By introducing customer self-service technology, housing providers can transform their cost structures and also meet their social, financial and digital inclusion strategies. Such systems can also significantly boost customer engagement. Robert Dent, CEO of 1st Touch, outlines how introducing effective self-service systems can also help re-focus essential resources to combat the challenges posed by welfare reform.
Whether you work for a housing provider or work for a technology supplier like 1st Touch, there is a common aim: to improve service delivery levels to the residents and tenants that make up a housing provider’s customer base. Predominantly, the pursuit of this goal involves using mobile workforce technology wisely to mobilise a wide range of business functions from repairs, estate management, gas and voids through to, more recently, neighbourhood teams and income officers. Alternatively, this has also meant equipping call-centre staff with the right telephony technology to handle incoming calls about a similarly wide range of issues. Both these technologies are usually seamlessly integrated into the housing provider’s back-office housing management or CRM systems. Both are also extremely sound and deliver significant productivity benefits and efficiency savings. They also allow field-based staff to have greater one-to-one contact with tenants in their homes.
However, when one conducts analyses on the requirements in detail, there is one other significant, but all too often, under-utilised asset that can both transform customer services and allow vital resources to be refocused elsewhere. This asset is of course the customer base itself. Here, to maximise the impact of this important resource, housing providers need to invest in customer self-service apps, by deploying systems that empower their customers to report and manage a wide range of requests themselves either through online or mobile technologies. When deploying such systems, one has to be extremely careful to do this correctly by fully understanding a housing provider’s specific social, technical and financial inclusion requirements and strategies. For example, when it came to developing our own self-service system, we were careful to enlist the excellent advice of social housing experts such as those at Halton Housing to make sure that we understood fully what was needed.
By listening to critical but positive feedback and input, one very soon understands that to be effective, the introduction of a customer self-service system has to incorporate an ability to update information in real time to the social landlord’s back-office systems. The app also needs to be accessible 24/7/365, not just during office hours. It also needs to enable customers to use the technology they are familiar with to access it. This means that they can access it not just from their PCs, but also via their mobile devices.
There is an ever-growing list of services that can be accessed in this way. They can, for example, report anti-social behaviour or estate issues such as graffiti or fly-tipping and they can support this by sending in their own photographic evidence. Customers can also order responsive repair requests, a gas service, or even report a gas leak.
If they need to check their rent balance or to make a payment, this too is now possible online as is requesting a house move or a transfer. Self-service apps also provide a great opportunity for feedback and suggestions.
These systems build trust over time with customers, so it’s important to ensure that they contain a considerable amount of supporting information and all the forms that customers might need to use. This enables the customer to access and review all the relevant information they might need online and then to simply enter their details. The system then logs the contact in the housing provider’s CRM or housing management system which in turn kicks off the appropriate workflow to the relevant person or contractor in, for example, the responsive repairs or gas service team. The system will then promptly send an acknowledgement to the customer that the query is being dealt with. In the case of repairs, gas or estate inspections the system can be set up to confirm possible dates for action with the customer while they are online. Ultimately, this will also lead to a text, call or an email to confirm that the right operative is on their way. All the information entered by customers should then be automatically updated on the housing provider’s back-office system in real time.
Overall, such systems greatly reduce the pressure on the housing provider’s administrative or call centre staff, while significantly improving engagement with tenants.
However, the main driver for introducing customer self-service apps is to free up significant resources that can either be saved or re-directed to deliver additional support to the housing provider’s most vulnerable customers. This is particularly important given the impact of the recent welfare reform changes. A persuasive way of illustrating this point and therein quantifying the significance of this is to look at the transactional costs.
Our research shows that every call with a customer typically has a transactional cost of around £5 whereas every face-to-face meeting has a typical transaction cost of around £15. However, an online interaction is always less than £1. As there are likely to be tens of thousands of transactions each year, one can see that the amount of resources that could be saved or re-focused could easily run into millions of pounds.
In effect, customer self-service systems not only transform what housing providers do but they can also add a whole new positive dimension to the customer experience and engagement that they deliver.
The adoption of such systems is a win-win situation and we can see that using this technology to empower customers will soon become a matter of widespread best practice. What is particularly reassuring is that the ultimate beneficiaries of this new technology will be the housing provider’s residents and tenants themselves.
Robert Dent is CEO of 1st Touch.