As the government puts more and more of its essential services online, many housing providers are recognising that tenants don’t just want access to the internet, they need it.
While digital inclusion poses many challenges to housing providers, it also offers many opportunities in terms of increasing efficiency through channel shifting, improving customer service, and boosting workforce efficiency and productivity. However, this means that housing providers must consider digital inclusion as part of their overall digital strategy – not in isolation.
Taking a lead from the private sector
Today, most of us shop online at least some of the time and many of us pay our bills online and use other online services on a regular basis. This hasn’t happened by accident. For the past ten years, major retailers, energy companies and others have had a deliberate strategy to ‘channel shift’ us away from interacting face-to-face or over the phone towards interacting via the internet. They’ve made it safe, easy, more convenient and very often less expensive to shop and use other services online. This has achieved huge cost saving benefits for these companies, but the majority of customers have gained a better service too.
At the moment, many housing providers operate large contact centres that process a variety of tenant questions and queries. Very often, contact centre staff become engaged in lengthy and costly phone calls that could be dealt with far more effectively and efficiently if they could communicate online. However, many tenants can’t do this because they’re not online and those who are might not always get the quick response they’re looking for or expect when their housing provider asks them to get in touch via Facebook, Twitter or email.
Cost vs. benefit
There’s no denying that channel shifting is going to cost money. At first, this will mean spending money on streamlining back-office services so that any processes being moved online, such as fault reporting, are robust and fit for purpose. Housing providers will need to look at the skills of their contact centre staff. Managing a ‘blended queue’ of inbound requests, via text, social media, web chat and phone, is a real skill and will require an investment in training and staff support. Many will also need to review their contact centre processes and response time, putting service level agreements in place to ensure customers get the responses they expect.
Additionally, they’ll need to invest in the latest contact centre technology and look at how tenants experience and navigate their web pages. The user ‘journey’ through a site is now all-important and must integrate closely with its customer contact strategy. For example, a website must clearly set out where and how a tenant can pay a bill, report a fault or make an enquiry, and that tenant must know that their query is being dealt with. However, all of these challenges have been met by the private sector and are today leading to considerable efficiencies. Housing providers and their tenants can, and should, benefit too.
Wi-fi enabling a building doesn’t just benefit the tenants, it can have huge knock-on advantages for the housing provider itself. Regardless of where a housing provider chooses to procure it from, with wi-fi comes efficiency.
At BT, the work of our telecoms engineers is portioned out over wi-fi wherever they are in the country; this prevents unnecessary travel and makes them far more efficient. Housing providers are no different, as they often employ large mobile maintenance workforces that look after properties over wide areas. If those teams can be made more efficient through effective workforce management solutions delivered over wi-fi then the housing provider receives better value from these teams.
Additionally, if a maintenance engineer has access to wi-fi they can do more when they’re on site. They can download report forms or take payments in real time. Staff can take tenant signatures immediately and load them up to a central system – all this would make them far more streamlined and efficient.
Where to start?
I know that many housing providers want to help with the government’s push towards digital inclusion and are aware of the huge benefits to tenants. I also know that many are considering the advantages of channel shifting and want to increase the productivity of their remote workforces.
However, savings though channel shifting will never be fully realised if tenants are not online and if web pages do not give the tenant an effective user experience.
An all-singing, all-dancing website will not work alone without an effective contact centre backing it up and users will not be pushed to communicate via Twitter, Facebook and email if they are not responded to within a time that they consider acceptable. Additionally, workforces will not be as efficient as they could be if they don’t have easy access to wi-fi.
All these factors are inter-related, but anything is possible, and the starting point for me is to have an integrated digital strategy.
Natasha Clough is head of business development for social housing and digital inclusion at BT Business.