Housing Technology interviewed representatives from Aareon, AdaptEco, Civica, Hyperoptic and Insite Energy about the alignment of omni-channel communications with smart/IoT-enabled homes to improve tenants’ lives while helping housing providers’ operational performance.
What should housing providers do for better communications and more connected tenants?
Aareon UK’s head of digital, Tina Kennedy, said, “The number-one priority is good quality data. This is essential to enabling housing providers to communicate with their tenants better. Different communication channels need to be available, but those options only work if you have up-to-date information on contact details, preferences and what matters to each tenant.
“The second priority is providing self-service options. ‘Connected tenants’ who self-serve are typically much more engaged and best placed to keep their details up-to-date, resulting in better quality data and reduced costs to serve.
“Thirdly, empower your housing staff and contractors by mobilising them. The best service is provided by having your front-line staff at the heart of communities and connected with tenants. To do this, your people must be able to create and complete tasks in the field; working in real time wherever they are, with or without mobile reception, is a game changer.”
AdaptEco’s founder and CEO, Christian Geisselmann, said, “Tenants need to have a louder voice. Housing providers should therefore have an engagement strategy which includes working with and listening to tenants in order to continually improve their services, and keeping tenants informed about how their suggestions and views are being acted on, based on a multi-channel technology platform that is capable of covering tenants’ widely-varied demographics.”
Insite Energy’s managing director, Anthony Coates-Smith, said, “First of all, keep things simple. That means not only using clear and straightforward language, but also ensuring communications are short, frequent and regular. It’s much better to issue brief updates at regular intervals than long-winded, ad-hoc notices.
“Secondly, make the tone of your communications friendly and informative – companies such as Octopus Energy and Bulb have shown the value of friendly and engaging communications. Finally, encourage self-service by making all the information your tenants are likely to need easy to access digitally. For example, if you make information accessible via a browser rather than requiring tenants to download an app, you’ve instantly removed another communication barrier.”
What bottlenecks do omni-channel communications and IoT devices remove?
Hyperoptic’s senior director of business development, Liam McAvoy, said, “Omnichannel communications should be viewed as an opportunity and not a challenge. Research from the London Assembly in 2018 on how social housing tenants prefer to receive information found that ‘digital tools can be used to reach residents who might not feel comfortable attending a formal TRA meeting’. Of course, digital engagement can’t replace all the functions of face-to-face and resident-led engagement but it can be very complimentary to bolster overall engagement.
“The internet of things offers a number of opportunities for both tenants and housing providers, although IoT technology is still in its infancy; according to Housing Technology’s own research (housing-technology.com/research), humidity and temperature sensors are by far the most widely-installed IoT devices at present, almost eclipsing the total of all the other IoT devices combined. However, the future looks very exciting – for example, Siemens has already started to put microchips into its white goods so that problems can be diagnosed before the householder is even aware of them.”
Civica’s product director, Helen Rogers, said, “The two main benefits of omni-channel communications combined with self-reporting networks of IoT devices are to reduce the number of repairs and engineer visits for tenants and better customer service combined with cost reductions in repairs due to early awareness of potential problems and more timely and less expensive planned maintenance programmes, rather than relying on periodic stock condition surveys.”
Insite Energy’s Coates-Smith said, “Today’s consumers tend to trust digital solutions more than old paper-based methods. Omni-channel communications make interactions as convenient as possible for tenants, thereby removing old friction points.
“Giving housing providers access to data that automatically alerts them to problems such as fuel poverty, damp or faulty appliances means that they can respond to them faster and provide better support to tenants. For example, housing providers cite supporting their vulnerable tenants and reducing fuel poverty as the most important benefits of smart, IoT-based heating systems.”
How can housing providers encourage tenants to only use digital channels?
Aareon’s Kennedy said, “The best encouragement to use digital channels is to make access secure and easy to use, with the content simple to navigate and up-to-date. The housing providers who have been most successful at this have aligned their processes to have automatic appointment booking, confirmations and up-to-date content, and widespread feedback supports the idea that tenants prefer digital channels because they don’t have to wait or rely on office opening hours.
“For example, being able to raise a repair digitally is better for tenants because they can select the repair slot that’s most convenient for them, which in turn significantly reduces the volume of ‘no access’ trips for housing providers’ staff at the same time as increasing the number of first-time fixes.”
AdaptEco’s Geisselmann said, “Channel shift is a vital element if you want to achieve better outcomes for tenants or financial savings, for example. But where does that leave your more vulnerable tenants?
“We believe that to support your most vulnerable tenants when delivering digital transformation, you need to carefully consider how you approach this by supporting the accessibility needs of each individual, avoiding a ‘one size fits all’ approach, understanding the customer journey, and providing training and education where needed.”
