As a father of three children, I often find myself suggesting (or shouting), “walk before you can run”, usually to prevent accidents!
This saying is also relatable to software development and IT projects; I believe some housing providers make the mistake of trying to run before they can walk when it comes to customer portals or similar self-service software.
Endless features and requirements
I often read portal tender documents containing pages and pages of requirements that tend to be simply every idea ever mentioned in a planning meeting, rather than validated requirements through engagement with key stakeholders. Another common scenario is an organisation having a fully-functioning portal but delaying any launch (even a beta launch or any marketing) because they think that they need more features.
So what’s behind this ‘run’ (as opposed to ‘walk’) mentality? While I’m sure there are lots of organisation-specific reasons, I think the housing sector as a whole compares itself with the Amazons, Googles and online banks of the world and sees itself as being far behind. As a result, our housing peers can feel the pressure to ‘run’ to catch up with the private sector, notwithstanding the fact that our comparisons are with global behemoths with staggeringly large budgets.
First, I think we’re too hard on ourselves. Every week, at least one housing provider tells me that they want their customer portal to be like an online bank; there is a perception that banks have got it spot on and they are the standard for self-service. However, according to a recent study, 28 per cent of complaints to digital-only banks were related to their app or website, and 53 per cent of digital banks’ customers felt negatively about their provider during lockdown. Based on these stats, it’s fair to say that even the online banking world has its fair share of issues and needs to improve continually.
Hype vs. reality
The second mistake is focusing primarily on the things these organisations talk about in the media, including AI, self-driving cars, drone delivery and robotic warehouses. While these innovative areas can be exciting, most of their successes come from more mundane areas such as the ease of use of Amazon’s shopping basket and the performance and accuracy of Google’s search – things that we are so familiar with now that we take for granted.
I’ve no doubt that, at an intra-company level, these core areas enjoy most of the corporate focus and budget and, while being conscious of these advances in technology, with the money these large corporations invest, it’s always going to be hard (impossible might be a more realistic term) for housing providers to keep pace. It’s my belief that while these ideas can provide inspiration for housing providers’ trajectories of travel, the housing sector needs to be wary of such distractions and focus on its core areas.
What’s the answer? It’s likely to be different for each organisation, but I’m a strong believer in taking an agile approach to a customer portal project, whether a completely new project or when replacing an existing portal. This gets the portal in the hands of real users as soon as possible, enabling continual improvements over time. Remember, improvements are not just about features but also about UX enhancements.
The big-ticket items
Where to start? For a customer portal, it’s hard to argue against the two big-ticket items (finance and repairs), and those most requested by tenants to manage their financials, including paying their rent and rent statements as well as reporting and managing repairs.
Those two self-service areas in housing generally account for 80 per cent of inbound calls. Making portals easy to access and using a common sense, intuitive approach to self-service navigation, will encourage a much higher adoption rate than providing ten shiny new services, where repairs and financials are compromised in any way.
Stephen Hall is the managing director of Active Housing by Hallnet.