The introduction of legislation such as the welfare reform and work bill, the bedroom tax and universal credit has put huge pressure on housing providers’ finances and those of their tenants. That in turn has placed a premium on effective communication between the two groups in order to openly discuss the problems and find efficient ways of resolving them. Get this right and housing providers will drive up tenant satisfaction and ensure a regular inflow of rental income. As this article demonstrates, the latest customer experience and interaction management technology will be key in making this happen.
The recent introduction of the housing benefit size criteria, also known as the ‘bedroom tax’, seriously affected tenants, who saw their housing benefit limited by the government if their housing provider decided that they had a spare bedroom. But as public-sector cuts continue to bite, housing providers have also felt the pinch.
A recent blog from Cavan Doyle, product manager at information services company Experian, highlights the problems with the welfare reform and work bill. This bill will decrease rents in social housing in England by one per cent per year for four years from 2016, which is in turn expected to reduce average rents in the social housing sector by around 12 per cent by 2020 (based on current forecasts). This is a financial blow to housing providers, compounded by the complex challenges set in train by universal credit.
These changes put the relationship between housing providers and their tenants under increasing pressure, and that’s especially true of universal credit. Many tenants already find it difficult to pay their rent on time, but the onus is now on housing providers to start chasing them for payments. Rent arrears are likely to rise, leading to an increase in contact centre staff and the volume of associated resources providers need to deal with the issues.
Opening up new channels
At the same time, the pressure tenants are under is already leading to an increase in the volume of calls into contact centres and a growing push for face-to-face meetings to discuss problems. It’s a situation that is unsustainable financially for most housing providers. They need to find a more efficient approach that maintains channels of communications but that also enables them to keep their tenants happy.
One of the ways they can do this is by broadening the range of communications, and in particular the self-service channels that they offer tenants. Broadacres Housing, an Enghouse Interactive customer, understands that giving tenants choice, convenience and control in the way that they contact them is vital.
Rebecca Welburn, communications manager, Broadacres Housing, said, “We were aware that tenants were choosing various channels to contact us and this trend has been accelerating over time. New digital communications methods like email and social media are becoming more popular and increasingly rivalling the more traditional use of fixed line telephony.”
Another customer, EMH Group, has added multi-channel capabilities. Inbound and outbound voice calls and emails are all widely used and texting is also used to communicate updates, relevant news or details about upcoming events.
It is certainly true that following the introduction of universal credit in particular, outbound texts can be invaluable in alerting tenants as to when their next rent payment is due. It is also fair to say that most housing providers appreciate that good practice in this area often comes down to offering as wide a range of communications channels as possible.
Self-service to the fore
In line with this openness to tenant preferences, housing providers should, where possible, be encouraging their tenants to self-serve through everything from intelligent voice-based IVR to mobile apps and online forums. Using a blend of speech recognition and touch-tone techniques, the best IVR systems can expedite both simple and complex requests quickly and cost-effectively without using up any agent time. In the social housing context, they can be linked to online payment portals to facilitate payment over the internet rather than over the phone, if that’s the tenant’s preferred option. And with growing numbers of tenants now having smartphones and tablets, housing providers also need to consider offering mobile IVR applications.
But a word of caution here – housing providers need to be cautious about moving too far down the self-service route. The government has been pushing the ‘digital by default’ message for some years and universal credit is reportedly the first digital by default service (the government is aiming for 80 per cent of applications for the benefit to be made online by 2017). However, recent figures indicate that some 4.1 million UK adults in social housing have never been online.
Given these challenges, it’s clear that housing providers need to offer their tenants a choice of interaction methods. They need to encourage those customers who are digitally-savvy to communicate online and through self-service methods but they also need to put resources behind traditional voice-based communications for tenants who are more familiar with this approach.
Building a connected organisation
Of course, in order to ensure they can deliver all of this multi-channel capability, housing providers need to have the right infrastructure. At the front end, that means they need to provide contact centre agents with a consistent user interface capable of handling all aspects of omni-channel communications while ensuring they have visibility into all of their interactions.
Having the tools they need on a single desktop means that agents can manage all tenants’ interactions as if they were the same; for example, there should be no need to switch to a different interface for call handling, emails or webchat. It’s easy for agents to use, and the whole process is more streamlined and efficient, and agent productivity goes up.
However, this kind of approach also needs to provide a connection with back-office systems to ensure tenants’ queries are resolved efficiently. Housing providers should provide one simple contact centre number and back that up with streamlined contact centre routing to subject matter experts who are equipped with the knowledge to deal with queries, no matter what means of contact has been used. The ‘presence’ capabilities of unified communications technologies, such as Skype for Business, can be critical here, in enabling these cross-organisation connections to bring in expert resources on demand.
Delivering seamless cross-organisation connectivity is also important when it comes to bringing in CRM systems to improve productivity and reduce call times and costs. Ultimately, it’s another example of the benefits that the closer integration of technology can bring to housing providers. The set-up of the tenant-facing technology infrastructure at EMH Group is a case in point. Here, the Enghouse Interactive Communications Center (EICC) features complete computer-telephony integration (CTI) to the CRM solution that the group has in place. Agents using EICC can view relevant pop-ups of information about the caller’s previous contact history during the call-handling process.
David Morris, head of customer service, EMH Homes (part of EMH Group), said, “It’s a compelling example of how our contact centre technology, with the EICC solution at its heart, can be key in bringing benefits to tenants. You don’t want your staff to have to use multiple applications; it’s confusing for them and inefficient. Instead, use CTI to reduce the number of screens and applications your advisors need and you’ll see productivity and efficiency benefits.”
Focus on quality to deliver results
But, however efficient and effective the systems and solutions are, housing providers won’t be able to deliver the level of customer interaction needed without closely monitoring agent performance.
Part of this is about collecting relevant information and turning it into intelligence to help inform the future customer engagement process. As David Morris and his colleague, Helen Bradford, head of ICT at EMH Group, said recently. “It’s a good idea to develop a dedicated customer experience team that can act as a central intelligence hub and manage all types of feedback coming into the organisation, such as compliments, complaints, or general feedback through surveys. With a customer experience team, you can use the captured information to learn lessons from your mistakes and make sure you don’t repeat them. Having a central resource in place also makes it easier for you to create an escalation process in the event that issues or problems require urgent attention or need rapid resolution.”
Delivering quality must, however, also be about measuring agent performance not only in terms of ensuring compliance with industry regulations but also for tracking and maintaining the quality of agent interactions.
Historically, much of this analysis has been done after the fact. The introduction of real-time speech analytics has changed this and brought some specific benefits for housing providers. The game changer is the ability to deliver instant feedback to agents and improve the quality of the experience for tenants there and then.
In the current environment, the use of soft evaluators (in effect, assessing the emotion in any interaction) is also invaluable. With debt levels on the rise and the new universal credit arrangements adding to the pressure on tenants, housing providers can benefit from using soft evaluators, when chasing payments, to identify which questions cause stress levels to soar most and to ensure that they treat tenants fairly and are always sensitive to their needs.
Implementing all of the above solutions has the potential to bring significant benefits but housing providers are also increasingly seeing the benefits of moving from a purely on-premise approach to one more focused on the cloud.
Positive future ahead
As this article demonstrates, technology can be brought to bear in delivering a best practice approach for housing providers that enables them to overcome their financial and regulatory challenges, build more positive relationships with tenants and face the future with confidence.
Jeremy Payne is the international VP of marketing at Enghouse Interactive.