Civica’s Rogers said, “Encouraging a ‘digital first’ approach by tenants is all about usability – quick, easy, bi-directional interactions that are integrated with your housing and asset management systems, combined with a range of flexible ways to interact depending on the type of request – some queries are fine to be handled via SMS whereas others might be easier or better via email, smartspeaker or chatbot. The important thing is to give tenants a choice of digital channels.”
What are the benefits of IoT programmes?
Aareon’s Kennedy said, “The whole community benefits when IoT sensors are used in areas such as communal walkways to monitor lighting, for example, because it keeps everyone safer and reduces complaints when lights stop working, particularly because most tenants will assume someone else has reported the problem when no one has actually informed the housing provider.
“With an IoT sensor, the housing provider gets an alert on their back-office software and a contractor automatically gets sent to fix the issue, often before anyone has the chance to report it or even be aware of the problem. The same early warning and rapid fix could also be applied to areas such as water leaks, burst pipes and malfunctioning lifts.
“To be truly valuable for both tenants and their housing provider, the data from IoT sensors needs to result in both short-term actionable insights as well as analysis to identify long-term trends and plan predictive maintenance. The feedback from our housing customers confirms that this type of approach is a win for them, their estates and their tenants.”
AdaptEco’s Geisselmann said, “One of our digital care partners, iOpt, gives asset managers the ability to make smart, informed business decisions based on predictive and proactive maintenance rather than today’s reactive regimes.
“Early warning about potential problems means healthier buildings and healthier tenants; IoT-based monitoring could cover areas such as fuel poverty detection, indoor air quality, damp, occupancy levels and vulnerable person monitoring.”
Insite Energy’s Coates-Smith said, “As IoT devices become more common, it will become the norm to automatically optimise energy usage through devices such as smart thermostats. Anything that reduces tenants’ energy usage and housing providers’ capital and operating expenditure brings down costs for all parties. Giving tenants access to data about their energy use has been repeatedly shown to reduce their consumption; we saw a 15 per cent drop in energy use at a large housing development in Croydon just from installing digital prepay displays.
“With greater visibility of consumption data, housing providers can make continual operational enhancements. For example, utility prepayment solutions can lead to a virtuous circle of eradication of debt risk and better cash flow, freeing up capital to invest in equipment and service improvements. This, in turn, results in a better relationship between housing providers and their tenants, with fewer complaints and points of conflict, resulting in less time spent firefighting and more bandwidth to focus on continuous improvement.”
Measuring the results of ‘connected tenants & connected homes’ programmes
Hyperoptic’s McAvoy said, “We have pioneered a focus on quantitative metrics that demonstrate the benefit of bringing enhanced connectivity to social housing properties. Earlier this year we unveiled our ‘digital social value calculator’ – by inputting a series of data points relating to your portfolio or borough, it can calculate an overall social value in GBP.”
Insite Energy’s Coates-Smith said, “Research by Secure Meters suggests that we are on the cusp of the widespread adoption of IoT technology in social housing, with 80 per cent of professionals in the sector reporting they are currently considering it, and over half having already installed or trialled it in their properties. Of those, 35 per cent are using smart heating systems and 30 per cent smart meters.”
Smart homes can generate huge volumes of data – how should that data be used?
Aareon’s Kennedy said, “The data from IoT-enabled homes not only unlocks insights that couldn’t otherwise be known without going into a property itself but also it effectively gives the property a brain and a comms link straight back to the housing provider. In turn, insights from this ‘data torrent’ can be used for scheduling preventative maintenance programmes instead of reactive repairs.
“Progress today is driven by data, but vast quantities of data can also lead to it being isolated and languishing in a plethora of unconnected business applications and even spreadsheets. As part of their digital agendas, housing providers need to ensure they have innovative data models to ensure that the solutions they choose will enhance both their housing portfolios and the services they can deliver.”
Hyperoptic’s McAvoy said, “The benefits of getting an increased volume of data from omni-channel communications and IoT devices is exactly the same as when companies adopted ‘big data analytics’ a decade ago. With real-time, trusted information, you can identify patterns, trends and needs in order to make more accurate data-driven decisions.”
Civica’s Rogers said, “In order to efficiently handle the potential volume of data arising from IoT devices and connected homes, housing providers’ emphasis should be on managing that data ‘by exception’ – that is to say, using straight-through processing and automated workflows to minimise the amount of human intervention between, for example, the automatic reporting of a broken light in a communal area and the scheduling of a repairs operative to fix the light through to the reporting of its successful fix.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Tina Kennedy (Aareon), Christian Geisselmann (AdaptEco), Helen Rogers (Civica), Liam McAvoy (Hyperoptic) and Anthony Coates-Smith (Insite Energy) for their editorial contributions to this article.