Let’s start with a search for affordable housing in the UK… the first thing you’ll find is uncertainty. We need more homes, and we needed them yesterday. But just building homes isn’t enough to solve the nation’s affordable housing crisis.
Millions of people already live in social housing, with a waiting list that’s twice as long. Tenants are expecting and demanding more, and prospective tenants even more so.
At the same time, we take certain social technologies for granted, such as Uber for a car, AirBnB for a holiday or Spotify for music on the go. Consumer technology is influencing tenants to seek streamlined, frictionless platforms that are as easy as they are intuitive.
The bad news? The sector can’t seem to transform itself quickly enough to build better customer experiences, with trust, accountability and transparency at the heart of them. What’s even more concerning is that, in a technology context, we are starting to talk about complex concepts, such as ‘community’ and ‘engagement’ as if they are easy to nail down, or worse, can be synthesised into a metric to sell the dream of a new product or service.
We need to rethink the community opportunity in housing and showcase a better role for technology to play in social design. We can build technology with communities, without needing to reduce ‘community’ to a buzzword. Here are some ways to accomplish this:
1. Learn from other sectors and disciplines
The retail sector is the benchmark for good customer experiences. It empowers customers by making them expect more, and housing providers can learn from some of the simple solutions it uses. Today, 72 per cent of retail customers expect a response to an issue within an hour. PwC says that the housing provider of 2020 will be working with digital ‘natives’, no more ‘traditionals’ or ‘transitionals’; natives that will expect their housing provider to put them first.
Imagine a framework within housing providers that could make this possible today – allow tenants to share simple, instant messages that get speedy support from an operations team. Apply it to a service request and you could have the beginnings of a self-service model on your hands.
More search platforms are also becoming streamlined in a Google-like manner. Amazon uses AI, much like Google’s ‘secret sauce’, to predict what you might be interested in. Then apply that same idea to a housing community, using rich data augmented by AI, to understand a resident’s pressing needs and the information they’re looking for.
2. Map customer journeys & pain points
One housing provider chose to give new residents a kettle when they moved in, but this received poor feedback. Why? When the customer journey was mapped, it was discovered that the residents would have preferred the money to have been spent on part-payment towards a removal service or food-vouchers to help them stock up their new home.
Now, the same housing provider has a starter pack including all the food and lodging essentials a typical resident might need. It’s far more successful because most social housing customers are just £150 away from being overdrawn. The right kind of help at their most vulnerable stages goes a long way. The housing sector is a treasure-trove of dynamic data on which better digital investments can be made to enable a better experience or to disrupt existing, inefficient processes such as repairs.
3. Build a disruptive framework for positive change
Think of digital as a change-enabler, not a technology. Instead, think of digital as a framework that makes things as easy as possible from a human perspective. We looked at the retail sector but customer experience in the public sector isn’t necessarily about exciting, shiny technologies; it’s about making vital interactions less painful. A web site that gives tenants the information they seek, in as few steps as possible is a good example of such a framework. You get what you came for and leave just as quickly – simple, streamlined and painless.
There’s debate about whether Uber has accomplished this. But Uber’s also done for logistics what wheels did for horses. Its on-demand, accountable and responsive nature is the ‘disruptive’ standard to beat. Social housing needs exactly this, both in terms of communicating with residents and delivering housing services.
If the Uber model was applied to how repairs and maintenance are handled in social housing, it would provide the opportunity to record every repair from ‘raised’ to ‘resolved’ through a simple interface. It would also be possible to weave affordability into the supply chain by streamlining the administrative burden and therefore reducing transactional costs.
4. React less and predict more
The oft-quoted ‘first-time fix’ mantra is vitally important but so is knowing which lift is going to break down next and fixing it before anyone gets stranded on the 15th floor. Reactive repairs impact the bottom line of every housing provider as well as customer satisfaction metrics, too.
Agile working capabilities woven into the IT fabric of housing operations will allow a housing portfolio’s entire data to be visible at the touch of a button, raising the possibility of identifying heat maps and patterns in repairs, maintenance and asset lifecycles, as well as the ability to automate many of the processes associated with raising, procuring and tracking of those repair and maintenance activities.
5. Leverage the community
The ethos of ‘build with, not for’ is that, when it comes to ‘socialtech’ or ‘proptech’, we must identify the real people our work is intended to benefit. Resident collaboration is the first step towards humanising technology and measuring engagement.
Understanding and leveraging a community’s underlying purpose is the first step, as shown by the small, day-to-day community interactions such as helping someone move in, taking in a neighbour’s parcel, joining the residents’ committee, sponsoring a walk or fixing someone’s tyre.
With repairs and communal maintenance, we can use this community-thinking to offer a better service to residents. A local tradesperson, who understands the community better than a ‘tier-one’ contractor, is invested in upkeep because they also call the same community home.
This also results in a more sustainable approach to procuring repairs, by localising them and giving small businesses the opportunity to grow and invest money back into those same communities. It all starts with the same basic tenet of lending a hand to your neighbours.
Shariq Kochhar is an editor for Plentific.