Technology has changed the ways in which we communicate with businesses and with each other, and large sections of the public now expect to be able to contact organisations via digital channels rather than by letter or phone call.
This change in attitude offers forward-thinking social housing providers an opportunity to build stronger relationships with customers and to improve internal efficiency by using technology to provide convenient, easy-to-use new communication channels.
One of the main benefits of using technology within your organisation is that it can help staff handle any increases in enquiries and demand more effectively. Adopting a multi-channel communication strategy will increase the likelihood of you offering your customers' preferred communication method, which will encourage more customer involvement and reduce staff pressure.
Encouraging customers to adopt online provider-customer communication channels (such as online portals, social media, email and live chat) will allow staff to spend less time on the phone, and instead focus their time on dealing with large volumes of customer service requests without needing to recruit more team members - offering the opportunity to enhance efficiency and reduce costs.
Enabling external stakeholders to interact with the organisation online can also improve customer experience. Instead of being required to make often lengthy phone calls (in which they may be kept on hold until a customer service agent becomes available), book and wait for a face-to-face meeting, or complete and submit a physical request form by post, customers can simply use one of the available online communication methods and submit requests quickly and easily, at any time of day.
But while digital channels can enhance communication, these technologies should be used in conjunction with existing traditional methods (such as phone calls and meetings). Positioning digital channels as just one part of a wider range of communication methods will show your customers and external stakeholders that you are committed to working in a way that is convenient for them. And continuing the availability of offline methods will ensure that you are still meeting the needs of those with more complex requirements and those who may be unable to use technology to contact their landlord.
Incorporating digital tools into your organisation's communication strategy (alongside traditional paper-based, telephone and face-to-face methods) can greatly improve customer experience and help providers build stronger relationships with their customers. Tools that are available to housing providers include:
- Online portal for accessing documentation, raising queries and requests, reviewing planned maintenance and improvements, and ordering and paying for services.
- Using an online customer portal provides a trackable record of communication that is saved within the portal archive so both the customer and provider can easily check and reference previous conversations.
- A portal can also be made available as a smartphone/tablet app for ease and accessibility, which can show your customers that you have taken an extra step to create a dedicated method of addressing their concerns in a way that is convenient for them.
- Email for communicating news and updates and following up requests and conversations.
- Having a system in place that automatically sends a record of any communication or maintenance requests by email (and then continues to send updates as the request is being completed) makes processes feel more transparent by allowing customers to look back on what has been agreed and see when a request has been dealt with.
- Live chat features for real time customer service.
- For more straightforward questions, some customers may want to be able to quickly speak to a member of staff, without wanting to submit a formal request and wait for a response. Implementing a live messaging system will allow customers to communicate directly to a member of staff online in real time. This type of system also allows for issues to be quickly escalated, if necessary, or for customers with less pressing enquiries to be directed to the correct information or contacts.
- Live chat features can also help to improve staff efficiency. Because the instant-messaging format allows for staff members to interact with more than one customer at a time, they are able to respond to a greater number of enquiries than they could if they were operating solely over the phone, for example.
- Chatbot technology for appointment bookings and instant response.
- To enhance staff efficiency (and customer experience) even further, chatbots can be developed (either on your own channels or external platforms such as Facebook Messenger) that allow customers to book appointments or maintenance repairs without requiring involvement from a member of staff. As no team member is directly involved in the initial stage of the contact (although chatbots can be coded to transfer more complex enquiries to a human livechat agent after the initial filtering questions), chatbots offer one of the lowest levels of cost per interaction of any communication method.
- Two-way SMS for out of hours response.
- Utilising a two-way SMS system with automated response can be effective for handling customer requests that may not require human intervention, such as checking rent balance.
- SMS services can also be effective for quickly contacting groups of customers in the event of an emergency.
- Online surveys to gain feedback from customers.
- Instead of using paper-based surveys and questionnaires that require customers to send them back by post, using online surveys can encourage interaction and help you obtain feedback much more easily.
In order for a digital communication strategy to be successful, effective implementation is essential.
To achieve this, you need to consider a number of practicalities for users (both internal and customers) and how any new technology will work with existing business critical systems. The key issues include:
- Integration with internal CRM systems
- How customer communication will be transferred into workflow systems and translated into task allocation
- Ease of use for staff and customers
- Appropriate staff training to ensure new communication methods improve customer relationships in a cost-effective manner
- How to promote any new communication options and their benefits to customers
- Compliance with data protection regulations
Working with a specialist IT consultant who has in-depth knowledge and understanding of the social housing sector and the technology available will help make sure that the channels you choose are the most appropriate for your organisation. And engaging your IT consultant on an ongoing basis will also enable you to continually assess the effectiveness of your communication tools and how you use them to continue to better meet the needs of your customers.
Shaw Consulting are specialists in IT consultancy for the social housing and care sectors. Working in close partnerships with your internal teams, we gain valuable insight into your daily operations and manage entire projects to help procure effective systems and practices that completely transform your people and processes.
If you have a project you would like to discuss, contact us via the website, and we will be happy to help.