customers we hear from, the more honesty we share, the more trust we build.

We’ve never had it so good – so let’s take the opportunity that lies before us.

Different relationships

Barry Landscape (2)
Barry Marlow, CIHCM

Radical incrementalism is the answer.

My professional social housing career began in the 1970s as a door to door rent collector. I shared the council estate marketplace with other tradespeople from Pearl insurance to Vernon’s’ Pools to the Corona man.

Council tenants planned their entire day around the time of my call. On a council estate of 600 homes, about 3 had a telephone. For many, I was the only representative of the landlord they ever met.

Along with my money-bag, I had a leather folder containing the carbonated Gilbert sheets that secured the receipt of rent payment. But opposite that was something even more important. My walking sheets.

These sheets contained vital information. Every property was listed. Notes were made against them of crucial detail such as whether there was a dog. Whether to knock and walk in. Whether to raise my voice. If the rent was in a tin on the cistern in the outside toilet. And in one case, to unlock the house with the key under the flowerpot, walk in, take the rent and lock up after myself.

After about three or four months I had memorised this information. But essentially, I had supplemented it with my own observations.

By meeting people every fortnight, sharing their lives, standing in their homes, noticing how some couldn’t cope I was continually learning. I had learned about the hard of hearing and the hard of paying. I realised that my own council house upbringing was rich in comparison to many.

If I was a London cabbie, this would be called ‘The Knowledge’.

I knew how to listen and not speak. I knew what to say, how to say it. I knew how to ask questions and enquire about difficult things. I met women who, two weeks later, were widows.

I was a good rent collector. Even people with little money offered me tips at Christmas. This was a marketplace after all. Not money, I might add. I had tips of garden produce and homemade jam. What I had wasn’t a procedure or a process. I had a relationship. Like any popular market trader looking to sell a product my job (although no-one told me) was to sustain tenancies and promote responsibility.

Just stop and think of the knowledge that was built up. A thousand or so tenants, their homes, families and environments. Their financial status, ambitions and aspirations. Eight months into my career the government introduced mandatory rent rebates – later to become Housing Benefit – and those that qualified for this means-tested benefit always asked me to call on them to pretend that they were still paying. They didn’t want their neighbours to know that they might be poor.

In today’s marketplace this could be called several things. It was certainly customer service. Certainly customer care. Qualifies for customer centric and customer focused. It was also about financial inclusion, selling and importantly about the profiling of people.

Social housing came late to customer profiling but in recent years has made rapid strides. For the best of reasons. Why wouldn’t big business know their customers and had a handle on their behaviours?

But in social housing the emphasis on customer behaviour was a strange one. The customers the landlord knew best and those that consumed the majority of resources were customers who mis-behaved, breached the tenancy agreement and were being chased by a new breed of rent-man called debt collector.

In today’s marketplace this profiling information and knowledge can be called ‘insight’. Here is my favourite definition of insight:

Knowledge about customers which meets the requirements of an organisational strength i.e. it is valuable, rare, difficult to imitate and which the organisation is aligned to make use.

 You see, as a young rent collector I learned that to make a difference to a customer you didn’t have to work overly hard. Knowledge became insight when you learned to use that knowledge to benefit both the customer and the business.

In today’s marketplace, customer insight is essential – but what creates the USP is the way social landlords use it. And it doesn’t have to be complicated.

My work is now deeply involved with behavioural insight. Studying and measuring change in the way we do things. Small changes – not huge strategic changes that worry people. Just the sort of changes that impact on the customer and the business that are relevant, appropriate and make a significant difference. Some call this ‘radical’. To your customer, this incremental approach of small, bite-sized shift could be the difference they need. With welfare reforms, this kind of shift could mean social landlords are better equipped to collect £millions of universal credit.

So, the question might be ‘how on earth do we get diverse customers to engage in this rapidly shifting, competitive marketplace?’

You already have the answer.

 

Barry Marlow CIHCM

Speaking at the Omfax event on 7th June.

 

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.  

Build it and they will come

tony
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.