With huge potential for improving the customer experience and streamlining operations, how can the housing sector encourage more customers to embrace a digital approach to their tenancies?
1. Involve end-users at the beginning
When we began the process to choose a new self-service portal in 2018, we asked some of our customers to be part of a focus group. We invited a shortlist of providers, including Housing Insight, to demonstrate their products to this focus group and we listened to the feedback. Customers wanted a portal that was clear, easy to use and would render effectively on any device without any loss of functionality. These were straightforward criteria on paper, but often the simplest solutions are the most complex to develop and deliver in practice.
We opted for the focus group’s preferred product, a self-service portal from Housing Insight’s PanConnect suite, which also offered an app with identical functionality and happened to be the most cost-effective solution. We knew that word of mouth would be the best way to get the portal and app embedded across our customer base so, with our focus group on board to help spread the word, nearly 50 per cent of our customers are now registered to the customer portal.
2. Drip-feed incremental changes
Once signed up, we wanted to make sure that we kept customers with us. Taking notes from companies such as Amazon and Facebook, we incorporated small, regular tweaks to the portal and app that would not be off-putting to our customers. First, for example, we enabled customers to look at their rent account. Next, we added the option to make payments, then we made it possible for them to set up direct debits.
If we had implemented the portal and app then left them unchanged for six months, any subsequent alterations would have felt much more significant and might have scared off some of our customers. An agile approach worked well for everyone.
3. Make the entire process digital
Historically, our housing officers met prospective customers face-to-face, asking them to complete a lengthy 90-question form about eligibility and affordability that would then be scanned in when the officer returned to our offices. But, because we receive almost all of our applications for housing by email, we knew prospective customers had access to both an email address and the internet.
We therefore decided to expand our use of the self-service portal and app to include not just current but also prospective customers. We now send out an email inviting applicants to log into a portal where they can complete their pre-tenancy questionnaire. A housing officer then reviews their answers and, in 95 per cent of cases, approves the application.
We’ve also found the portal and app to be useful in making sure that new customers are fully aware of their responsibilities and our expectations. In the past, new customers would meet their lettings officer at the property, where the customer’s primary focus would be, naturally enough, their new home rather than the various forms we needed them to sign. Now, we can send links to the forms electronically so that customers can review them in advance. The lettings officer receives a notification if they haven’t read the forms three days before they are due to take possession of their new home and can contact the customer to remind them to take action.
Our lettings officers also have touchscreens so that, once they have shown an applicant around a property, the applicant can sign there and then to accept or reject it. This information is uploaded directly to our back-office system, and the new customer gains access to the full customer portal and app, with the version tailored to general needs, rent-to-buy, shared ownership and so on.
4. Stay on top of the data
Last month 1,843 customers used our self-service solution. They generated 33,513 page views and spent an average of almost four minutes logged in – just long enough to make a transaction. By tracking and analysing the data on a regular basis, we can identify areas for development.
Data drives the change. True digital self-service must be constantly evolving if it is to keep customers engaged. By analysing the data provided by Housing Insight’s cloud reporting solution, we can see which areas of the portal and app are being used and identify others that may need some improvement.
5. Plan your marketing
Looking ahead, we intend to use social media to grow awareness of and engagement with our self-service portal and app. We want to push our messages out more regularly, saying to customers, “Did you know you can do ‘X’ online now?”
We also want to involve all customer-facing staff in a more structured way. They have always said to customers informally, “Did you know there’s an app for that?” but we’d now like to make this an integral part of their jobs.
An award-winning approach
Greatwell Homes was honoured to be placed 13th across the UK in the Housing Digital Awards 2020, which recognised those companies using a digital platform to improve services for customers. The judges praised our ‘great progress on automation’ and ‘really strong ambition for the future’.
Farrukh Syed is a programme manager at Greatwell Homes.