The UK housing market crisis has left millions of Britons unable to buy a home. The cost of the average house rose by a further 7.2 per cent last year, and while market predictions foresee some stabilisation in the coming years, it will do little to mend a sector which the government calls “broken”.
The housing white paper, unveiled in February, announced the government’s intention to continue creating affordable housing in a bid to provide some relief. Such measures certainly help, but meanwhile, the number of people living in rented accommodation is growing year on year, with 4.1 million people across England and Wales now living in social housing.
As the number of tenants rise, so too do the expectations of renters, whether in social housing or the private rented sector. However, as customer demands grow so do the opportunities to disappoint. This presents a key challenge for housing providers in adapting to take on this challenge.
The frustrations of tenants
Engage’s own research on the rental market found that half (49 per cent) of renters living in properties across the UK have cited poor landlord communications, not being treated as a customer, and the time it takes to get property issues resolved as their top irritations.
In any sector, the main fear in such a scenario would be a loss of custom and this concern is important to the rental market too. After all, unhappy tenants are quicker to move on, which heightens the chances of a property becoming empty, leaving the housing provider out of pocket.
However for the rental sector, there are even more consequences, as frustrated tenants can potentially become less likely to pay on time, or even report problems with the property, leading them to become bigger issues (and therefore more expensive to fix).
For any organisation, customer service is paramount, but this is an area in which the rental sector is lagging behind almost every other sector. One key reason for this is the lack of self-service provision, which has become an integral offering in many other sectors.
Statistics from Forrester show 70 per cent of consumers prefer to use a company’s website to find answers to their questions themselves. It’s therefore perhaps no wonder research analysts herald self-service as the future of customer service; Gartner predicts that by 2020, 85 per cent of a customer’s relationship with a business will not involve interacting with a human.
In today’s digitally-connected age, consumers are used to accessing the services they want when they want them. Customer-facing sectors, such as retailers and banks, are therefore quickly adopting user-centric technology to meet the ever-growing demands of their customers. The housing market should be no exception. In the midst of the property crisis, renters demand high levels of customer service, not another reason to complain.
Serving the needs of the consumer is not the sole driver for the integration of self-service technology; it also enables organisations to support customers in the most time- and cost-efficient manner. Fundamentally, online self-service makes sense for all parties in any sector, and the housing sector is no different.
A shift in communication
Using self-service technology to create a shift in communication has the ability to enable housing providers to add value while improving service delivery. Simply put, self-service allows the communication between landlords and tenants to be empowered by providing them with all the information and support relevant to their home and neighbourhood.
A move to a new way of communicating doesn’t only serve the needs of tenants in terms of how they want to access services, but also enables significant efficiencies to be made for the organisation.
Meeting the needs and expectations of residents requires a lot of back-office work. As well as maintenance requests, time spent handling payments and payment enquiries can be a drain on customer-service resources. Yet the ever-increasing stress and pressure on in-house teams means the requirement to become more efficient is more important than ever before.
By automating time-consuming administrative processes and encouraging tenants to make rent payments and report repairs online, alongside many other transactions, housing providers can deliver faster, more efficient services. The end result is more satisfied tenants and time and money saved for the organisation.
A case in point
Soho Housing, which was set up in the early 1970s to improve local housing conditions, is an example of an organisation which integrated self-service technology to transform customer engagement. The housing provider, which today looks after over 800 homes, wanted to modernise its service offering and engage customers online.
After having seen many housing providers fail to deliver a successful self-service capability, the organisation conducted a series of workshops with managers, staff and customers to help to better understand incumbent practices.
While revealing that staff were very customer-focused, the research also uncovered a reliance on manual processes. As a result, a self-service portal was introduced as part of a digital modernisation strategy to provide key services online.
The portal now enables tenants to view and manage their rent payments and send repair and maintenance requests, while also creating targeted communications and resident-centric content to promote community engagement. Meanwhile Soho Housing can quickly and efficiently view information on its entire property portfolio, with data on everything from maintenance requests to rent arrears.
Take up on the self-service offering has been quick; 28 per cent of maintenance requests were made through the portal in the first six months of its launch, and this is forecast to increase.
Spotlight on the rental sector
The rental market is at a crossroads which has been fuelled by the housing crisis. As the number of tenants increases, so does their voice. That voice is already used to demanding more of the services they use in other parts of their daily lives, so it’s hardly surprising that the spotlight has also been turned to the rental sector.
It’s time for the housing sector to put customer service as their number one priority and the use of technology that will create a shift in communication channels with tenants is key to this.
Such a step change for service delivery is a fundamental part of the modernisation strategy of any housing association. Those who fail to adapt will be the ones who will continue to waste both time and money in the long run.
Peter Watson is a director of Engage Prop Tech.