I don’t mean financially of course… you don’t owe them money (at least I hope not). I mean you owe your tenants a responsibility on your part to be efficient when dealing with their tenancies. A responsibility to maintain appropriate levels of modern technology to smooth the processing of interactions and make relevant data easily accessible while also conforming to modern security and privacy protocols.
But you also owe it to your tenants to let them communicate the way that they are happiest doing so. For a minority, that will always be face-to-face meetings, written documents and phone calls, but the majority of them want to interact quickly, cleanly and conveniently via clever apps on their phone.
If you were a tenant of the housing provider or local authority that you work for, what would you like to ask your landlord? What would you like to know that most regular tenants don’t know or don’t ask about? Whatever it is, that’s exactly what you should be making available to your tenants today, or at least showing them where they can easily find that information. ‘Fit for Human Habitation’ and FoI requests are only going to increase, so it’s time to make life easier for you and your tenants.
Communication, communication, communication…
I’m a firm believer that there is no problem in the world that can’t be eased a little by better or more frequent communication.
It’s true that some tenants have a ‘them and us’ approach to their tenancy, as do some housing providers. So anything we can do to enhance the frequency and quality of communication can only be a good thing.
Now you can’t afford to phone each tenant daily, but you could let technology take the strain, in particular technology that your tenants have already invested in and use daily. A good tenant app must have messaging systems that allow you to push communications to tenants at will, about any subject – community, lockdown, the weather, repairs, local bus services, anything. And I do mean daily. If they don’t like it, they will soon let you know, but more than likely they will occasionally respond with questions or suggestions. Next thing you know you’re both starting to like each other – happy days…
Tenants actually want to help. Why? Put simply, because it makes their lives easier if they can pull relevant data (i.e. their own data) on demand into their lives, in settings and at times of their choosing. They don’t want to wait; as consumers they aren’t used to waiting and they simply won’t wait. If a tenant feels threatened by an emergency repair, they want to take control by reporting it immediately and feel sure that they are being heard. A smartphone combined with powerful apps can give them that reassurance.
Mobile has won… smartphones have a 98 per cent household penetration in the UK.
Frustration and anger
Imagine 50 tenants on an estate witnessing a nasty ASB incident late on a Saturday night (fear). What can they do? Unless their housing provider has full 24/7 coverage, they may have to wait until the next day or even Monday morning before they can report the issue (frustration). Multiple tenant calls may mean delays in getting through to the housing provider’s call centre (anger). Overall, the result is a sense of not being in control, a sense that things should be better and easier.
Now imagine that your tenants have a powerful app to report the incident as it’s happening, attach pictures or video clips, and know that other tenants are also reporting it. Imagine their sense of relief in getting their housing provider’s immediate acknowledgement of receipt, followed by a reassuring message sent just to that estate or community, outlining what action will be taken. An app won’t stop antisocial behaviour, but it can give tenants a sense of having some element of control, a sense of ‘voice’.
The same applies for reporting repairs, paying rent or scheduling visits. The Optus Homes app is fully integrated into most housing providers’ existing systems and allows tenants to view their rent histories, schedule and confirm repairs visits, pay their rent and exercise a strong community voice by pushing messages and opinions back to their housing provider. The app allows housing providers to create surveys on any topic in a matter of minutes (furlough, mental health, rent arrears, local amenities… anything).
Incentivise your tenants
The time will come when housing providers will actively offer discounts on rent or arrears in exchange for signing up to such an app.
Why? Because not only will it result in happier tenants who feel more in control, but also because the efficiencies for housing providers will be significant, with real commercial benefits.
How many repair reports does your organisation receive every day or each week? And how many external phone calls are associated with each repair? Probably two or three, with each call costing your organisation about £5.
Now consider the benefits of a happier tenant reporting the repair and being able to schedule a repair visit via an app that is linked to both your housing management system and your repairs scheduling system. Zero phone calls. That immediately achieves significant cost savings and delivers valuable efficiencies.
85 per cent of all online activity from smartphones is via apps, not browsers.
Small and large housing providers
There are a variety of app solutions available to housing providers; they generally fall in to two broad categories:
Generic branded apps, such as Empient, are plug-and-play solutions requiring no integration and developed especially for smaller housing providers. Out-of-the-box features will typically include repairs, ASB reporting, messaging, rent payment, landlord surveys and perhaps an optional chatbot.
Bespoke branded and more powerful apps, such as Optus Homes, that are fully integrated with larger housing providers’ existing IT systems. Additional features would usually include access to historic data (e.g. rent) and scheduling processes, plus perhaps sentiment analysis for tenants’ messages.
Nowadays, both categories of app are generally available via software-as-a-service commercial models, avoiding the need for any capital outlay or lengthy development programmes. It’s always strongly advisable to insist on a free try-before-you-buy trial and test it with a subset of tenants to judge the tone of message and your preferred features before a full roll-out.
It’s equally important that your app’s design is modern and intuitive. Consumers judge all new apps by the standards of the 10 most popular apps (Facebook, Uber, Netflix, Instagram and so on); that shouldn’t be the case, but it is. It’s therefore really important that your chosen app is designed with tenants in mind. After all, it’s not about you or your preferences – it’s all about them, your tenants.
Don’t wait for your tenants
As I write, Northern Ireland, Wales and large parts of England and Scotland are all back in lockdown. Repeated cycles of lockdown-and-release look likely right through the winter and beyond. But even after that, life for many tenants will never go back to a pre-coronavirus ‘normal’. Now is the best possible time to listen to their voices.
I’ve spoken to many housing providers over the past 12 months, and I often hear the view that tenants are slow or reluctant to communicate. No doubt that’s true in some or even many cases, but housing providers really should take the initiative.
Encourage communication and dialogue, and if your old methods aren’t working, perhaps it’s time to try something new? Try messaging tenants direct to their smartphone, with messages that are tailored for them. It worked for Donald Trump, so why not give it a try?
Gerry Kelly is the CEO of Optus Homes.