If access to broadband wasn’t considered an essential service before coronavirus struck, it certainly is now. As a housing provider, it’s critical to our tenants in so many ways and we have, for several years, been developing our own pioneering online service. This shift has dramatically accelerated during the pandemic.
Our work around digital inclusion has given us a head start when it comes to providing the virtual services people now rely on, and several of our long-term initiatives have really proved their value recently.
In 2013, we began providing residents who didn’t have access to wi-fi with a connection through our own network. We have since connected around 1,600 residents who would otherwise not have been online, including some of our most vulnerable tenants.
For many of them, it provided a vital link to the outside world during lockdown and the social relationships that play a huge part in combatting loneliness. Just as importantly, access to digital job seeking and training will be vital as our residents deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Being able to get online also means our residents can use our ‘My Housing Solutions’ portal. This enables them to carry out regular tasks, such as paying rent or registering a repair, 24 hours a day with no physical contact.
Bespoke Alexa skills
Complementing this is our dedicated Amazon Alexa Skill tool which we launched earlier this year. We’ve developed it with the specific needs of our residents in mind, allowing them to access our portal through voice activation. Many have grown to love it, including one resident who said, “Sometimes picking up the phone is awkward when cooking dinner or the children are running around the house – it’s really easy to connect with Housing Solutions to book appointments or check rent statements.”
We have also improved our chatbot so that it can answer residents’ concerns better and help them find answers online, reducing the demands on our customer service staff. The chatbot now has 1,200 interactions a month and growing.
Of course, our residents aren’t a homogenous group. They each have different needs and different circumstances to cope with. Some are very digitally savvy while others are less comfortable adopting new technology. That’s why a crucial part of our digital strategy is building awareness among our community. In many cases, it is those who are least likely to use a tool such as Alexa Skill without support, such as the elderly, who would benefit the most from what is has to offer.
Getting to know you…
Before the pandemic, we regularly ran events and roadshows to grow awareness and will do so again when we can. We also hold a ‘get to know you day’ each year – we close all our offices so that every member of staff, including me, can knock on residents’ doors and help them register for our portal and answer their tech-related questions.
Right now, 51 per cent of our tenants have a live account for our portal and since coronavirus took hold, there has been a 150 per cent rise in usage. More than 1,000 residents check their account at least once a month and since April we’ve collected £1.3 million online compared to £690,000 in the same period last year.
For a long time, we’ve seen digital as a real opportunity to provide better services and it’s something I’ve been keen to push since I became chief executive. The pandemic has increased the pace of change and we expect the rise in engagement during lockdown to continue. But that’s only because the tools we’ve developed are easy to use and address the needs of our residents. For example, we’ve analysed the calls that come into our contact centre to find common themes and used them to refine our online offering.
Analogue and digital engagement
I’m really proud of the progress we’ve made. But there’s still more to be done; after all, 49 per cent of tenants don’t a live account. That’s why the analogue side of our initiative, supporting people door-to-door, is so important and a critical element to any digital project implemented by a housing association. We must cater for the hardest to reach people.
Of course, there will be some people who won’t be able to use our digital services, but the more people who do, the more physical resources we’ll have available to help those that can’t.
Everything we do is designed to benefit our residents. But from an organisational perspective, the cost savings of adopting a digital approach are clearly welcome as we weather the current economic uncertainty. For example, every telephone call one of our customer service team answers costs £8, which means our Alexa Skill will soon pay for itself. And by digitising 75 per cent of our transactions we’ve reduced our monthly printing costs by the same percentage.
Any savings we make equals more money we can invest in the homes of our residents. Ultimately, they are our priority, which is why we’re aiming to create a digital service with a human touch.
Orla Gallagher is the chief executive of Housing Solutions.