In February 2016, Asra Housing Group started a three-year, £1.3 million revolution of the way it does business. The challenge? To get the majority of our services online by March 2017 and an ambitious target of 65 per cent online-only customer contact by 2019. The opportunity? Improved customer satisfaction and annual savings of close to half a million pounds.
The major programme of work includes a consolidated self-service portal, a new-look website, an end-to-end repairs service, a new CRM solution and a true ‘contact centre’ with calls, SMS, web chat and email given equal priority. We have also embarked on a programme of customer engagement and enablement, and developed the sector’s first fully digital sales and lettings system to feature Live Chat and integration with social media feeds.
Our starting point for digital was a simple question: if we wanted to improve our business model, what would we want to do? We soon decided that reducing the number of calls into our contact centre was imperative, which we could achieve by allowing customers to serve themselves and find an immediate answer 95 per cent of the time.
There are currently only a handful of ‘bleeding edge’ housing providers who have implemented a truly integrated self-service offering. Most do offer self-service, but these are usually predicated on a forms-based approach which still requires manual inputting. We recognised that significant savings would only be achieved through integration with our back-office systems.
We also asked our heads of service what would have the most impact on their team’s work if tenants were able to do it themselves. This gave us a top 20 ‘hit list’ of processes for which we needed to deliver end-to-end self-service through the portal with no need for human interaction and therefore no need to wait for a response.
To say ‘no need for human interaction’ might seem bleak, but in reality it isn’t. End-to-end digital self-service is about providing information that’s easy for customers to find and digest, as well as processes that are easy for them to follow. Taking the human element out removes the need to wait for a response, meaning every process is quicker than it would be otherwise, which in turn means better value for money for our customers. It also frees up staff members that would otherwise have been dealing with routine customer queries and services.
We recently surveyed all our 14,000 customers about their internet use and the results we got back didn’t bear out the common concerns about moving to digital.
In fact, the majority of our general needs tenants have online access, the technology skills they need and a desire to self-serve. It’s 24/7, there’s no queue and it’s free. Naturally, there will be people who can’t or don’t want to use digital services so we’re not taking away their option to call us, but they have a choice.
We also wanted to find out where our customers sat in relation to digital, and the survey split our work across four different types of customer: those who use the portal; those who have registered but never used it; people who are digitally able but need encouragement; and a very small number who can’t access the internet at all.
At this early stage, we aren’t targeting the latter group; if someone says they can’t access the portal, they don’t have to. But in future, we will be partnering with Reaching People in Leicester to provide digital skills education for this group of people.
We’ve also been engaging customers in every part of our digital journey. We’re checking everything with them – the look, feel and user experience, even down to, ‘we’ve called this section of the portal this – does that make sense to you?’ and ‘we’ve put that button on the left as we think it’s where it should go – do you agree?’.
Ultimately, we’re going to be judged by our results but even though we are still in the early stages, I think that they are encouraging. We currently have almost 2,000 users of the My Asra portal, with a very healthy take-up since it went live in June 2016. At the start of the programme, we had just 800 users of the old portal, so that represents nearly a 150 per cent increase.
Despite minimal marketing activities, we were surprised to have seen consistent growth in registrations since day one, suggesting there is a strong demand for this from customers who are willing and able to access the internet and have a real appetite for the service.
Meanwhile, early analysis suggests that portal users still call our customer contact centre for various things, but that is to be expected because not all of our self-service processes are live yet. It is also encouraging to see that this contact on the phone is now once every other month, whereas before it was one or two times each month.
From board level to staff, our digital transformation programme is seen as the number-one priority in the business beyond staying financially afloat and meeting our KPIs. It is really embedded in colleague culture as well. Everybody understands that they are part of this journey, it’s not just seen as a project that the IT department is doing and overall staff feedback has been incredibly positive.
If I could give one piece of advice to other organisations, it would be that this is not just a project; it’s the future. At some point, everyone will have to move in this direction but it has to be part of your organisation’s strategy and values; it can’t be a bolt-on.
Don’t go for a ‘big bang’; an agile approach to delivering a viable product and getting real feedback from real users is the most effective way of developing a great user experience.
There can be barriers. For example, some of the complex systems integration has taken longer than we expect. We are also developing guidance around ‘keeping safe online’ so customers are reassured and have confidence when using the portal.
In the future, we are planning to set up an arrangement for arrears and processing refunds, demonstrating that this project will never really end. There will be development, continuous improvement and new services that come on board. We have embedded digital into our normal way of working. It can’t just be an extra and at Asra Housing, it isn’t.
Suzanne Ralphson is head of programme delivery at Asra Housing Group.