Housing providers are increasing talking about adopting a multi-channel communications strategy, but how should it be done, what are the benefits to tenants and housing providers, and are the IT suppliers ready with the right solutions? Housing Technology interviewed a panel of multi-channel experts to find out their views.
Most housing providers already have multiple ways to communicate with their tenants and most tenants have a choice of how they contact their housing providers, such as by post, email, online or by telephone. However, the ‘Holy Grail’ of multi-channel communications (MCC) is to not integrate their existing channels but also offer new channels such as apps, text and social media.
Alison Davies, group change programme manager at GreenSquare Group, said, “For us, MCC is a transformation agenda which will drive an increasing use of new platforms and devices to deliver services and information to our residents. As a Universal Credit pilot, traffic into our organisation has increased so we need to exploit the potential of MCC to service this growth in demand.
“Routine housing services therefore need to be delivered using low cost, accessible and easy to use platforms so that we can focus our premium contact methods to support specific tenant groups.”
Mike Eckersley, a senior consultant at Capita, added, “MCC is the ability for a housing provider to communicate with its tenants through whichever medium they prefer – whether that’s post, email, telephone or Twitter – and clearly the more channels that an organisation opens up, the more choice its tenants have.”
A concise definition of MCC was provided by Paul Miller, head of contact centre at PCMS Group, who said, “It’s about providing tenants with a ‘Martini’ service – any time, any place, anywhere.”
Adding new channels, such as social media or mobile apps, is relatively easy to do. The difficulties lie in joining up all of the channels so that all communications are visible and actionable from any channel, regardless of from which channel the query or complaint originated. Furthermore, MCC isn’t a standalone technology infrastructure; to work successfully, it must have close integration with other business systems.
Paul Swannell, sales manager for social housing in Ciber UK’s SAP practice, said, “As well as integrating communications across channels, MCC itself should be linked to other business systems such as repairs and maintenance systems. Moving to this ‘single business platform’ approach is the most efficient means of achieving two-way communication of requests, updates and outcomes between the tenant and housing provider.”
The importance of viewing MCC as integrated part of a housing provider’s technology and business infrastructure was echoed by Rob Fletcher, group head of ICT at GreenSquare. He said, “Our MCC solution needs to be delivered through a single platform and a single user interface, making it easy to deliver the same solution to any device. However, the key point is that MCC should be integrated with back office, call centre and housing management systems. Without this, MCC doesn’t get off the ground.”
Eckersley added, “The most important technical implication is being able to manage the inbound and outbound contacts effectively – it is one thing to open up all the available channels, but quite another to ensure that contacts on these channels are automatically dealt with and fed into the correct workflows within the organisation. In essence, this means a multimedia call-centre solution which ‘receives’ and assigns the contacts to the relevant agent, alongside a CRM system to manage the workflows and responses.”
Benefits to your tenants
For tenants, MCC means more choice, both in terms of which channels they choose to use and when they contact their housing providers, faster responses and problem resolutions and, in many cases, more opportunities to ‘self-serve’ so they become less reliant on their housing provider.
Swannell said, “When MCC is effectively integrated with tenant history, preferences and data analytics, it has the potential to truly impress tenants with the timeliness and relevance of the responses and information they receive. Furthermore, when MCC is fully integrated with back-office systems, tenants will be absolutely delighted to find that an engineer has already fixed the faulty lift that they reported the night before via a mobile app.”
Chris Potter, director of Uniclass for ROCC Computers, added, “MCC gives tenants additional methods to communicate with their housing provider, which saves time and money for tenants in terms of travel time and expenses. In addition, MCC improves tenant access and supports housing providers’ digital inclusion agendas.”
Furthermore, universal credit and welfare reform will significantly change how tenants engage with their housing provider. As Eckersley from Capita said, ““As the impact of welfare reform hits, the effect on telephone contact is likely to be heavy, so tenants able to bypass this using new channels will be at an advantage.”
Advantages of MCC to housing providers
The main advantages to housing providers of implementing MCC are to increase efficiency, reduce costs and increase tenant satisfaction.
