Change can be a scary word, and when big changes happen there are always casualties. But history also tells us that when change is driven by the government and accepted by the people, the casualties often tend to be those who refuse to accept the change or simply delay too long before adopting it. The fourth industrial revolution (i.e. mixing digital domains with offline reality) is well underway. No single item better symbolises this wave of change or is more ubiquitous than the mobile phone.
Many mid-sized companies have yet to grasp the nettle and some will find comfort in the refrain that, “our sector is different.” The key elements driving the current wave of change have been here for some time, and coronavirus was simply the catalyst. Employers that had fought against remote working and BYOD schemes suddenly find themselves with no choice. And then they discovered that the efficiency benefits can be very significant.
At Optus Homes, we asked consumers and housing providers to describe what their ideal interaction tools and processes might look like. Not surprisingly, the feedback was a combination of what consumers are already familiar with and happy to use, together with what housing providers always felt would be (or should be) available.
Consumers don’t want a web portal. And a responsive website masquerading as an app will always have functional limitations. Tenants want a powerful and intuitive app designed with their input, rather than just something that makes life easier for their landlords. On the other hand, housing providers certainly want to keep their tenants happy but they also want integration to their legacy systems and need to see efficiencies and cost justification.
Optus Homes: What are the biggest frustrations in sourcing or building a mobile app for tenants?
Housing provider: “We don’t want to be perceived as development guinea pigs for our IT service providers. In the past, we’ve been expected to pay for development or integration, only to see those features rolled-out later as standard to other clients in the following months.”
Are your incumbent suppliers generally supportive of change and new third-party solutions?
“It doesn’t come naturally to them; their instinctive reaction is often defensive. If we source a piece of new technology, we expect our existing service provider to be an integration enabler, not a blockage. Partnerships are the way forward.”
What features would you like in a tenant app?
“The cost of phone calls and postage means that any app must have good rent and repairs features. These two features alone would justify our app costs. But we’re in social housing, so it’s really important that the app has a strong social or community support element, such as making it easy and safe to report ASB, request information or conduct surveys.
“Some housing providers might want a chatbot or payment solution as part of an app, but we already have some of those features so we would expect an app to integrate seamlessly and just enhance what we already have. And what about video calling? This is now something that tenants are definitely demanding.”
And what about tenants – do you think they will use an app?
“Think of some of the apps widely accepted by consumers today, such as Uber, Netflix and Deliveroo. They have set the bar for convenience and power, and our tenant solution must match that level; it’s what tenants demand and will use.”
The number of UK consumers using Open Banking doubled in 2019. Is this a feature you would like to see in a tenant app?
“If consumers want it, then yes. If a tenant is having rent issues, wouldn’t it be great to give them the option to share details with the landlord while deciding how much to pay off in arrears each month?”
How can we make it easier for your tenants?
“Remember that some of our tenants are among the most vulnerable in society and we have an obligation to make their interactions with us as easy as possible for them. Some don’t have English as a first language, so one way to help is by using technology to reduce the language barrier. I really like the idea of tenants selecting their own native language and being able to interact seamlessly with a chatbot or live chat agent.”
And what about the commercial model – how much would you pay for the ideal app?
“Give us some options and be creative, starting perhaps with a free version to trial. We want visibility but we don’t want to be tied into a 3-5 year contract. A simple model would ideally include maintenance and updates, and transparency on what’s covered. A PaaS model might be interesting.”
Housing Technology 2020
And so we spent a lot of time putting together the ideal tenants’ app. A tenant- and client-centric solution rather than something built to conveniently fit an existing housing management system. Everything we’ve done is guided by what housing providers have asked us for, and we chose the Housing Technology 2020 conference to unveil it.
This was our first time at Housing Technology’s annual conference and we’d heard that it was the flagship technology event for the housing sector – we weren’t disappointed. The combination of housing providers, IT suppliers and innovative start-ups at the conference allowed us to gather additional input and build a CI/CD roadmap (continuous improvement & continuous deployment). The timing of the conference in March (just before lockdown) allowed us to canvas inputs and then step back and implement them over the following months.
The Optus Homes tenant app obviously isn’t the only solution available to housing providers but we think that it does represent a new class of ‘change embracing’ solutions from innovative suppliers. These independent suppliers often bring proven technology and commercial models from other industry sectors and pride themselves on being customer-centric; they listen and they embrace the change.
Embrace the change
The government has made it clear that it sees the adoption of advanced technology as one of the key productivity drivers in a post-Brexit era. Cloud computing, 5G, machine learning and AI all tie back to a common theme; give consumers real convenience and industry sectors will reap the benefit from resulting efficiencies.
Were any of us really surprised by how quickly our grandparents adapted to using Zoom or WhatsApp during the lockdown? Or the spike in online shopping and app-based banking? Well, guess what? Even after lockdown has ended, grandparents will continue to use Zoom (albeit less frequently) and many of us will still want to work from home occasionally. Think of the time and cost saved, not to mention the frustration of trudging into the office five days a week or the benefits to the environment. So, consumers gain convenience and businesses gain efficiencies.
Central to much of this change is the device in everyone’s pocket – the mobile.
Mobiles are only going to get more powerful and more convenient, so why wouldn’t housing providers embrace the change and offer tenants the same conveniences when managing arrears or reporting ASB? So-called ‘challenger’ banks offer purely app-based services for a reason – because they work. Consumers love the convenience and it’s super-efficient for the banks. Similarly, there are examples of several housing providers in Europe now offering an app-only service – no web portal, no call centre, no letters, and no face-to-face meetings (other than video calls). It’s time to embrace the change.
Gerry Kelly is the CEO of Optus Homes.