Housing – A key battleground for the general election

Theresa May’s announcement of a snap general election has added even more uncertainty to the current political climate, with Article 50 also triggered on 29th March.

The parties are yet to publish their manifestos but, from recent debates and early statements, we have already been given a sense of what each party will set out to achieve.

One battleground on which policies and opinions will be contested in the coming months is housing.

With ambitious targets for housebuilding making headlines and cuts a continued threat for housing providers, housing is likely to play a big part in the result of June’s general election.

More homes means more people

The Conservative Party is likely to stick to its current policy programme, which includes a commitment to build one million homes by 2020.

Labour has also already pledged to build the same amount over the span of a Parliament, with 500,000 council homes to be built.

While one million homes is an ambitious figure, all parties are recognising the high demand and urgent need for housing. With major housebuilding programmes a certainty, it of course means more people and more tenants.

With welfare reform, cuts to resources and decreasing staff numbers, housing providers are already hugely strained. If one million homes are constructed in the next three years, how will associations cope with the mass influx of new tenants, new queries and new complaints?

Human customer service advisors can only do so much. Which is why technology must assist and improve customer service, wherever possible.

If we want to achieve these goals, that we’ll no doubt hear much of over the next few months, we must have realistic and sustainable processes in place. Organisations must think about resources carefully and how to better manage them.

Keyfax reduces the workload of contact centre workers, by resolving calls first time and directing queries to the most relevant person, avoiding wasted time. The technology is there to save precious time and money. It’s ready and waiting.

A data exercise

Early polls for June’s general election show the Conservative Party far ahead of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Of course, much can change between now and June and 50 day polls have been wrong.  Just look at the Brexit and American election votes. Polls for both of these were wrong, even up until the very last minute.

Polls, and indeed elections, are often little more than tick box exercises – simple data collection. They don’t show the true concerns, beliefs and opinions of the public.

Keyfax delves much deeper than just a tick box. It relates to your customers’, or tenant preferences. Not only this, Keyfax builds on acquired knowledge to help provide a highly personalised and reliable level of customer service, which is fit for purpose in these challenging times.

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Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Customer service delivery is often a reflection of the culture within an organisation and the operating models that reflect that culture.

We are entering the Digital Darwinism age.

Private and third sector alike, will need to adapt operating models to achieve the channel shift that is expected as a result of digital transformation, as well as the structural and cultural shifts needed to reduce operating costs, while addressing universal levels of falling productivity and staff and customer engagement.

Digital alone is not the cure for all ills. Digital Strategies provide the foundations and platform for digital service delivery, but as Bill Gates famously stated, automation applied to an efficient process will magnify the outcome: automation applied to an inefficient process will magnify the inefficiency.

In the reality of today’s operating environment and the continued drive for Vfm, millions are being spent by start-ups on developing simple and effective app-based systems, to manage and maintain operations.

The real competition is coming from outside the housing sector, just like it has elsewhere. Amazon, Airbnb, Uber. Challenges will come in every aspect of simplicity and cost – delivering alternatives to manage and maintain social housing at half of the operating costs of the current top quartile housing associations.

The reality is that many and most social housing policies, processes, transactions and interactions with customers and partners, will have developed over time and been added to with workarounds and regulatory dictats to make them more complicated than they need to be.

Complicatedness will have taken root because of the traditional ‘hard’ approach to organising the organisation. In this hard approach, structure defines the role, processes instruct how to perform it, and incentives motivate the right person in the right role to do it. In this perspective, if there is a performance problem, then it must be because some key element is missing or not detailed enough. So managers jump straight from identifying a performance problem, to deploying new structures, processes or systems, to resolve them.

Smart, well-meaning people are also driven to demonstrate their talent, experience or ability to manage – in many cases by creating a work-around to any blockages. And work-around is, of course, just another term for complexity. And complexity has a way of breeding more complexity.

Global research by the Boston Consulting Group has identified that in the most complicated organisations:

  • Managers spend more than 40% of their time writing reports and between 30 and 60% of their time in meetings.
  • Teams spend between 40 and 80% of their time wasted on activities which add no value to the business or the end customer.

Research by Adobe identified that most workers in the developed world spend six hours a day checking email and, we have found across the housing sector, that up to 40% of front line staff’s time is wasted on non-value adding activities; writing, editing, rewriting and presenting reports, travel and the complicatedness bound up in permissions, processes, office politics, silo working and workflows.

