Housing Technology interviewed customer experience, housing management and digital specialists from 8×8, Civica, Insite Energy, Made Tech, NEC Software Solutions, Plentific, Rapid IS and Tunstall Healthcare on how housing providers can develop self-service strategies in order to delight and empower tenants, improve contractors’ productivity and streamline their own operational processes for greater efficiency.
What makes a good self-service app or portal?
Civica’s product director, Helen Rogers, said, “A good self-service portal or app needs to be fast to deploy, simple to configure and easy to use. It also needs to be flexible to allow housing providers to add on extra services and must be closely linked to their back-office services.”
NEC Software Solutions’ director of housing, Trevor Hampton, said, “A good self-service app or portal is one that’s been co-designed with customers or, if that’s not possible, then at least there’s been enough testing done to make sure it meets customers’ needs and expectations.
“Sign-in should be simple and secure. People like sign-in credentials to include facial recognition or biometric options so they don’t have to remember passwords; offering these options can increase adoption and ongoing usage.”
8×8’s housing specialist, Sue Michaelwaite, said, “From a tenant’s perspective, the app or portal should solve their problem fast. And from a housing provider’s point of view, it should resolve and streamline problems without requiring a lot of technical or staff resources.”
Made Tech’s product manager, Chris Cottrell, said, “Self-service apps and portals need to be easy to find, highly accessible and inspire users’ trust that their data will be secure. When using these services, tenants and contractors must be able to achieve their goals in as few steps as possible, encouraging them to self-serve as much as possible.”
Insite Energy’s head of digital solutions, Ellie Blacklock, said, “Clarity of presentation and usability is fundamental. ‘Call to action’ buttons and navigation pointers should be displayed clearly, and instructional phrasing should be consistent with what users are familiar with from well-known consumer self-service platforms.”
Integrating self-service with business applications
Rapid IS’ rapid developer, Dagney Ellison, said, “The seamless integration of self-service apps and portals with housing providers’ existing enterprise solutions, such as their housing or finance management systems, enables real-time synchronisation of data across platforms. This prevents inconsistencies and allows tenants and contractors to view up-to-date information at all times. Behind the scenes, automated workflows can be set to trigger specific actions based on predefined events in order to enhance efficiency and responsiveness.”
Made Tech’s Cottrell said, “It’s less about integration and more about creating an end-to-end journey that is shaped around users’ needs and problems. Integration needs to have minimal friction for everyone involved and deliver just enough information in the right place and at the right time to enable users to make the best decisions. It should also require minimal upfront work and ongoing maintenance.”
8×8’s Michaelwaite said, “The massive benefit of self-service environments is that they can significantly reduce the amount duplicated data-entry and manual processing. And to work properly, self-service portals and apps heavily rely on their successful integration with in-house data sources, such as CRM, service desk, scheduling and housing management systems.
“The critical elements are ensuring that, firstly the portal or app has a single source of truth for each data source it uses, and secondly that there is a two-way flow of information between the portal or app and the data source to keep it up-to-date.”
App, portal or both?
Plentific’s global head of resident experience, Stephen Hall, said, “In our experience, apps and portals work in tandem as part of a complete suite of real-time features dedicated to improving residents’ experience and housing providers’ operational efficiency.
“At a minimum, housing providers should create self-service portals that can be used on any smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop PC; only having an app means that users can’t use temporary devices or shared computers. If you need to only choose one, go for a web-based portal. Native mobile apps are ‘nice to have’ and can provide additional functionalities such as biometrics, push notifications and offline tools.”
Civica’s Rogers said, “Some business processes lend themselves well to the use of an app, such as high-volume, frequently-used and heavily-transactional services, but most other functions don’t necessarily require an app.”
Insite Energy’s Blacklock said, “Before developing our pre-pay web portal, we took advice from our developer on the best route to take. They said it would be cheaper to build and run a portal because a native app typically requires you to build and maintain both the app as well as the website, adding to the overall work.
“We saw this happen during lockdown when Ocado turned off its native app and directed its customers to the Ocado website so the retailer only had one platform to maintain.”
NEC’s Hampton said, “Housing providers should ideally offer an app as well as a portal so they can appeal to as many residents as possible. Only offering an app could exclude tenants without a smartphone or who find it hard to use one.
