At a time when the anticipated repercussions of welfare reform on previously near-certain revenues are shaking up housing providers, it is all the more important to understand the role technology can play in reducing operating costs. After all, changes to the way in which housing providers achieve better operating efficiencies could help to realise their continued commitment to delivering affordable housing and social value despite restricted resources. Jonathan Sharpe, Britannic Technologies’ sales & marketing director, takes a closer look at applications integration and explains what it offers housing providers in search of cost-effective innovation.
As a direct result of the latest welfare policy changes, including universal credit, many housing providers expect a surge both in debt due to falling rental income from reduced rents as well as more tenants defaulting on rent payments, and in tenant contact as tenants turn to their landlords for advice on the new housing benefit rules. Tenants, in turn, are likely to demand more convenient services from their housing providers to access information and arrange rent payments.
With this demand for improved services comes the challenge to enhance IT systems in a way that delivers a fast, friction-free customer experience across all tenant touch points while helping housing officers to prioritise and deal with requests most efficiently. This is where applications integration offers a wealth of opportunity because it removes traditional silos and islands of technology that can be disconnected from the operational landscape with the aim of streamlining day-to-day business activities.
Importantly, applications integration allows housing providers to mix and match best-of-breed solutions to better suit the exact needs of the organisation and provide deeper functionality than a one-stop suite could, at the same time as mitigating the risk of vendor lock-in. More often than not, such solutions will already be in place, for example, in the form of a tailored housing management system and CRM database. With housing providers under serious financial strain, the key is to enhance these existing applications to protect your IT investments. That is not to say that redundant applications should not be reviewed and ultimately phased out. It is rather a reminder to leverage tailored applications that are in place but whose value is not maximised as they are not knitted together.
In practice, this means that housing providers may want to look towards linking their business communications system, including handsets, contact centre software and social media applications, into their respective tenant database (CRM) and housing management software. While all of these applications can be coherently integrated at the back end, all that is visible to housing officers and support staff at the front end is one consolidated, simple-to-use interface that allows them to draw together disparate data and obtain a 360° view of any given household.
In-built features such as ‘screen popping’ database information as soon as a tenant calls the housing support team, for example, can account for immense efficiencies as housing officers automatically have access to the complete contact history, tenant records and property data without the need to go into multiple applications to retrieve information. That not only helps to process calls faster and more accurately but also raises satisfaction levels among tenants.
Operations can be further streamlined with phone-based and web-based self-service apps that can be woven into the current contact centre solution. Web portals are popular but even social platforms like Facebook can be useful in encouraging self-help through tenant-to-tenant assistance. Both facilities allow instant transactions between tenants and their landlords without overstretched staff needing to answer a call or email at all, which unlocks further resource efficiencies. The freed-up resources can then be focused on other crucial areas.
Forward-thinking businesses in the housing sector already recognise that smarter technology use presents a viable route to better organisational performance and value-for-money customer service.
For example, specialist contact centre provider Mears 24/7 improved its customer service through a seamlessly integrated, cloud-based communications environment and also managed to reduce the total cost of ownership for landlords, supporting their property maintenance needs with booking the appropriate repair staff with the right materials at the required time. Here, fast and accurate action in repairs questions ensures tenant satisfaction and asset protection but this also goes to show that integrated applications deliver benefits on more than just the tenant level; they are equally useful when it comes to supplier management and coordinating requests and appointments between suppliers and tenants. Housing providers can take a cue from this in that integrating key applications will improve communications on various levels through a more cohesive view of tenants, the properties they occupy and suppliers.
Beyond applications integration for better tenant services, integrating mobile devices to function smoothly with the existing fixed network infrastructure and any cloud-hosted databases facilitates more productive mobile working and alleviates the administrative burden that many field-based workers face on a daily basis. Locating physical files for field visits in the office is no longer required. Neither is manual note-taking or repetitive rekeying of the same information at the end of the day as these activities can be accomplished digitally in the field, leaving staff with more time to visit more tenants in a day without the need for interaction with office-based staff to retrieve or update information. With field-based housing officers typically being particularly costly to deploy, this translates into vastly improved productivity for housing providers under pressure to use human resources more wisely.
In short, applications integration across fixed, mobile and portable devices, contact centre software, CRM and housing management platforms that results in clear, cost-saving performance improvements could, at the very least, be a vital piece of the puzzle to delivering the government’s ‘more for less’ maxim, and at the very best, help to buffer the effects of dwindling grant funding and dreaded debt build-up brought about by the latest welfare policy reforms through operational cost savings.
One thing is clear: technology will have a role to play in enabling new levels of productivity across housing providers. From efficient maintenance of customer relationships to process automation and intelligent resource allocation, the resulting benefits have long been reaped across other sectors in the UK.
Jonathan Sharp is sales & marketing director at Britannic Technologies.