A project to harness the power of text messaging to engage better with residents has resulted in a housing group partnering with a software provider on a bespoke solution. Gavin Hitchcock, head of ICT at East Midlands-based Futures Housing Group explains how they did it.
Channel shift is a hot topic for housing providers. Moving customer contact from traditional routes such as letters, to digital alternatives such as text, promises cost-efficiency as well as more opportunities to collect meaningful data. Yet too often getting the internal buy-in and resources to achieve such a shift is difficult.
However, we had in-depth research on tenants’ communications preferences which gave us a clear mandate for the change. We worked with the University of Derby on a piece of research which showed that 60 per cent of our customers, around 5,000 people, were willing to use mobile-based communications.
No one was surprised that tapping into people’s use of their mobiles was the right thing to do, but it gave us a clear evidence base and challenged some stereotypes. Indeed, the research used generation theory to demonstrate how the life experiences of different age groups would determine their openness to new technology.
Instead of offering a stereotypical divide between ‘young’ and ‘old’, the data showed Futures’ ‘baby boomer’ residents, aged 47-65 years old, had a higher than average percentage mobile phone ownership and were favourable to this communication route.
Income and repairs
Armed with this research, we chose the operational areas of income and responsive repairs on which to focus the initial roll-out of an automated SMS system.
Responsive repairs is probably one of the more transaction-intensive services we offer so there was a lot of scope for adding value by streamlining customer contact, and we chose to work with the income team because Welfare Reform has increased their need for timely communication and we saw text messaging as a way to ‘pull’ communication from customers, as well as ‘push’ information out to them.
Orchard worked with us to develop a text messaging system which will now be made available to other Orchard customers. Co-developing with Orchard benefitted both organisations; Orchard could draw on our insight into how customers might interact with the system and we could develop functionality to completely meet our needs. It’s a value for money approach which we would happily use again.
The development process began in 2012 and the responsive repairs text service went live this May, with income to follow later this month.
Testing for success
We took on a dedicated project manger to ensure that deadlines were met and to implement an ‘agile’ software development framework. This framework ensures end-users have a say in every stage of development rather than just being presented with a finished product. We wanted their expertise so they could vouch for how the system would work in practice and we needed their support for the changes. At the same time, our research meant that colleagues understood that we can’t just use the same communications channels for everyone and that we need to future-proof the way we talk to customers.
Our ICT team used the project management technique of ‘time-boxing’ to segment milestones in the development. Each time a ‘time-box’ was completed, there was a ‘show and tell’ session with either the income or repairs teams so they could test the functionality and provide feedback. In many instances, this meant the system could exceed the initial brief, as additions and improvements could be made along the way.
For example, it was identified that an automated text should be set up for when a member of staff attended a repair appointment and no one was home. This would allow the customer to reply in real-time to a text prompt, stating whether they still needed the repair and offering the chance to reschedule. Comparable to the way private companies use text to arrange goods delivery, this aims to reduce waiting times for appointments and avoid unnecessary correspondence.
Furthermore, in developing text messaging for the income team’s use the project has ensured the functionality fits with the organisation’s aim to empower people to manage their money. For example, residents can send a short text message to request a balance on rent owed or to request a call from the team if they are facing arrears.
Stakeholders within the business were invited to weekly meetings to keep them up to date with the project’s development. Resident panels were also engaged to trial some aspects of functionality, such as the wording and format of texts.
Early data from the use of text messaging for responsive repairs suggests it is already reducing wasted appointments. A similar evaluation is planned following the income module’s launch.
Aidan Dunphy, head of product strategy at Orchard, said, “We work in agile partnerships with front-line practitioners when designing new products, and Futures Housing Group gave us the real-world insight we needed to ensure Orchard Housing Messaging delivers strategic benefits. We are excited about continuing our partnership with Futures to expand the project into other business areas and to explore other access channels.
We’re naturally very proud of this project which has made our fledgling text messaging system into an integrated communications solution. It will allow us to improve customer interaction and carry out in-depth analysis. For example, we can capture customer satisfaction with repairs, audit when appointments are wasted, and analyse when customers make contact about arrears.
Gavin Hitchcock is head of ICT at Futures Housing Group.