One of the few positives to come out of the pandemic has been a greater awareness of the value of technology in creating and nurturing a sense of connection between people. Used well, a digital approach to customer service in our sector will not only streamline operations but also improve the customer experience.
Pre-pandemic, the new strategy and improvement team at Caledonia Housing had already begun to consider our digital agenda. We realised that the majority of customers wanted the freedom to manage their tenancies for themselves and at a time to suit them, which didn’t necessarily coincide with the working week when our staff were at the end of a phone line.
Self-service app for customer repairs
Before the pandemic, we had begun work with Housing Insight, customising a self-service app that would let our customers order standard day-to-day repairs any time of the day or night. Perhaps surprisingly, we found that older people were as likely to use this app as younger customers. So far, we’ve seen just under 1,000 repairs generated this way, representing around half of all our digital customer interactions over the past year.
A repair ‘wizard’ in the app allows users to select the problem area (e.g. bathroom > sink > tap), and reports go straight through to an approved contractor for follow-through. Customers can also choose the appointment time that suits them best, thus reducing the number of missed appointments, and can opt to address several issues during a single visit.
The result is greater efficiency, both for customers and for our own staff. We can spend our time managing non-standard repairs, such as damp patches that could have multiple causes, encouraging customers to book a home visit or give additional details by phone where more information is needed.
Rent and tenancy management
When the pandemic hit, social distancing meant that repairs had to be put on hold, and the whole housing sector had to adopt agile working practices in order to manage their tenancies remotely. At Caledonia Housing, we worked on extending our existing self-service app to give customers access to their rent account and tenancy management information.
We knew that furlough and job losses were making it difficult for some of our customers to pay their rent, so we made it easier for them to find support. Housing Insight had already developed an ‘arrears repayment plan’ that we were able to implement, which allowed our customers to propose a payment agreement without having to communicate with staff directly. We also added a budgeting tool so that customers could see how any drop in income would affect their situation. Finally, we incorporated advice buttons where customers could find detailed information on benefits and other sources of support.
The app empowered our customers to create their own solutions. A total of 70 households proposed new payment arrangements using the rent section of the app; for example, by suggesting that they would pay an extra £10 per week until they had cleared their arrears.
We also made it easier for customers to make standard tenancy management requests remotely. For example, if they wanted to request permission to get a dog or to put up a shed, they could submit a form virtually and read the relevant conditions, then refer back at the app to see if permission had been given, all without having to put their lives on hold and wait until the end of lockdown.
In addition, having end-of-tenancy functionality will help us to reduce the turn-around time on voids. Customers can click a button to let us know when they intend to move out and we can then plan accordingly.
An evolving approach
We originally thought that customers would use our self-service technology in the form of a web portal, accessing it through their laptop or PC, and although some older customers still prefer this approach, we’ve since found that most people use their smartphones.
Helpfully, the solution from Housing Insight offers the same functionality and therefore a consistent user experience across both the app and the portal. Nevertheless, the move towards increased smartphone use has prompted us to reduce the amount of text we use to make it as easy as possible for people to find the information they need. The other advantage of mobile access is, of course, that you don’t need wifi or broadband, just a mobile signal.
We’re also trying to encourage our customers to engage with the self-service app on a semi-regular basis. Even if they don’t need to report an ad-hoc repair, we still feel there is value in customers being able to check their account, access advice or use the budget tool. They seem to think so too, with around 400 customers now using the app each week, without necessarily submitting a form. We can monitor this usage data via a cloud-based reporting solution from Housing Insight.
We recognise that customers are unlikely to sign up to new technology unless they understand that it will help them in some way. We now have more than 2,150 of our 5,500 households (almost 40 per cent) signed up to the self-service app.
We ran a competition in the run-up to Christmas, giving away £100 to our 2,000th customer, but some of the most successful sign-ups have been via personal campaigns from our housing officers who have emailed customers in arrears to let them know about the budgeting tool and the payment plans available via the app. We’ve also found it helps to support customers face-to-face when they sign up for a tenancy at our new developments.
We’re talking to Housing Insight about how we can use notifications to reach out to customers who are worried about the latest cost of living increases and make sure they are aware of support measures such as our budgeting tool.
By planning a whole year of push-notification campaigns, we can help customers to stay engaged with the self-service app and therefore with us. In helping them, we also receive data that helps us to plan ahead in a way that will enable us to continue to meet customers’ needs.
Double the benefits
Ultimately, we’re investing in digital technology that not only creates operational efficiencies but also makes life easier and better for our customers. There’s no compromise in either the customer or the business agenda; on the contrary, both sides gains clear benefits from this approach, so everybody wins.
Gill Donoghue is the strategy and improvement manager at Caledonia Housing.