Digital technology has the potential to re-define the relationship between housing providers and their customers. It determines their access to information, ability to book services and their overall experience with their landlord.
Silva’s strategic plan sets out a commitment that 80 per cent of customer-initiated transactions will be conducted online by 2021, from a starting point of just 10 per cent. For a housing provider with over 14,000 customers across the South East, we saw it as a necessary investment to reflect the lives of our customers and to help engage in a more modern and sophisticated way.
This project isn’t without its challenges so to navigate any unseen obstacles we worked closely with customers and colleagues. From the design of our new website to the functionality of our self-service portal, their views have been formative throughout the project. Before embarking on such a large-scale project, we needed to understand our customers’ needs and wants and match those to a digital solution while implementing the changes in a way that also improves the efficiency of our staff.
Empowering our customers with self-service
Historically, most customers have contacted us through our in-house contact centre (CEC). If someone had a query or wanted to request a service, they would call us. Most customers assumed that speaking to us direct was the best solution but actually it’s expensive and inefficient for the business and far less convenient and flexible for the customer. We decided that an alternative method of interaction was urgently needed.
By analysing data coupled with conversations with staff and customers, we identified the services that would have the biggest impact if we went digital. In the process, we made communicating with us easier, faster and more convenient. Enter our online customer self-service My Silva portal which enables our customers to report incidents, book and schedule repairs appointments, set up direct debits and report hazards, all from the comfort of their own home and without even speaking to us.
We had originally considered deploying the portal module of our core housing management system but in order to optimise the experience of our customers and remove any limits on future developments, we chose to build our own in-house solution. Because it is open source and makes use of APIs, we can customise the design and user interface, improving the look and feel. It’s also more responsive so we can address any issues or improvements instantly without having to wait for fixes from our third-party supplier.
Personalising the digital experience
Having an attractive, personalised and friendly digital experience is vital. Housing customers are unlikely to compare the digital services of different housing providers; instead, the likes of consumer brands such as Netflix and Amazon Prime will lead the way in affecting their perceptions of our online presence.
In the previous version of our website, the sheer quantity of pages and density of text meant that many users were simply unable to find the information they were looking for. When designing our new website (launched in August 2019), we prioritised the user experience, removing over 50 per cent of the pages to make it easier to navigate. In order to decide what information should be kept and what should go, we analysed data to identify the key information that our website visitors want to find and removed the rest.
Our homes are not one-size-fits-all models and neither is our new website. We focused on providing a personalised experience for each of our customer groups, making it easier for them to find relevant information and improving their experience. For prospective shared-ownership home buyers, we have developed a Rightmove-style page, complete with filters and scrolling images, while our existing customers can find information about managing their home in another section of the site.
We sought not only to understand the digital requirements of our IT-savvy customers but also those who live in our independent living schemes who may not have access to online resources. To support them, we gave them training as well as offering online help via Live Chat.
Looking ahead, we are using our data more and more to inform decision-making and to improve our understanding of our customers. Our contact centre software will be replaced and our digital systems integrated to enable front-line staff to view data in all relevant systems, even while out and about. And before any process goes online, it is redesigned to make it more user-friendly, with a view to integrating it with other digital systems.
At the same time as improving our customers’ digital experience, we looked at the systems our staff use in their daily work. If our customers are going to conduct 80 per cent of their interactions with us online then our own technology must support that. New hardware has been introduced, alongside an intranet, and we’re in the process of moving many of our key business processes to the web and promoting the use of Microsoft 365.
Naturally, there has been some resistance from our staff around this new way of working. Some question whether our customers want to go online (they do) and whether a particular process can go online (it always can). Our new ‘experience designers’ have been invaluable in supporting the project and ensuring that our digitisation complies with customer and staff feedback.
To optimise our digital presence, we have worked hard to understand our customers, identifying their needs and working out how they want to interact with us, and then we have put measures in place to enable this. And over the next 12 months we will continue to build and integrate services that digitise our existing processes, including systems for new lettings, independent living, anti-social behaviour and housing visits; approaching this ‘Homeric’ digital project from a people and processes perspective will enable us to building solid foundations for the future.
Rob Smyth is the executive director for people, digital and change at Silva Homes.