Taking a digital first approach to housing services has huge benefits for both housing providers and customers.
From making rent payments, repair requests and universal credit application support more accessible for residents, to improving workflow management, minimising request response times and reducing costs for housing providers, implementing a digital strategy can improve efficiency and service delivery and significantly strengthen provider-customer relationships.
The Benefits for Customers
One of the major positives of a digital first approach is how easy it makes accessing services for customers.
Offering the ability to use comprehensive online services, either on a computer or through a smartphone and tablet app, makes services more accessible and allows customers to place service requests more quickly and easily than by ringing a call centre. These services will then also be accessible 24/7, without the constraints of customer service centre opening times.
Just a few years ago, levels of online customer portal use were reported to be as low as 5%. But adopting a digital (and customer service) first approach and making sure that digital channels are easy to use, easy to reach (such as by offering new customers a tablet that has a customer services app pre-installed) and that offer comprehensive access to all services, can encourage customers and other external stakeholders to go online and increase usage.
Instead of being required to make lengthy phone calls (in which customers can often be left on hold for some time due to call volumes), or sending in request forms by post, utilising digital channels could allow the following service requests or tasks to be completed online:
- Pay rent
- Raise an enquiry about rent
- Review rent statements
- Raise a repair request, separated into the different services required, e.g. plumbing, electrical, gas repairs or reporting a gas leak, with the ability to send in related photographs
- Track the status of a repair online
- Review planned improvements
- Submit meter readings
- Raise a complaint
- Submit a compliment
- Update personal details
- Request a meeting with a member of staff online
- Complete rent applications online
- Online ordering and payment for products and / or services provided
- Viewing of properties for sale / rent online with pictures and floorplans
- Help and information on benefit and universal credit applications
- Integrations with any care packages provided
Offering customers the option to access services online reduces the amount of time they need to spend making these requests or submitting information. And when successful, because of the number of people who will opt for digital services first, the experience is enhanced and the amount of time customers spend waiting if they do choose to use telephone or face-to-face services is reduced, as explained by Debbie Larner, Head of Practice at the Chartered Institute of Housing:
“I've heard the argument that the increased channel shift from traditional face-to-face contact to more digital engagement undermines the people nature of the role. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive and actually the focus on increasing digital transactions helps free up valuable resources to tailor services to those who have more complex needs."
The Benefits for Housing Providers
The advantages of digital customer services are not limited just to external stakeholders, they can be equally beneficial for the housing provider - both in terms of cost and ease of use.
With online services, customers have the ability to enter all the information required for a request straight into the IT system themselves, significantly reducing the amount of time that provider staff need to spend obtaining and manually inputting this same information. 'Self-service' applications are therefore highly cost-effective for housing providers when staff management time is taken into consideration.
Integrated customer applications and internal CRM and workflow systems also make customer service and task allocation much easier. As customers submit information, it is fed automatically into the internal IT system and databases are updated in real time. This enables staff to access an up-to-date, comprehensive view of all information on a customer, including past service requests and conversations, when responding to an enquiry.
As well as more responsive services, improved customer service delivery and stronger housing provider-customer relationships, the ability to see a complete customer overview in real-time ultimately leads to increased efficiency and productivity, and better planning and cost control. With accurate up-to-date records stored in a simple to use system, compiling the information needed for management reporting, budgeting, preventative maintenance planning and issue identification becomes more straightforward.
Another benefit of a digital first approach is that by receiving continuous, accurate information on the state of their housing straight from residents, providers are able to arrange repairs for exactly when they are needed. This prevents any problems from getting worse and becoming more urgent (and therefore more costly), while again, enhancing the service delivered to customers.
Fully integrated digital services allow for all related applications and internal databases to be accessed and updated from each member of staff's individual workspace - including those who work remotely, such as wardens and maintenance teams. This allows them to easily find relevant data when they need it and for records to be updated in real time (for example, inspection and maintenance completion reports and photos can be entered into the system via a tablet before leaving site), making life easier for both the housing provider and customer.
In order for a digital first approach to be successful, correct implementation is crucial.
Digital customer service channels need to be accessible and easy to use for both digital natives and those who have less (or no) experience using online services in order for them to be successful. But making digital channels easy to use is not always enough; housing providers should also be responsible for ensuring that their customers are able to access these online services.
Making sure that wifi is available in all housing is a necessity. But going one step further and supplying new customers with a tablet with the portal app pre-installed and an account already set up can be the difference between a customer choosing digital services over a telephone call.
Creating an account on behalf of the customer can be especially beneficial for those who are not confident using online services, as being required to set up an account can often discourage them from using digital services at all.
Throughout planning and implementation, operational users should also be involved to make sure that internal and external stakeholder systems have all the functionality that is required to improve productivity. Engaging an IT consultant who has specialist experience working with housing associations will also ensure that you create and implement a digital strategy that improves the service you deliver.
Working with specialist independent IT consultants who have an in-depth understanding of the choice of software available will ensure that the system you implement is the most appropriate for your organisation. For example, cloud-based systems have enabled opportunities for integrated internal IT systems and external applications for organisations that had previously seen a digital first approach as too complex and costly for their capabilities and budget.
Continual reviews of the IT system you have in place are also imperative for delivering successful digital services. Engaging with your IT consultant on an ongoing basis will ensure that they can effectively help you to routinely assess the functionality of both internal and customer applications, how these systems are used, and how they can be improved to reduce costs, increase efficiency and, most importantly, enable you to better meet the needs of your tenants.
We are sure you will have heard a lot of what we've covered here before - so why are so many housing providers still finding it difficult to successfully deliver digital first services?
We have found that it often comes down to organisations concentrating too much on individual systems as opposed to the overall Enterprise Architecture. How every system, infrastructure and data component integrate needs to be considered in order to properly and seamlessly design and implement a digital strategy that meets the needs of both the organisation and the customer.
Shaw Consulting are specialists in IT consultancy for the social housing and care sectors. Working in partnership with your internal teams, we manage entire projects and gain valuable insight into your daily operations to plan development strategies and review all systems and operational costs to determine effective, future-proof solutions.
If you have a project you would like to discuss, get in touch via the website, and we will be happy to help.