It’s all about Customer Service – lessons learnt from 30 years of Omfax

Thirty years ago, social housing didn’t have customers! Social housing then was dominated by Councils, many retaining old paternalistic attitudes. Grenfell has dramatically shown what happens when customers (tenants) are not the priority – before the disaster and after.

The key lesson we have learnt after 30 years of working alongside social landlords, is that a successful housing business is all about customer service. There are no short cuts. The key is the culture of the whole organisation and the commitment of the leadership, putting customer service front and centre.

To ensure the customer is the focus, the landlord’s commitment to residents must be backed by an equally important commitment to staff. The Customer Service Advisor is the key person, with direct contact with residents and their role has to be given the status it deserves and requires – it is not a junior position and must be valued. Social landlords need to ensure the right people are recruited with personal empathetic skills and then retained, with a commitment to on-going training and personal support. Effective support systems have to be in place, but systems are not the panacea to cover other underlying problems.

Homelessness remains a burning issue because social housing is not currently valued as it was in our society, a society which is seemingly obsessed with status. Sixty years ago, to get a Council house was a real joy to families. Space and build standards were high, but long-term maintenance of assets was largely ignored and dealing with day-to-day repairs requests from tenants was regarded as low service priority. Trust was lost and is now difficult to restore.

Over the last 30 years, perceptions have gradually changed, with some housing associations indeed placing the customer front and centre within their own organisations. Some Resident Boards, Scrutiny Committees or Panels, oversee repairs and maintenance budgets of millions of pounds and are truly an integral part of the organisation’s success. Clearly this makes sense, as who is better placed to suggest priorities and efficiencies than the residents themselves who are at the sharp end. But still, some landlords continue to pay lip-service to resident involvement, not valuing the insights which residents can bring.

Only now do we see the idea of the tenants as customers being treated with respect and being able, for instance, to order their own repairs without having to seek prior ‘approval’. This is where Keyfax has assisted thousands of residents over the years using call-flow intelligence to transform conversations and online self-serve to diagnose solutions. This has promoted the same high levels of customer service being delivered to residents both in the contact centre and online, providing first call resolutions to repairs and maintenance issues.

Over the coming years, we will see the domination of AI, with machine learning responding to ever more complicated customer needs. There will be the proliferation of new technologies providing solutions to problems that we haven’t even imagined yet. Self-serve will be taken to further levels, and such things as ‘intelligent’ homes, driverless cars and ‘ether net’ conferencing will be a norm.

Customer-facing roles in shops, administration and warehouses, as well, no doubt, as social housing, will soon be taken up by automated robots, according to a recent report from the Centre for Cities. The report suggests that the rise of AI could take more than a quarter of jobs in the North and Midlands by 2030.

Much the same as humans learn and adapt, Jo Causon, CEO of The Institute of Customer Service, said recently: “Technology is becoming ever more intuitive, anticipating what we may need or be interested in based on our previous behaviour. This is service as it should be – making relevant suggestions and giving us prompts that smooth the way in our time-pressured lives.”

Causon is clear on one aspect however: “Don’t confuse intuitive technology with an understanding of human behaviour and emotions: there is a limit to what the technology can do.” Although many of us now stream our news via digital or social media channels, there continues to be a need to read a physical copy of a newspaper. The same can be said for books, with many using Kindles, whilst enjoying the familiar look and feel of paperbacks when on holiday. And for customer services, whilst data sets can be refined to answer a plethora of enquiries, there continues to be times when there is a basic human need to speak with an advisor to resolve your inquiry. Keyfax provides those advisors with a record of contact between the resident and landlord, so there is a history of conversations, building on the familiarity and trust between landlord and resident. In this way, the need for customer services and for an overarching Customer Service Advisor, may never die. For now, it is my hope that Omfax has assisted to enable residents to find consistent solutions to issues when they have needed them, on a 24/7 basis.

 

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Improving customer services at the First Point of Contact

With the Autumn Budget next week, housing is higher up the political and media agendas than ever before. The need for more truly affordable homes is rapacious; it is unlikely that supply will ever meet demand for affordable homes, with the much-vaunted target of one million homes by 2020 seemingly a long way off.

Against this landscape, we are in the midst of a customer service revolution in social housing, with the development of on-line self-service, coupled with the power of social media. The overarching concept of customer service is that ‘the customer is always right.’ Does that apply to social housing tenants? Most providers have a customer services function but can sometimes lack true commitment to the real principle of the tenant as a customer. Customer care and customer service should be integral to the whole ethos and operation of social landlords.

Tenants and residents face so many financial challenges, with the roll-out of Universal Credit, reductions and caps to benefits, austerity cuts to services, fuel poverty, pre-Christmas and January debt and the real threat of homelessness. The haunting images of Grenfell and the seeming lack of two-way communication between Kensington and Chelsea Council and resident action groups is a graphic example of a continuing attitude towards tenants, not as customers but as deserving or undeserving of society’s assistance. In a Guardian editorial from 27/1/12, the Archbishop of Canterbury warned against “a quiet resurgence of the seductive language of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.” It is 50 years since the screening of Cathy Come Home, highlighting issues with homelessness, but when you look at the housing crisis across the UK today, the problem is getting more severe.

At Omfax, we are clear that our work is about customer service and that applies to our customers and our customers’ customers. The latter is being achieved by empowering residents with their own self-service options with Keyfax Inter•View Online. Residents can access the services they need 24/7, with the Keyfax technology acting as an enabler, empowering residents to, amongst other things, report a repair, enquire about a tenancy, make a complaint or place a service request.

The Omfax solution is multi-faceted with Keyfax Inter•View also supporting customer service advisors to deal with customer enquiries at the first point of contact. Most significantly, Keyfax enables customers to be treated as individuals, as a person, with a known history of past dealings and where the relationship matters, using call flow intelligence to inform the conversations. Advisors can confidently organise service responses as required, with the expert guidance from qualified technical and social housing specialists available at their fingertips.

Keyfax provides customers and customer service advisors with a consistent diagnostic system for handling all types of enquiries, problems or repairs, at the first point of contact. The Omfax system empowers residents and enables customer service advisors to successfully respond to a myriad of challenges.

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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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

 

 

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

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 http://omfax.co.uk/yourcall.html

Peter

Peter Graddon is the Managing Director of Omfax Systems

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