Along with my colleague Andrew Kidds, who manages our fabulous contact centre, I presented the story of Accent’s ICT journey at Housing Technology’s conference in March 2017.
‘Halfway to Amazon’ was a phrase coined by our critical friend, Frances Hipple from HACT, who had led a digital maturity review for us late last year which helped us focus on what we need to do next to improve our digital services to residents. Whilst we were slightly “glass half empty” with our score of 2.5 out of 5 on the digital maturity index, Frances kindly turned things around by mentioning all the great things we had already done and that if we kept the same pace we would soon be matching Amazon for digital delivery! Well that remains to be seen…
Actually, Amazon is not where we want to be! In a world where our customers’ expectations are being influenced by digital consumer services such as Google, Amazon, Asos and Uber, the temptation might be to try and mimic them. However, the social housing sector is not driven by either commercial rewards or slick marketing and we certainly wouldn’t want some of the ‘people values’ of some of those brands. People feature heavily in our ICT strategy; we call them ‘digital people’ who have the depth of skills and expertise and the ability to communicate and collaborate with others from different disciplines.
The digital world presents us with fantastic opportunities, but we won’t maximise these without customer-centric people who are digitally enabled. We need all our Accent people to buy into the digital strategy and see it as a key enabler to achieving our aspiration to be the UK’s best housing association.
We need to attract and retain the best staff. Our colleagues are no different to our customers, consuming goods and services online. Instant results and seamless platforms are expected. Why should work be any different from the other aspects of our lives? We need to harbour the passion, commitment and creativity of our existing staff, but this needs to be set against the context of a fast-changing, technologically-advancing world.
It is unimaginable that we wouldn’t listen to customer opinion, so why should we see colleagues’ opinion as anything different? This drives a very different culture where hardware, software and lean and agile working practices are used to design customer and staff experience alike. We can create internal social networks which will improve staff engagement and satisfaction.
Building a strong digital culture will not happen without strong leaders. This is about all leaders and managers having responsibility for driving a vibrant and dynamic digital culture. Leaders who don’t display a strong digital capability have limited hopes of successfully driving a digital culture. Our digital change programme will be an important enhancement to our recruitment strategy. The jobs market will be increasingly inhabited by younger generations who have very different aspirations to their predecessors. The most talented ‘millennials’ and ‘generation Y’ will be attracted to forwarding-thinking, dynamic employers who are as digitally enabled as they are.
Strategy is an overused term. At its simplest, we have three initiatives which we hope will improve services: improve our website; replace our contact centre telephone system; and improve our mobile working technology.
Our contact centre is already providing a great service for our tenants. Four years ago, Accent had three different subsidies, each with its own governance arrangements and service structure. We’ve since consolidated our organisational structure and just over a year ago, we brought together six different mini-contact centres into one central contact centre, achieving savings and improving consistency of services.
Our next steps are to create more capacity by replacing our outdated telephone system, introducing Skype for Business and integrating our housing management system with modern contact centre software. We have called this project ‘Accent Connect’ because this will connect us better with our tenants and with each other across the group.
Many people are talking about channel shift and moving telephone enquiries to website services. In Accent, 75 per cent of incoming contacts are through telephone calls. Another 20 per cent comes via email enquiries. Fewer than two per cent of enquiries are currently dealt with through our self-service website portal.
Our aim is to have a website that supports our contact centre and that each service should provide a fantastic experience for the customer. We want those who can and want to access services via the website to be able to do so, but those who still wish to use the telephone are welcome to do so.
So the next stage of our website development will focus on making the high-volume transactions easier to do online:
- Responsive repairs: residents will be able to report a repair online and book and change an appointment. An integrated diagnostic tool will help residents describe the issue and ensure contractors send the right resources.
- Income collection: we will provide a range of online payment tools including direct payments and setting up direct debits. Rent statements are already available on our portal and we will provide more online benefits advice.
- Lettings and allocations: last year, we set out our aspirations for how we let our properties. We set the bar high, seeking an online service to match the Rightmove consumer website. Prospective tenants will have their own application portal where we collect information only when we need it (known as progressive on-boarding).
Having a consistent service delivered through the contact centre and self-service website will free up our field staff from administrative and low-level workflow tasks. This will allow them to focus on helping those in most need.
We provided staff with portable technology and systems two years ago to enable them to be out of the office. We are still learning about the best combinations of equipment and user-friendly screens, especially for tablets. Our aim is that users should have a similar experience to tenants using the self-service website, and that forms, letters and paper documents will be eliminated from our processes.
This enabling technology will give more freedom to housing, contract and tenancy sustainability staff. With freedom comes more opportunity to add value and/or help our tenants.
Which brings us back to digital people and the journey to… well, Accent as a great provider of services in its own right, not Amazon!
I appreciate that each organisation is different and that you will have a strategy that is driven by different factors. If you want to find out more about our strategy, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steve Dungworth is head of corporate services at Accent Group.