In recent projects, I have increasingly found that it’s all about revolutionising the self-service experience for residents. The majority of tenants, even elderly ones, are prepared to self-serve (or their offspring will quite often tackle it for them), and done well, it can be more convenient, faster and available 24/7 for all the bread-and-butter interactions.
It’s quite common for me to help housing providers as a ‘critical friend’ after they’ve chosen a solution, and that job might be to hold back the rutting supplier stags. Often there can be as much testosterone as the average National Trust deer park when different solutions need to be integrated effectively. Self-service is one such area, where efficient, reliable integration makes or breaks the customer experience.
The starting point with my clients is determining what they think good self-service looks like. This always generates some great ideas, from the staff and management I work with, based on real-world expectations.
In 2019, we should be able to provide a very expansive environment for self-serving customers and the outline below reflects what and how a number of my clients have achieved relatively quickly and painlessly, using a structured approach and the right partners:
- Quick and easy – Easy navigation for residents is essential so they can quickly carry out all of the most common tasks, such as checking balances, querying charges, obtaining statements, making frictionless payments, and setting up direct debits.
- Channel shift – Moving most of the booking of repairs, appointments setting and progress checking online (and away from the contact centre) is a key area for effective channel shift. If you think about the ease of ordering on, say, Amazon, we meet modern expectations; it’s one of the most obvious ‘low-hanging fruit’ transaction areas.
- Complaints & feedback – Most leading online service providers (retail, travel, banking and so on) make it easy for disputes to be resolved or the status of different activities to be checked online; your tenants would appreciate being able to do the same things in areas such as complaints, ASB and feedback.
- Electronic document management – These days, when we deal with our banks and insurers, we expect to access all our documents online, mostly through self-service (including uploading supporting documentation). All housing-related processes relying on up/downloading electronic documentation are ripe for consideration.
Now that we have a good idea of what’s desirable, we next need to have the individual systems, applications and modules ‘under the bonnet’ to actually integrate to.
However, a word of caution at this point. Many of us have back-office systems that were never fully implemented or integrated (it’s a little endemic in the housing sector, isn’t it?). Those legacy decisions can start to cause us some integration challenges with our ‘perfect’ self-service plans. Here’s some examples I’ve actually seen during the past year or so:
- Planned & cyclical modules never bought or implemented or simply not in use. This means that any views of repairs may only be reactive ones.
- Case management processes being completed on spreadsheets; clearly, these can’t be easily brought together or fed incidents from a sexy portal.
- No document management system or Sharepoint storage connected to the back-office systems, and exacerbated by randomly-named documents stored on network drives.
Richly functional self-service portals depend on having well-organised infrastructures underneath them. Where smooth integration is patchy, one solution is to add a data or transformation layer, such as Dynamics CRM, Firmstep or a data warehouse, to present a single source of unified data to the self-service portal. Interfacing options can largely depend on how modern your solutions are as well as your suppliers’ attitudes to open systems. In short, consider your integration options as early as possible.
There are two important questions for any supplier or project team proposing a self-service portal:
- How will you integrate with all of our back-office systems to ensure that we will have an efficient, fast and go-to experience that our tenants will actively want to use?
- Where have you done this successfully before, in an organisation with a similar mix of systems to us, and can we please see it?
Many suppliers’ offerings at sale are integrated using unicorns or fairy dust. It’s often my job during the initial procurement to sift the facts from the ‘smoke and mirrors’ and identify the risks of delivery delays or cost variances, both subjects that suppliers rarely mention.
- Where you have a number of suppliers involved (and possibly a digital partner, too), our advice is to contract just one of them to manage all of the relationships.
- Suppliers often, at best, play too much email ping-pong and, at worst, slug it out like rutting stags. Fence in the supplier stags from the very start, and contractually agree the scope, functionality and all integration points.
- Ensure clarifications are fully explored and costed correctly because change control later could be expensive.
- Communicate with your existing suppliers and determine any add-on costs for web-services, expertise or interface kits (in our experience, some suppliers may charge you as much as it costs for their own self-service portal, just to integrate it). These add-on costs should be included in the contract and schedule of deliverables.
- Once the boots hit the ground, make integration a priority and an early project stage; a lack of progress and planning within the first weeks will create problems later.
- Where issues do occur, it is particularly tempting for some suppliers to persuade you to consider ‘de-scoping’, resulting in new inefficient manual processes to the detriment of your overall self-service offering.
- An ‘all supplier lock-in’ is therefore a proven and logical way to tackle these challenges and resolve any issues.
- Don’t think about self-service in isolation; it needs to dovetail with your many existing (and a few future) systems in order to offer the very best to your customers.
- Invest in, improve or implement some elements of your back-office systems that may be needed as a precursor to pushing on with self-service.
- Probe your self-service partner or supplier to verify that all integration bases are covered and ascertain how your existing suppliers will support your integration options.
- Tie your suppliers in contractually to reduce your risk.
- Prioritise integration over many of the aesthetic qualities of self-service, getting the integration aspects moving fast and early.
- And finally, if needed, engage a critical friend to help.
Tony Smith blogs as ThatHousingITguy and is chief consultant at Acutance.