Eckersley explained, “The main advantages are business-related; a true MCC strategy will enable more efficient handling of tenant communications and it will streamline contact management activities. Efficiencies will also be made through operational staff always having access to the latest chapter of the tenant’s story – whatever channel that came though. Up to date and accurate information means less repeated work, fewer missed appointments and fewer missed opportunities.”
Mitesh Patel, managing director of Fifosys, said, “From a service point of view, MCC enables better communication with tenants, and these multiple touch-points can drive engagement and activity across the tenant community. But the approach also brings benefits to the wider community. It is not uncommon for new property developments to encounter resistance from the local community when they are first introduced – but multi-channel communication provides a powerful platform for community engagement.”
Miller added, “Social media and email channels can be far more efficient to run than traditional call centres – one person can handle multiple conversations. At the same time, a far greater benefit may be the ability to communicate personally with an individual through their mobile device or personal email address. There is an opportunity to build relationships with individual tenants which will not only improve satisfaction but also help with revenue protection.”
Which channels first?
Having decided to adopt MCC, one of the first steps for a housing provider is to establish which channels it wants to operate, and the only sensible of way of doing so is to ask its tenants. However, this approach should come with the caveat that as many tenants may not use or even be aware of things like mobile apps or social media, they may need additional information and education before they can make full-informed decisions.
Miller from PCMS said, “Anything which is channel-related must be tenant-led. It should be possible to identify the priority of channels to be implemented but also the times that they should be available and the services which should be provided. Successful implementations of MCC are always based on providing choice, not forcing tenants to change.”
Ciber UK’s Swannell added, “There are two aspects to this: first, find out what channels your tenants want to use; second, determine which channels you are technically and operationally ready for. The launch of an ineffective channel will create dissatisfied tenants and an increased burden on the contact centre.”
Code once, use many times
When implementing MCC, housing providers have the choice of either developing dedicated applications for each channel or using tools such as HTML5 to ‘code once, use many times’ across the various channels. While the adoption of HTML5 and similar development tools is relatively recent, research firm Gartner expects more than half of all mobile apps deployed by 2016 will be based on HTML5.
Swannell said, “The merits of developing applications per channel can seem attractive, but caution is required due to the cost of ownership and siloed solutions. ‘Code once’ means just that, providing applications that can run on any operating system and mobile device, and HTML5 is a cost effective way to deliver a consistent look and feel across relevant channels. Alternatively a mobile platform offers a more advanced solution, simplifying cross-device development without forcing a one-size-fits-all approach.
Patel from Fifosys added, “The advantage is you don’t just develop applications for each channel. You plan for a single, centralised source of information that is accessible from any device, but brought together into a portal.”
There was additional support for HTML5 from ROCC’s Potter who said, “The merits of developing in a web application architecture using HTML5 far outweigh the approach of developing specific applications for each channel. Modern web application development results in an excellent user experience and offline capabilities are provided using browser caching so it doesn’t matter if the mobile signal drops out.”
Hype or reality?
For all the benefits of MCC to tenants and housing providers alike, opinion seems to be divided regarding whether MCC systems are properly ready yet.
Greensquare’s Fletcher said, “Our vision for MCC is way beyond what the IT suppliers seem to be providing at the moment. The end-to-end technical ecosystem simply doesn’t appear to be available to deliver what we want. Vendors talk a lot about multi-channel benefits but are very silent on how this is delivered as a coherent solution. Much of the integration between systems, including CRM and housing systems, is at best patchy or even completely missing.”
Miller added, “Overall the leading solutions do exactly what they promise; they make handling communications across multiple channels more efficient. However the initial outlay for true multi-channel packages is high and they generally aim at managing inbound and outbound telephone calls, email, SMS and social media through Twitter and Facebook.
“However, there will be a significant amount of work to integrate them with housing management systems and also to integrate channels such as post and emerging channels subsequently.”
On a more positive note, Patel said, “MCC is a reality and in fact, the solutions are ahead of the marketing hype. The new East Village community that we’re involved in shows that it’s already happening.”
Housing Technology would to thank Mike Eckersley (Capita), Paul Swannell (Ciber UK), Mitesh Patel (Fifosys), Alison Davies and Rob Fletcher (GreenSquare), Paul Miller (PCMS Group) and Chris Potter (ROCC Computers) for contributing to this article.