In most markets, there is an increasing focus on the customer journey and experience. Housing providers are no different; their tenants need to be kept informed as well as invited to respond to a call for action – for example, a rent payment.
In trying to deliver a better customer experience, housing providers face two key challenges:
Do they have the back-office systems that manage data efficiently to allocate necessary costs and other information for specific customers?
Do these systems have the ability to generate customised and meaningful communications such as letters, statements, demands and emails that are not simply personal Word merge templates to help tenants clearly understand what is being communicated?
For example, take a rent and service charge statement, which is a statutory requirement with a level of financial detail that explains annual charges to the recipient. The actual charges are also compared to the previous year’s estimate, highlighting the variances which then need to be explained.
Many of the communications sent to tenants report the financial facts, with various table formats, typically built around templates merging in the financial data. If there are no charges then the table still shows the charge title, but no financial data, which simply creates ‘noise’ among the valuable information. The templates contain other information which is typically generic in content and style. Supplementary information is often provided by enclosing a generic leaflet or brochure which aims to cover all eventualities for the estates the housing provider is responsible for.
Why do they do this? Well, it’s seen as a low-cost option for something viewed as a necessary method of doing business. However, if viewed as an opportunity to improve the bottom-line by delivering an effective communications strategy, then such communications can start to become valuable assets.
With today’s digital technology, it’s possible to generate a document (physical or electronic) which is totally customised for each recipient. You can make it easy to understand, with good navigation using fonts, colours and layout containing only the information that is relevant to the tenant. It will conform to brand guidelines as well as providing the opportunity to inform tenants of activities related to them or their estate. The financial line-items are only displayed if there are relevant numbers, therefore any zeros and the associated descriptions are suppressed. Where there are variances for actuals against estimates, these are not only displayed numerically but can have associated explanations designed to be close to the numerical variance.
Any staff who are assigned to tenants or estates can have their photographs with biographies supported by contact details to help create some empathy with tenants. Developing documents in this way can change the dynamic of the tenants/housing provider relationship by demonstrating that you are delivering information specific to them; it’s not just a mass mailing information dump where they have to work hard to understand the contents or, worse still, they have to call you to explain it.
How is this done? First, there needs to be an assessment that the content information and associated data is available and in an accessible format to be used for building the content with business rules and logic. There then needs to be:
- A clear understanding from the various stakeholders across the business of what must be available to meet any regulatory requirements;
- Information which supports the financial data;
- Marketing communications as well as any informational content.
Having gathered the content requirements, the variations need to be understood so that the document framework is robust enough to consider the potential extremes of content as it ebbs and flows across pages. Once the content requirements are complete then the design of the document can take place while considering the cost implications for the various formats, such as A5 or A4, landscape or portrait, loose pages or booklet, bound long or short edge, print quality, and so on.
Inevitably, there is a process where the designs go through a number of iterations as clients start to see the documents shape up and the information becomes alive. Stakeholders start to have a common understanding of how customers will be communicated to, with the various elements effectively presented as a ‘story’. At all times in this process, there is a dialogue taking place with the development team to ensure that the design requirements can technically be reflected when building the system with business rules and logic.
Once the designs and variations in content are agreed, the development build can take place. One key aspect of this is to have a reasonable data ‘test pack’ which can test the variations in content – simple through to worst case scenarios. Again, a number of iterations and checks are carried out to ensure the rules and logic are applied as the business intended. A final end-to-end test plan is carried out from receipt of data through to output channel delivery. Final sign-off makes the system ready for deployment with live data.
Typically, the results manifest themselves in a number of ways:
- More cost-effective when considering the comparison of the total end-to-end costs and not just the cost of printing;
- An improved customer experience, reflected in a reduction in calls questioning the information being sent;
- Improvements in the business processes from the generation of data through to delivery to the tenants;
- An ongoing business process which provides the business with audit controls and the ability to be agile with the implementation of future changes in content.
Getting IT on board
What stops organisations from implementing such improvements? Sadly, the most common reason for not doing anything is that the business considers printed communications as a ‘necessary evil’. Often there is no single point of responsibility because there are various stakeholders for the content with different expectations. Costs for the end-to-end delivery are often dissipated across a number of budget holders, and therefore not identified as a single figure. One of the more significant and historic points is getting internal IT functions to deal with document changes. Quite often, these sort of requests take a lower priority in the world of IT, which frustrates the other parts of the business where the changes are regarded as more significant.
So, with a short-term focus by the business working with an external supplier that can bridge the gap between the various internal stakeholders, while working with IT to obtain the necessary data feeds, a long-term solution can be found which enhances the customer journey and experience, and delivers real bottom-line benefits.
James Shand is managing director of TriPartum.