Digitisation is transforming how services are delivered to tenants in social housing. It represents both the greatest challenges and the biggest opportunities in the history of the sector and requires a top-down, holistic approach with cultural change. But how far have we come already, and what does the future look like as we move towards the ‘digital tenant’?
The speed of change is gaining momentum, with market factors affecting the need to drive efficiencies. Much has been written about the Welfare Reform and Work Bill which sets out that rents are to be reduced by one per cent per year for four years starting April 2016. Housing providers are working towards cutting costs in line with this to counteract the loss in rental income, and are looking to technology to bring about those efficiencies the fastest way possible.
We are now entering the next phase of social housing where the digital tenant is becoming a reality as the sector increasingly digitises. The government is also driving digital adoption; 80 per cent of applications for universal credit must be made online by 2017, and it aims to cut the number of citizens who are still offline by 25 per cent every two years until the population is connected. Similarly, housing providers themselves are setting up schemes where they provide the internet to communities in order to increase digital adoption. It’s these factors in tandem that are contributing to the implementation of technology and ultimately the changes to the social housing sector.
Let’s also not forget that the tenants are changing too. We’ve read a lot about the generation known as millennials, digital natives or generation Y, and how they differ from previous generations. And the next succession, ‘generation Z’, who want information instantly and prefer to order, transact and get a response from a company without speaking to anyone or physically touching any paper. All of the above are of course digitally savvy, own smartphones and tablets and use social media almost ubiquitously. They have high expectations that technology can provide the benefits associated with creating an easier life for them. But they’re not totally alone; our older generations are also increasingly more digital, perhaps being driven to communicate with their children and grandchildren in the way that they demand, and owning smartphones and using computers for online banking and shopping. All of this means that housing associations have an unprecedented opportunity to engage with tenants and to deliver a more inclusive, efficient and cost-effective service to them.
What is the digital tenant?
A true digital tenant should interact with their housing provider via several channels, such as online via a customer portal accessed on a desktop PC or tablet, via web chat and by email as well as WhatsApp or SMS on a smartphone. They are truly multi-channel, but generally prefer non-verbal communication, especially for every day requests. They should also be able to log repairs, report anti-social behaviour and make complaints online, update all of their personal information, make rental payments and raise basic requests digitally. In a nut shell, they should be able to do everything for themselves online that a call centre agent would do if they called customer services.
A number of our customers who are MIS ActiveH users have made great strides when it comes to offering the multi-channel approach. Orbit has set itself clear targets and has already introduced its customer portal, online repair appointments, web chat, email and SMS. Others are not far behind with over 80 per cent of our customers currently looking to expand their channels.
How far have we come?
Many housing providers are beginning to set deadlines for when they will interact with their tenants via digital means, and this can be a double-edged sword. To stipulate that by 2020, for example, all rental and maintenance requests will be handled via a customer portal might drive the use and adoption of their technology by tenants, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee sufficient engagement to return to that portal a second time without calling customer services in the first instance. This is more the ‘stick’ than the ‘carrot’ method of engagement, and doesn’t always result in digital success.
The most innovative housing providers are probably about 60% of the way towards full digitisation, having implemented portal technologies, mobilised their workforce and, with the help of SMS messages and mobile CRM software, are communicating clearly with tenants. Mobile CRM has been and continues to be a big driver towards digitisation because it empowers housing officers to spend less time updating paper records and more time in their communities. We’ve seen around 25 per cent of our customers move towards mobile CRM in the first 12 months of its release; armed with a tablet and a smartphone, the technology gives housing officers a way to access information back at base online or offline, update information while out in the field and also provide tenants with the answers to any questions they may have, even if it’s not their area of expertise or their department. These represent genuine efficiencies and are often at the centre of making the leap towards digitisation.
I’ve seen at first hand the impact mobile CRM is having on customer service at Accent. It has gradually rolled out ActiveH CRM across its business and identified efficiencies in the process. Accent’s internal employee survey on mobile working identified that 68 per cent of staff think they’ve been able to visit more residents face to face, 54 per cent believe rent arrears have been reduced and 76 per cent believe customer service has improved. The majority of them also thought that mobile working had improved the quality of their own working lives.
In the future, many more housing providers will offer digital tenants the ability to make appointments online for repairs, often dealing directly with a maintenance company for some of the more common problems. ‘Appointing online’ is the next wave of digitisation to reach the sector and has already been rolled out at Orbit, once again increasing efficiencies while delivering faster customer service.
And beyond that? The next step is reducing home visits with remote monitoring devices (the internet of things) or virtual visits through on-screen face-to-face chats. And who knows, looking further ahead, maybe even augmented reality (AR) devices could help tenants with repairs diagnostics or even doing their own minor repairs.
Chris McLaughlin is managing director of MIS-AMS.