The mass adoption of new technologies is rarely a smooth curve, rather a journey punctuated by unforeseen lurches and tipping points. Chris Mansfield, business development director at AI chatbot innovator Futr, shares his thoughts on channel shift in the housing sector, and how we can make it stick.
As someone focused on customer contact innovation on behalf of housing providers, the past twelve months have felt nothing short of historic.
When I joined Futr towards the end of 2019, I was convinced that automated customer contact could offer housing providers and their tenants solutions to persistent problems, including easier accessibility of information for all and a more intelligent use of housing resources. The question was timing.
Fast forward 12 months and the pandemic hasn’t changed that prediction, it’s just made it a lot more pressing.
Hard to reach audiences
Founded almost five years ago, Futr has built its reputation on delivering inclusive automated customer contact solutions for civic organisations, including emergency services, local authorities and housing providers.
While much of the private sector has been quick to trial and adopt customer service innovation, these more civic markets have often been more cautious in diversifying their channels, being mindful of their harder-to-reach audiences.
That said, many housing providers have been working hard for years to promote digital transformation and channel shift, but it’s taken the wider impact of the pandemic on consumers’ behaviour to fast-track widespread adoption.
A consumer revolution
A study of 900 businesses by McKinsey has revealed the extent of changes in consumer behaviour worldwide, particularly in the shift towards online and digital channels. The survey found that the number of businesses conducting 80 per cent or more of their customer interactions online by December 2020 had tripled since the start of the pandemic.
The survey also revealed that businesses had spent more on digital activities than on any other business continuity measure since the start of the pandemic. McKinsey’s report said, “On average, digital transformation offerings have leapfrogged seven years of progress in a matter of months.”
That kind of acceleration only happens once in a lifetime.
Change is only the beginning
The pandemic might have massively accelerated the adoption of new digital channels by customers (often out of necessity) but making channel shift permanent will require three concurrent factors.
Firstly, there needs to be a demand and willingness to change on behalf of the customer. Although the pandemic has accelerated this, in reality the appetite has been growing for years.
For example, our customer Ongo Housing has had a ‘digital first, with no one left behind’ strategy for a number of years, whereby new channels are offered as a positive option to customers, rather than forcing adoption. Other housing providers, such as Grand Union Housing, have publicly announced ambitious plans to move 80 per cent of all resident interactions online in future.
When these progressive aspirations are combined with growing web literacy and tech-savviness among tenants, housing providers have increasingly found that new methods of interaction are like pushing on an open door.
Secondly, once a customer chooses to use a new channel, they’re essentially testing its readiness and ability to deliver; you only get one chance to make a strong first impression.
Thankfully, Futr’s new generation of intelligent chatbots are the result of five years’ housing-specific refinement, learning from every customer interaction. You can’t fake that, it’s organic.
Once a question is submitted via a landlord’s channel of choice (website, tenant portal, social media or WhatsApp), it’s then analysed using natural language processing (NLP).
Tenants can then chat naturally with the system, allowing them (not the chatbot) to set the terms of the conversation.
This new level of freedom in expression means customers can ask what they want in their own words and chosen language, rather than having to select from a limited number of pre-programed options, as with early chatbots.
The information presented to the customer in response is determined by a ‘confidence score’, which measures an enquiry’s content against an existing and ever-expanding database of data drawn from thousands of previous conversations.
The third piece in the adoption puzzle is customer satisfaction: if the new channel fails to match or improve on more traditional contact methods, then the customer will refuse, resist or resent the change.
For chatbots, the primary measure of success is the number of automated customer contact interactions that can be completed without the need for human intervention.
Our housing clients are currently achieving successful customer outcomes 80-90 per cent of the time through automated responses. However, the option for human intervention always remains available for when enquiries are complex or can’t be resolved automatically.
Housing providers will also measure repeat usage of the channel (its ‘stickiness’) to gauge customer satisfaction, and in our experience, rates of repeat usage go up month-on-month once a new digital channel becomes established.
Once these three factors hit a certain tipping point, regardless of the reasons that are driving adoption, the channel is here to stay.
Chris Mansfield is the director of business development at Futr.