I’ve worked in many sectors over the years, and none comprises a nicer bunch of people who take customer care as seriously as we do in social housing. Unfortunately, turning the sector’s good intentions into good practice is often constrained by budgets. But it’s not just about the money; technology is also an important element in providing great customer service.
Let’s imagine that we could afford to have contact centres staffed by well-trained agents, 24 hours a day. That scenario would spread the volume of calls and things would be better than they are right now for both tenants and staff, but would that still be good enough?
Chatbots give humans more time
There are thousands of tenants across the UK who don’t want or can’t to use the telephone to get the support they need. The reasons range from being unable to get to the phone while at work to hearing difficulties to other conditions such as autism spectrum disorder. There are also people who just don’t want to wait in a queue before they can speak to their landlord, especially if they’re upset or would prefer to self-serve. It’s equally true that not everyone will want to use new digital technologies such as portals and chatbots and prefer to use the phone.
Chatbots can make humans become better humans
It sounds paradoxical, but I propose that the use of chatbots will help customer services become more human. By training the bots to take care of the simple tasks and enable customers to serve themselves, the contact centre team has more time to spend with the customers that want to speak and those with the more complex problems. Their training can be focused towards things such as active listening, emotional intelligence, developing trust and dealing with complaints, leaving the bots to deal with the low-hanging fruit. In short, the humans can develop the skills that make humans unique.
We still need the humans
From experience, I know that when I go to the supermarket and I have just a few items in my basket, then going through the self-service checkout will be faster than the traditional checkout. On the other hand, if I have a full trolley (and the odd bottle of wine) then I’ll go to the old-school checkout because I know it will be easier and quicker. The machines are good at some things, but AI is still an emerging technology.
The ability to understand and deal with 100 per cent of the millions of ways a tenant might ask the thousands of housing-related question is still beyond even the most advanced chatbot. More importantly, there are certain things humans can do better than chatbots, such as dealing with debt advice or homelessness.
Even more important than that is the fact that some people want and need human interaction. Good customer care demands it and so we need to provide it. Chatbots can enable this by reducing call volumes and giving their human colleagues in customer care teams the time they need to have meaningful conversations with customers.
The question isn’t whether a chatbot can provide customer care as well as a human; it should be “what can a chatbot do to alleviate the pressure on the customer services team?”.
Scott Summers is the co-founder of Fuzzlab.