Is digital the answer?

The recent Your Call event in Manchester – the seventh event to examine challenges and opportunities facing the social housing sector – was a great opportunity to reconnect with colleagues from a variety of housing providers, including Contour Homes who hosted the event.

The day focused on the current state of customer service in housing. One thing that was agreed, on is the need to implement a digital strategy. Whilst most organisations discussed they are fairly advanced in terms of technology, many found actually delivering it was less easy, due to internal setbacks.

With the implication of the 1% rent cut, and now Brexit, the repercussions of these has caused housing associations to not only change with the times but cut back on costs whilst doing so. Customer expectations have never been higher and customer needs are becoming more complex, in turn, placing increased pressure on front-line teams. The advancement of digital and technology, in my opinion, is there to overwrite disjointed IT systems that don’t allow a single view of the customer and operating structures. Turning to digital as a tool, can help to achieve a more efficient customer service.

Advancement in technology has excelled over the years and as a result, social housing providers have had to embrace technology. The progression of technology clearly shows no sign of slowing down, so providers must adapt in order to communicate with their tenants in new ways that match their needs.

It was a resounding ‘yes’ that paper documents can use up a lot of internal resource and I believe the future of social housing is about increased and improved tenant engagement. I posed the question: would tenant engagement improve if rent statements where available online or if rent could be paid via an app?

A few organisations spoke about implementing their digital strategy with the use of social media channels, web chats and apps, and have seen the benefits of these. However, although all did agree that digital does require commitment to implement effectively, it really does depend on the customer base of the housing provider for it to be effective and contribute towards efficiencies within the business.

Contour Homes explained its recent culture change over the past 12 months and how they re-examined everything around the future demands of our customers, with the creation of specialist teams in its contact centre. So, is digital the answer? In most cases it is part of the answer but in all cases, the answer to responding to challenges faced by the sector is up to the housing provider and how best they can efficiently improve customer service – and this will only be learnt by trialling new technologies over the next few years. In the meantime, Your Call provides the opportunity for housing providers to come together to share best practice.

To keep up to date on the next Your Call event follow @OmfaxSystems or visit www.omfax.co.uk/yourcall

Peter

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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.

Scripting – worth another look?

Scripting in contact centres has had a mixed reputation – most people love it or hate it, often based on perceptions of the inflexible scripting tools of the 80s and early 90s. 

Thankfully things have changed a lot since then, with new, dynamic scripting technology.  Whilst scripting won’t be the right solution for all call types, in our experience more and more housing associations are using it to achieve consistency in service delivery, to improve data capture and to achieve cost reductions through reduced handling times and savings made on training.  At a time when greater efficiency is needed without negatively impacting customer satisfaction, scripting is definitely worth another look.

Unlike the static scripting of days gone by, dynamic scripting is flexible, can be configured to multiple scenarios and respond to individual circumstances. Rather than restricting frontline staff, it actively empowers and enables them  to deliver better quality of service by providing them with the right information at the right time during every step of the process and accurately diagnosing the service response.

Here are just a few of the benefits of a dynamically scripted approach:

It enables consistent data capture – which in turn supports effective end to end delivery

It’s all about the data! Good data input is a requirement of good service.  If you enable quality data input at the front end of a process, the end to end fulfilment is more likely to be successful, in turn improving ‘right first time’ delivery and reducing avoidable contact.  Imagine for example that you are raising a repair.  Without a diagnostic tool you might have multiple options to choose from, and each with the potential for inaccuracy, particularly for new staff.  Dynamic scripting can improve accuracy every step of the way, from enabling diagnosis by using pictures rather than written descriptions,  interrogating other data sources for information relevant to the enquiry, property or customer, through to auto populating SOR codes and linking through to raise the repair appointment. 

It standardises the customer experience – but allows for personalisation

Today’s customers want things to be easy and service to be consistent, irrespective of the channel used.  Dynamic scripting tools can be integrated with existing systems to offer a unified customer experience online (online services are essentially scripting for customers), or in the contact centre, pulling relevant data through automatically, depending on who the caller is and what they want.  At the end of the contact, data is written back to systems in real time.

It saves time and money

By standardising processes and automating data input as far as possible, not only is the margin of error significantly reduced, it also speeds up the time taken for the whole customer interaction – be that online, or over the phone.  In contact centres, the introduction of dynamic scripting can lead to improved first contact resolution , resulting in a reduction in end to end enquiry handling times, and freeing up capacity that can be utilised in other ways, or to deliver cashable savings.

It reduces agent training time

Attrition is always an issue in service environments – and the cost of training new staff can be high, particularly for complex services.  Because dynamic scripting is designed to be intuitive and to drive up accuracy, less initial training is needed, in turn releasing capacity and saving time and money.

Effective scripting delivers all of these benefits and more.  Essentially scripts are just a way of making processes simple for customers and staff to understand.  Done well, they can improve accuracy, improve first time fix, reduce avoidable contact provide a personalised service and have a positive impact on costs – surely worth another look?

Peter

 

Customer first?

If I had a pound for every time an organisation told me that it wants to ‘put customers at the heart of the business’ I would be a very rich man. While I have no doubt that those making such statements do so with the best of intentions, as we all know, the road to hell is paved with them!

Over the years, I have worked with hundreds of housing organisations, big and small, and have seen customer service in all of its guises – the good, the bad and the ugly  (thankfully there are very few examples of the latter).

The fact is that the key to putting customers first isn’t the easy stuff like delivering the odd community initiative, or the way that advisers answer the phone – these things are just the icing on the cake.  True customer focused service is rooted in the DNA of the business and has to be implicit in every interaction with customers, irrespective of the channel being used.  In short, it’s about the combination of behaviour, skill, process and technology, but most importantly, it’s about leadership.

Turning intent into reality in a sector whose business model doesn’t rely on brand loyalty is no easy task and delivering customer focused services has to start with the overall leadership culture.  Whereas the aim of commercial businesses is to maximise profit and they know that they can only do that when customers are satisfied with the level of the service they are receiving and are prepared to buy, the objectives of housing associations are rooted in delivering homes and social value.  The reality is that surpluses are only in part reliant on retaining satisfied customers and the regulator is interested in governance and viability rather than performance overall.

I recently talked to a colleague who had been working with a national housing provider on an organisational design project.  She described her frustration in working with senior managers  and directors who just didn’t ‘get it’.  Each of them said that they wanted to deliver a better customer experience, but they were each also wedded to some of their existing ways of working despite acknowledging that there may be better ways to do things.  My colleague described it as ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’ syndrome – clear evidence of personal priorities coming before the customer and a tough nut to crack from the bottom up.  Hearteningly, once front line staff became involved in the design process, they too started to challenge existing ways of working, proving that those closest to the customer often have greater insight into what customers want than the hierarchy above.

Whilst I am not an advocate of single tenure housing policy, one of the positives that a greater focus on home ownership will bring is a necessity to be more customer focused.  Rightly or wrongly, paying customers have more choice, which in turn means housing associations will have to focus more on the customer experience than has been the case to date.  Some are already ahead of the curve, bringing in new skills and looking closely at how they manage each ‘customer journey’ face to face, by phone and online.  Others are still at the starting blocks, looking at technology and/or behaviour rather than taking a more holistic view.  A handful are still looking at access channels in silos.

In the past 12 months, housing has gone through a seismic shift.  We are now at the point where organisations are re-grouping and starting to focus on the future.  For a number, this will mean merger, but for most it will mean finding new ways to do things and as they do so, this gives a real opportunity for efficient re-design with the customer truly front and centre. 

Customer service leaders, now is the time to step up and be counted.

Peter

 

 

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.  

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