The traditional approach to delivering efficiency and value is very much the hard way – via staff structures. Reduce operating costs by reducing the number of staff through restructures. Just a cold hard look at what is core or non-core to the business and what can therefore be cut, followed by a myriad of ad-hoc unconnected projects, such as lean reviews, alternative ways to work or markets to explore, etc.

Economy without a long term view of the efficiency or effectiveness of decisions.

Ignoring the root problems but trimming the branches anyway.

This approach fails because it does not address the inherently inefficient operating realities outlined above. In order to be able to maintain personal staff contact in aspects of services where this makes a real difference to customers, we will need to make other service aspects more efficient and on a self-service basis.

A Smart Simplicity approach.

Barry Marlow and Peter Hall

Cake

The cake depicts the temptation of multi-layering to produce something that looks nice but is inherently complicated to use. Much like many social housing processes.

For more details visit: smartsimplicity.uk.com

 

 

AI – The future of customer service?

Social housing is in the midst of a customer service revolution. The development of customer service centres, web sites and online payments over the past decade or so has seen the loss of repair workers, local offices and resident wardens.

The introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in customer services is set to bring about significant change. This technology is transforming many services, empowering customers to deal with their own queries or service requests, all remotely.

AI can help customer service providers get more out of the large data sets that have been available to service providers for many years but have remained largely unexplored. AI does not degrade over time, unlike other facets of production, but assists organisations to operate and enhance how people data is collated and interrogated.

So, are we seeing the beginning of the end of human domination?

It was forecast that by 2025, the computer would be able to outperform a human. That now looks like being well overtaken.

Google’s DeepMind, for example, does not forget how it solved past problems, using this acquired knowledge to tackle new issues. Sequential learning and the ability to remember old skills and apply them to tasks, comes naturally to humans. However, DeepMind is still not capable of the general intelligence that humans use when facing new challenges.

The ultimate aim is the creation of Artificial Intelligence machines which match human intelligence, and we are not too far away from this.

A recent report from Accenture and Frontier Economics, suggested that AI-enabled technologies could double the economic growth rates of many advanced countries by 2035. With such forecasts in mind, there can be no doubt that AI will enable many roles in housing, especially those in customer services, to become fully automated.

However, applying a human level of intelligence, to what is ultimately a machine, is still considered a dangerous prospect by many.

So, how do we make sure the machines we ‘train’ don’t perpetuate and amplify the same human biases and prejudices that plague society? Do we programme machines to maximise the happiness of the greatest number of people? How does this affect those who don’t fit the mould? How do we control what we have started?

To create an effective customer service AI, a human expert is required to initially give the system the knowledge and design flow pathways. Interestingly, that is exactly how Keyfax from Omfax works – using call flow intelligence  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 use their knowledge and understanding to help design the call pathways. Data sets relating to the resident, their property, their relationship with the organisation and their history, are then added to create intelligent, personalised responses.

There is power in the Keyfax system, which is so much more than a repairs diagnostic tool, just as AI aims to fully exploit the power of data sets.

AI is pushing at the boundaries of customer services and may, in the not too distant future, make current technologies obsolete.  The impact on social housing services has yet to be seen but Keyfax has already made strides in that direction.

Peter Graddon, Director of Omfax Systems

To read more of my thoughts on AI in customer service. Download the latest edition of Housing Technology here

The value of data

Simon Hollingsworth is the Managing Director of Housing Partners, which helps housing providers better understand their tenants through innovative data solutions.

Big data

‘Big’ data is something of a buzzword in the social housing sector currently. But what is it?

Big data is the collection of information from large, varied sources; combining and applying it for big results.

Amalgamating several strands of data can reveal trends or patterns that otherwise may have gone unnoticed when looking at individual data silos.

Welfare reform – the importance of data

With the introduction of welfare reform measures, including Universal Credit, it’s more important than ever for providers to know their customers, in order to manage risk proactively and be more efficient with resources.

Housing Partner’s Insight makes vast amounts of tenant financial and neighbourhood data available in one place. It takes information from a provider’s housing management system and combines it with data from hundreds of third party sources, including many exclusive to Housing Partners.

This data is helping social landlords engage with thousands of tenants across the UK and intervene in the situations that need support most, such as rental arrears and the use of illegal lenders.

