Housing Technology interviewed experts on omni-channel communications from Arena Partnership, Mplsystems and Omfax about how housing providers can use integrated communications to improve their operational performance and reduce their costs at the same time as providing better and personalised services to tenants.
Multi-channel or omni-channel?
It is first worth distinguishing between multi-channel and omni-channel communications because the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably when they are reasonably distinct. Multi-channel communications simply means offering tenants a variety of ways to contact their housing provider, such as phone, email and web, social media. Omni-channel offers the same channels (sometimes more, sometimes fewer), but with the critical difference that all of the channels offer a consistent and integrated experience, with the tenant’s information, history, past contacts and queries visible across each and every channel.
Peter Graddon, the managing director of Omfax, said, “Simply having a multi-channel approach does not work. The housing sector has moved on from simply shouting down individual channels, such as web, phone or email, to ensuring consistency in our conversations. A successful omni-channel approach should mean that a tenant never has to repeat themselves to the landlord, no matter what communication channel they chose to use.”
Mplsystems’ CEO, Paul White, said, “Multi-channel refers to companies offering customers a choice of channels for customer service. Although adopting two or more channels, they are not necessarily focused on delivering a seamless or consistent message across multiple touch-points.
“Omni-channel communication refers to companies who also use multiple channels to engage with their customers but differentiate themselves by providing a consistent experience across all channels by integrating their technology into a single system. For example, this means that when a tenant calls the customer service centre to report a nuisance neighbour, the agent has full visibility of the tenant’s profile and can also see that they emailed about a problem with their roof two days ago and can therefore update them on how this is progressing.”
Drivers for change
As mentioned in the introduction to this article, the most common reasons for housing providers to open up new communications channels, especially online, email, chat and social media, are external drivers such as tenants’ demands and expectations and internal drivers such as cost savings and operational efficiencies.
Arena Partnership’s director, Alan Marshall, said, “On the one hand, tenants expect the same variety and sophistication of communication channels from their housing provider as they now routinely experience elsewhere. And on the other hand, housing providers have identified opportunities to save costs and improve services by offering alternatives to the old standards of post and phone.”
Mplsystems’ White said, “One of the most important drivers for multi- and omni-channel take-up is the widespread use of smartphones and the subsequent effect this has had on tenants’ demands. Smartphones offer instant access to multiple channels such as email, social and chat and allow them to contact their housing provider regardless of where they are or what time it is.
“The second driver is housing providers realising the operational efficiency of multi- and omni-channel communications and the impact this has on reducing service centre costs. Shifting the volume of calls to channels such as email, self-service or web chat results in shorter average handling times and increased agent productivity.”
Omfax’s Graddon sounded a note of caution and said, “While online engagement is always going to be cheaper than taking an office on the high street, we must make sure that communications channels are driven by tenants and not by housing providers on the basis of pure cost savings. The key to a successful omni-channel approach is getting the right blend of old and new technology, and ensuring that the same level of service is offered across the board. After all, the greatest driver in customer service is delivering a personalised response; the channel should be irrelevant.”
What do tenants want?
One of the starting points for introducing multi- and omni-channel communications is finding out what tenants want. For example, social media is very good for dealing with simple questions from tenants but less effective when dealing with complex issues around rent arrears or their eligibility for various benefits. This means that housing providers should ideally be able to match different types of communications with tenants’ channel preferences.
Marshall from Arena Partnership said, “The answer probably lies in defining a number of ‘packages’ and recording tenants’ preferences for these, rather than trying to capture every option for every potential communication. For example, defining a package where statutory communications are sent by post, general communications are by email and reminders are sent by SMS.
“However, most housing providers don’t know much about their tenants’ preference because either the ‘packages’ have not yet been defined and communicated to tenants, the method of recording preferences has not been established, or the systems are not yet in place to ensure communications then adhere to each tenant’s preferences.”
White from Mplsystems said, “A true omni-channel solution will be able to identify which channel a tenant is making an enquiry through and record this under their contact history. Once the enquiry has been dealt with, the agent can categorise the type of communication and this will be stored against the tenant’s profile. The organisation can then not only identify and report on individual customer preferences for different types of enquiry but also identify customer channel preferences on a larger scale across the business.
“It is important to note that channel preferences are very much dictated by past experience and how well the channels are promoted. Therefore, if a tenant uses the telephone for the majority of enquiries, it may not that they prefer this channel, it might mean that they were either not aware of or had a bad experience with another channel.”
Arena Partnership also pointed out that one of the most effective ways of finding out tenants’ preferences was to use other tenant interactions, such as repairs visits or rent arrears calls, to also find out and update their channel preferences, as long as the options are clearly defined and recording systems are in place.
With respect to then actually communicating with tenants according to their preferences, Marshall said, “For standard, regular communications, such as monthly rent statements or quarterly news magazines, this is relatively straightforward. The challenge is much greater for other communications; staff have to check preferences, select channels, segment lists and format messages into multiple versions which is complex and time-consuming without an automated system.”
Housing providers are often divided over the extent to which they should ‘nudge’ tenants towards lower-cost services, in much the same way that utilities and banks, for example, tend to make it very easy for customers to transact online but harder and more time-consuming to access the same service by phone or post. Housing providers would naturally prefer tenants to use services that cost less to run (online vs. bricks & mortar) but not at the expense of alienating them, so what’s the balance?
Mplsystems’s White said, “Telephone communication remains the most-used channel, but this is often because tenants are not aware that other channels are available and that they can be just as, if not more, effective. Therefore, housing providers should definitely be ‘nudging’ tenants towards these channels through the promotion of the benefits it would bring them, such as faster responses and no queues.
“Housing providers shouldn’t be worried about ‘nudging’ tenants towards these lower cost channels; as ‘generation Y’ becomes more influential, text-based channels such as email, social media and web chat are becoming more popular.”
Peter Graddon, managing director, Omfax’s Graddon said, “Any ‘nudge’ should come from the tenant, not the landlord. People are constantly embracing new ways of communicating, but we need to go at their pace. If we start pushing people towards new methods of communication, just because they are cost effective, we risk a drop in service.”
Measuring the benefits
Mplsystems’s White concluded, “There are definitely quantifiable benefits of omni-channel strategies. For example, one of our customers previously managed separate systems for its email and voice channels. After implementing an omni-channel solution, it dramatically reduced its email response time by three days and its call handling time by 30 per cent. Another customer integrated its web chat and telephone channels into a single system, with the result that it could handle a 34 per cent increase in customer contacts as well as improving its first-time call rate by 17 per cent.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Alan Marshall (Arena Partnership), Paul White (Mplsystems) and Peter Graddon (Omfax) for contributing to this article, with particular thanks to Arena Partnership for their help with some of the background material.