“Conversely, only offering a portal could put off tenants who prefer the easier sign-in and convenience of an app. Both scenarios could reduce the chance of engagement, so in my view it’s a no-brainer to offer both.”
Ellison from Rapid IS said, “While the line between mobile apps and web-based portals is becoming increasingly blurred, each tends towards its own area of usefulness determined by the most appropriate location to display particular information.
“In practice, apps tend to find their place in instances of collecting significantly detailed information such as during estate inspections or when conducting fire-safety surveys. In contrast, portals are useful for looking up a lot of data and submitting simple transactions, such as reporting fly-tipping or paying rent. Portals also have the benefit of being accessed easily through a QR code for simple, discrete and targeted transactions.”
Benefits to housing providers
Plentific’s Hall said, “The most important reason is that residents demand it. In other sectors, users expect to be able to interact online for most things, and that should also be true for social housing.
“Due to the ease of using portals, we’ve found that over 90 per cent of repairs are now booked via online portals, reducing calls to contact centre by well over 50 per cent and freeing up frontline staff. The uptake in self-service and reduction in calls produces a happier, more satisfied workforce who can focus on higher value tasks for residents.”
8×8’s Michaelwaite said, “The main benefits housing providers are looking for are the faster resolution of problems and enquiries, lower operational costs and, at a tangent, better staff experiences because they can be freed from handling routine issues. Through the integration of the data to provide self-service environments, repetitive tasks can be completed faster and with less human involvement, and reporting on KPIs is simplified.”
Civica’s Rogers said, “There are huge benefits of deploying self-service solutions to residents, including higher customer satisfaction, the provision of 24/7 services and having a single interface where customers can interact with their housing provider.
“The returns on investment in terms of lower support and staffing costs are also an advantage, particularly where workflow and case management software automate the processes between the self-service environment and housing providers’ back-office functions.”
NEC’s Hampton said, “The main benefit of apps and portals for housing providers is that they can take the pressure off their operational teams and contact centres by allowing residents to self-serve. Because most residents will be able to do this, it frees up a lot of time and creates efficiencies for housing staff so they can have time to deal with more complicated cases. Another advantage is higher customer satisfaction because residents appreciate the flexibility an app or portal offers.”
Tunstall Healthcare’s UK managing director, Gavin Bashar, said, “Apps and portals provide new forms of connectivity, forming a ‘glue’ that enables greater service integration. The use of digital technologies and greater data sharing will help to form the foundation for more collaborative working practices. These solutions also come at a relatively low cost, meaning that residents can stay at home for longer with an increased quality of life.”
More efficient contractors
Insite Energy’s Blacklock said, “From our experience, the benefits to housing contractors encompass everything from having greater visibility of a site, such as being able to see all completed and scheduled engineers’ jobs, to being able to manage outstanding tasks, such as requesting and cancelling jobs in real-time according to need and availability. These remove the need for the long email chains so often associated with these tasks, freeing up contractors’ time to get on with the tasks in hand and prepare for whatever’s on the horizon.”
Made Tech’s Cottrell said, “Digital services are an opportunity to elicit the right information in the right way, which can be beneficial for housing contractors, such as asking for specific location data to help them locate a communal repair. Digital services can also connect housing providers, contractors and tenants better to improve communications about repairs and in doing so increase tenants’ satisfaction and reduce unnecessary follow-up calls.”
Ellison from Rapid IS said, “Contractors also benefit from self-service apps/portals. Electronic work orders reduce delays while comprehensive job information ensures accuracy. The ability to upload photos and update the status of jobs offers transparent documentation of progress, including evidence of completed jobs.”
Satisfied & empowered tenants
Civica’s Rogers said, “Not all tenants want to make phone calls, see their housing provider face-to-face or send emails; they want to get answers or log problems as quickly as possible and at a time suited to them.
“Information regarding their property or account is available at any time, as well as the ability to book the service they need and track the status of any outstanding requests. Customers may also feel empowered by self-service, particularly because most services which we interact with in daily life are also available as a self-service option.”
NEC’s Hampton said, “For tenants, one of the main benefits of self-service environments is they can raise repairs, pay rent or inform about a change in circumstances at times to suit them. Self-service apps and portals also provide tenants with a record of historic contacts and actions for greater peace of mind and control.
