We recently surveyed a number of professionals in the housing sector on how they see IT helping them deal with the myriad pressures they face. The results were, to put it mildly, eye opening.
Far from being a drain on resources, technology was the saviour. 97 per cent said that IT solutions were important to their ability to drive efficiencies in light of recent budget cuts. IT isn’t regarded as an expense, they seem to be saying, but as the key to improving their bottom line and the cornerstone of their future customer engagement strategies.
It’s an understanding that is translating into concrete change. Over a third of housing providers are planning to overhaul their IT in the next two years, rising to more than half over a five-year time span.
Why are they doing this now? For many, it’s about funds. Four out of five are looking to reduce costs, with three out of five investing in IT to improve their efficiency.
Some of the biggest opportunities to save are coming through the way they communicate with customers. The most popular ways to interact with housing providers are ‘old school’, resource intensive methods such as phone and face-to-face. Helping customers digitally engage in other ways was, according to the survey, an immense opportunity.
In particular, many involved saw great potential for self-service where residents can go online and, given the right tools, find solutions for themselves.
Wolverhampton Homes understands both the challenges and the opportunities that new technologies are creating to engage with residents across its 23,000 homes.
Guided by their vision of unlocking people’s potential through housing, skills and technology, they have set a target of getting 50 per cent of residents signed up to self-service by April 2017, with Northgate acting as its IT partner.
Wolverhampton Homes chose a range of self-service tools and launched a new approach that promotes the wider benefits of going online and enables staff to provide support at every stage. A range of customer-facing processes, from rent payments to property searches, can now be managed by residents themselves, and providing mobile access to the core housing management system helps staff to provide back-office functions more efficiently.
After consulting with customers and running pilot programmes that provided free connectivity to homes, they realised that increasing the take-up of online services required a different approach.
As Philip Toni, resources director at Wolverhampton Homes, said, “Many of our customers are not online at all, and some may never be, so we wanted to find the best way to help them get on in life. By working with local partners to promote other reasons to go online, from retail discounts and social networks, we can help our residents to access much broader benefits as well get a faster response to housing queries.
“Our ‘digital first’ programme runs throughout the whole organisation. It not only encourages people to go online, it also equips staff with the tools they need to work more productively and to support residents at every point of contact. We basically don’t want our customers to miss out on the benefits of being online.”
This underlines a key finding from the broader survey work done by Northgate Public Services. Half of residents aren’t online, or just lack access to appropriate technology. Compounding the issue is that close to 40 per cent of residents just simply aren’t aware of all their options when it comes to communicating with their housing provider.
Faced with similar problems, the Wolverhampton Homes digital outreach team is helping tenants who aren’t online through community events and face-to-face contact. The team works in a variety of places, from setting up in shopping centres and community centres to calling door to door, in order to show tenants what they’ll miss out on by not being online, then helping them with advice and training on devices.
The housing provider also manages a number of ‘one-stop shops’ where residents can get advice from staff, ask questions or pay rent. They are changing from the traditional model, with staff behind a counter, to digital hubs with self-service kiosks and floor walkers with tablets.
By enabling greater mobile working, Wolverhampton Homes is also helping to improve how other staff engage with residents in other areas. Staff have been provided with tablet PCs which allow them to access the housing solution on the move. By training them in how self-service works, they can also use those tablets to help customers who need extra encouragement or support.
As well as aiming to get 50 per cent of residents signed up for self-service by April 2017, it is also aiming to reduce the number of general enquiries received face-to-face or over the phone by 50 per cent and will soon roll out greater use of SMS services.
Wolverhampton Homes is a good example of a housing provider that understands the issues facing them and has developed a clear digital strategy to help. They’re not alone – close to a third of providers are overhauling their IT in the next two years.
It’s clear we’re in a critical period of change that I believe will determine not just how well housing providers serve their customers, but also their ability to thrive.
Trevor Hampton is director of local government and housing at Northgate Public Services.