The recent government budget towards the end of 2017 showed us that housing is higher up the political agenda than before, with a government commitment of over £15 billion of new financial support for new housing as well as freeing up housing providers to borrow to build.
With the building of all of these new homes [assuming they get built], housing providers will have more tenants, with increasingly heightened expectations. Housing providers will therefore have to deal with more numerous and more complex service inquiries. So, with our crystal balls at the ready, what will be the impact over the next seven years?
In short, we will see more tenants using online self-service facilities provided by their landlord. For some time, 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; there has been a virtual revolution. We are used to self-service in supermarkets, across the retail sector, banking, travel and many other sectors.
My prediction 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, online payments, the use of email and the rise in the use of text messaging and now of social media.
As a result, over the years we have seen the loss of rent collectors, repairs inspectors, local offices and resident wardens. More recently, there has been growth of online self-service, although the uptake has been relatively slow from many housing providers. But there can be no doubt that self-service will have the most dramatic impact on services over the next five years and more.
The introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) in customer services is probably the most significant development taking place. It moves things forward. To meet growing consumer expectations in a digitally-driven world, landlords have to manage huge amounts of real-time data and create personalised tenant experiences to stay relevant and to field the growing numbers of enquiries as a result of the government’s budget’s target to build 300,000 new homes per year. It is the application of AI that is transforming many services, from detecting trends in data, to enhancing customer service through virtual personal assistants.
AI can also help customer service providers get more out of the large data sets that have been available to them for many years, but have remained largely unexplored. AI does not degrade over time, unlike other facets of production, but helps organisations to operate and enhance how data held about tenants is collated and interrogated.
AI is able to leverage self-learning systems by using tools such as data mining, pattern recognition and natural language processing. AI is highly scalable and has the potential to deliver huge cost savings; in the not too distant future, every housing provider will wake up to the potential of AI.
So, are we seeing the beginning of the end of human domination? It was forecast that by 2025, a computer would be able to outperform a human. That now looks like being well overtaken. The ultimate aim is the creation of AI machines which match human intelligence, and we are not too far away from this, with the arrival of self-driving cars.
With such forecasts in mind, there can be no doubt that AI will enable many roles, including those in housing (and especially within customer services), to become more automated, which will assist with the increasing numbers of enquiries from the building of more homes from 2020 to 2025, as highlighted in the recent budget. It will also mean that the role of advisors will significantly change to become more specialised in dealing with the more vulnerable and with tenants’ more personal issues.
To create effective AI-based customer service, a human expert is needed to initially give the system the knowledge and design flow pathways using call-flow intelligence to reflect the known and repetitive pathways for a range of enquiries. They can then be 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.
Although the impact of the budget and of AI on social housing services has yet to be seen, AI is pushing at the boundaries of customer services and may, in the not too distant future, make current technologies obsolete.
Peter Graddon is a director of Omfax Systems.