“However, given the level of vulnerability and need in social housing, it’s essential that a self-service app or portal isn’t the only way for tenants to contact their housing provider; they should always have the option to speak to a housing officer if they need to.”
Ellison from Rapid IS said, “Tenants gain numerous advantages from self-service. Convenience is elevated because they can easily submit maintenance requests, make rent payments and access essential documents online. Timely notifications and updates ensure they are always in the loop, and the ability to address problems promptly empowers them in their living environment.”
Self-service pitfalls to avoid
Insite Energy’s Blacklock said, “The biggest pitfall is thinking that you need to do everything. When we first scoped our customer portal, we wrote a long list of functionalities we’d like to have. However, after comparing our ‘wants’ with what was offered to customers of mainstream utility providers, we reset our expectations and focused on the ‘must haves.’ Any added extras were then used as USPs to demonstrate our commitment to improving customer experience.”
8×8’s Michaelwaite said, “There are multiple issues to consider. Is the app or portal in the correct languages for the end-users and does it cater for people with visual, audio or physical limitations? Equally, does it work across a wide range of devices and connections? Has the app or portal been stress-tested for peaks in demand and access, how well does the system hold up, and is there a backup plan for redundancy? In addition to those technical and usability considerations, adoption should also be considered; what’s being done to encourage the adoption and ongoing usage of the self-service environment?”
Made Tech’s Cottrell said, “A pitfall to avoid is pursuing shiny trends such as IoT or AI without a clear user need. It’s crucial to never forget about accessibility and responsiveness or unnecessarily locking services behind logins.”
Plentific’s Hall said, “Self-service mistakes can begin during procurement, especially if the project budget isn’t shared, with potential suppliers bidding with the cheapest but not necessarily most suitable solution.
“Many housing providers have developed their own self-service solutions in-house. Compared with external solutions, these can result in higher costs, longer delivery times, less functionality and difficulties when mergers happen or staff leave. Once live with in-house projects, there can be a lack of ongoing project resources, with little or no marketing plan to customers and minimal resourcing for future enhancements.”
What about digitally-excluded users?
Civica’s Rogers said, “The provision of omni-channel solutions is important, but also allowing customers to engage without the need of a smartphone or laptop is just as important.”
8×8’s Michaelwaite said, “No-one should be left behind. Housing providers must accept that not everyone will want to use a portal or app. This means that while there should be regular encouragement towards using these services, there needs to be other forms of engagement, ranging from staffed phone lines to media engagement, posters, newsletters and whatever else a housing provider knows works for their local audiences.”
Made Tech’s Cottrell said, “By providing better designed digital services, more staff resources are available to help vulnerable and digitally-excluded users via non-digital channels.”
Plentific’s Hall said, “People shouldn’t be forced to use a particular channel. They should instead be given the choice, and if your digital offering is good enough, most users will naturally choose this for most transactions.”
Self-service adoption and usage
Ellison from Rapid IS said, “Driving tenant engagement necessitates having them as a key part of the development process. This includes consulting with them regularly and making their ideas a big part of any agile prototypes.
“As well as offering training sessions and tutorials to familiarise users with the self-service features, incentives such as rewards can motivate regular use, and incorporating users’ comments into improvements creates a positive feedback loop.”
NEC’s Hampton said, “A good way to encourage the adoption and regular use of self-service environments is to promote them on all customer communications; aside from the obvious channels, these should include bills, rent reminders, text messages or when a customer makes contact via another channel and not the app or portal.
“Demonstrating how customers are benefitting from using an app or portal can also help gain trust and encourage regular use. Highlight how repairs can be approved faster and customers can then track the status of the repair, or how tenants are finding it easier to keep on top of rental payments.
“Good take-up boils down to ensuring the app and portal work well and meet customers’ needs. If they don’t, they won’t be used or even given a second chance.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Sue Michaelwaite (8×8), Helen Rogers (Civica), Ellie Blacklock (Insite Energy), Chris Cottrell (Made Tech), Trevor Hampton (NEC Software Solutions), Stephen Hall (Plentific), Dagney Ellison (Rapid IS) and Gavin Bashar (Tunstall Healthcare) for their comments and editorial contributions to this article.