Preventing debt and financial issues means that providers can better support tenants secure their main source of income – rent.

The value of data to housing providers

As neighbourhood services come under increasing pressure and resources get tighter in the current climate, making the first visit count when seeing a tenant is more vital than ever, allowing providers to focus their staff resources in the most needed areas.

Data tools, such as Insight, equip housing association staff with the necessary tenant information before they’ve even made their first visit to residents.

With time an ever more valuable commodity, it’s important that housing professionals are asking simple but powerful questions, and this is something new data innovations are allowing. Big data is a huge step beyond the traditional use of data.

The value of data to tenants

Big data is allowing housing associations to paint a full picture of their tenant’s situation, which in the context of welfare reform, highlights factors that are most likely to cause financial vulnerability and debt.

One housing provider we work with identified 570 individuals in high financial distress using big data. This approach enables officers to use their time as effectively as possible, visiting the most vulnerable families first and knowing what questions to ask. Spotting financial problems before it’s too late ultimately means keeping residents in their homes.

Data sensitivity

Housing providers are increasingly using big data collection and application alongside their financial inclusion schemes.

But as data becomes more widely used in every aspect of everyday life, from healthcare to housing, more questions are being asked.

Data security and privacy are hot on the heels of any discussion over the use of data in housing, so it’s paramount that we communicate the benefits of big data to both housing providers and tenants.

Housing Partner’s Insight collects a lot of third party data that is already available publicly anyway, but it’s the amalgamation of the data that makes the change. Insight displays the data in a clear, user-friendly way, ensuring housing professionals – at all levels – can make insightful use of the information available to them.

As our customers are aware, big data is helping providers drive efficiencies, better engage with customers and build long lasting relationships.

For tenants, information is helping to keep them in their homes and avoid serious debt.

Big data is allowing us to better understand the people we support. And this understanding is in the interest of all parties.

For more details visit: www.housingpartners.co.uk/Insight

 

It’s all about the data – vital infrastructure for the housing sector

Since my last blog, we have had the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, with new spending on housing projects totalling £3.7 billion. This is made up of £2.3 billion to be spent on infrastructure for housing developments to support the building of 100,000 new homes with a further £1.4 billion added to the Government’s capital grant fund that housing associations can draw down to build 40,000 extra affordable homes.

Housing is now at the forefront of national news agendas, with new affordable homes across all tenures needing to be delivered by providers up and down the country in response to the housing crisis. Unless social landlords face the lack of supply of decent, affordable new homes head on, this issue will perpetuate through generations.

Where does customer services and data fit into these hopes for regeneration? I would argue that the data extracted from social housing customers is vital to understanding how the sector is changing and how services can be improved. Even with the shift towards self-service solutions, customer services data is an inherent part of the infrastructure needed to support successful social housing, providing business intelligence which enhances customer satisfaction with the levels of service on offer.

With the onset of winter, repairs issues tend to be heightened, with the usual frozen pipes, faulty heaters and broken boilers. Being able to line up customer data with the internal culture of the landlord is key; repairs history for example, is worthless unless you have the correct data and you are doing something proactively with it; reviewing past actions and identifying inefficiencies to enable operatives to have the correct information about the job to deliver repairs which are right first time.

Our own web-based reporting tool, Keyfax Interview Online, enables tenants to report repairs around the clock, at a time that is convenient to them. Efficient and effective repairs service is at the heart of social housing businesses and because tenants have self-diagnosed the repairs issue they are engaged and have bought into the solution. The Keyfax system enables easy and accurate diagnosis of repairs by taking tenants through a number of highly usable steps with helpful diagrams to pinpoint the exact nature of the repair required. It then integrates with the organisation’s own systems to enable the repair to be raised and an appointment time to be selected that is convenient for them. The whole process takes less than a few minutes and delivers a seamless service from the tenant’s point of view.

The multi-channel landscape for customer contact is constantly evolving with new sources of data from digital platforms and social media. It is my belief that customer services are central to the success of social housing, pressing buttons for quality and efficiency including savings, but data can do so much more. Customer services continue to play a vital part for providers, assisting to deliver efficiencies which will be identified in the pending Housing White Paper, planned for early next year and beyond.

Peter Graddon

Director, Omfax Systems Ltd

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.

Peter