When it comes to technology, should you take a magpie approach, flocking to the latest bit of kit or perhaps an ostrich, head down and making do with inefficient systems? Northgate Public Services’ housing director, Roger Birkinshaw, explains why neither tactic will help address the current challenges in housing.
Time for a fresh approach
Rising demand for social housing, against the backdrop of welfare reform, is a constant concern for housing providers to address. Trying to support better tenant communications and engagement while making cost savings and improving tenant satisfaction is no mean feat.
What’s the answer, completely overhaul your existing systems or bolt on every single shiny new advance in technology to give the impression of innovation? This strategy is really only one for the true mavericks and potentially creates gross inefficiencies in excess of the status quo. But there is another way. Investing in new technology should not be regarded as a panacea. The best starting point is to look at existing systems: are you using them to their full capacity and are they flexible enough to expand to your future needs?
When looking at integrating new capabilities, it’s a great time to bring in your technology providers and ask them what your current systems are capable of. Is there functionality that isn’t being used? Make sure you have exhausted all possible options for your existing kit before you invest in anything new. Equally, if the existing system isn’t working how you want it to, then raise this issue with your providers. Good suppliers want to support you in helping you meet your business objectives, not instantly advise you to replace an entire system. Purchasing decisions should always be based on the outcomes you want to achieve.
So, what are the key areas housing providers are currently asking for in their systems?
An omni-channel future
Housing providers want to improve the tenant journey, including finding ways to give their tenants access to services at a time convenient for them, using the tools they are comfortable with.
To fully support this, systems need to allow for all information in an enquiry to be captured and viewed by the case worker. This prevents the tenant from having to provide the same information to different departments or repeat their query to multiple staff members.
With the right tools, housing providers can offer tenants a seamless 24/7 service, where they can resolve an enquiry or report a problem on a website, via an app, social media or live chat, freeing staff to help tenants who prefer a face-to-face experience.
Housing providers are focused on gaining a deeper understanding of their tenants’ needs, the issues they may be facing now and also predicting potential challenges in the future. In the absence of a crystal ball, providers are looking at how technology can support this aim.
With access to quality information through data analytics, staff can glean greater insights into what support citizens might need, allowing a shift from reactive to proactive service delivery. Knowing why someone always has repair issues or why they frequently struggle with rent arrears will help staff to take appropriate action to resolve issues sooner and prevent them from recurring.
Look beyond improving or upgrading
Taking the magpie approach to IT purchasing soon loses its shine if your systems can’t talk to one another.
Whether disparate systems and applications have evolved over many years, or they are the result of a more recent merger between two housing providers, they are unlikely to remain agile enough to address today’s sector challenges. And databases that don’t connect won’t allow you to deliver the responsive, engaging customer service you strive for.
By giving staff access to an integrated system, they will be better placed to work collaboratively and share information. This makes it easier for them to respond to tenants’ queries more efficiently or resolve problems when they arise.
Proactive tenant support
Data analytics continues to play a fundamental role in helping housing providers achieve the holy grail of responsive customer service, as more personalised and timely communication between the tenant and landlord becomes the expectation.
Providers can use these tools to highlight those tenants who are at risk of late rent payments, for example, and set the system up to send a polite reminder shortly before the rent is due. Or if data has been collated on the performance of a boiler, a tenant can be provided with advice to optimise their energy consumption.
Going back to basics
When budgets are being squeezed, housing providers need to take a close look at the situation before purchasing decisions are made. Will new technology drive improvements for the business and customers?
The only way to do this effectively is for suppliers and housing providers to work together on focusing on the changing needs and expectations of the customer.
Roger Birkinshaw is the housing director for Northgate Public Services.