As we emerge from a 12-month period unlike any other, Futr CEO Andrew Wilkins posits the ways in which increased digital adoption will shape the tenant-landlord relationship over the next 12 months and beyond
What a year it’s been. As we sip a tap-poured pint (outside), now seems like an appropriate moment to reflect on the past 12 months and consider what the future holds for customer service in the social housing sector.
As the government restrictions forced everyone to stay at home, we’ve witnessed a meteoric rise in the use of digital tools. Internet use more than doubled in the UK as people FaceTime’d their families, ordered their groceries online and bought hair trimmers from Amazon.
Meanwhile, landlords began mimicking this, using FaceTime for property inspections and viewings, shifting tenant panels to Zoom and employing DocuSign for end-to-end digital sign-ups.
At the same time, the adoption of landlords’ pre-existing self-serve tools spiked. In our recent vodcast, Ashley Hook, chief executive at MHS Homes, said their portal saw a whopping 10% increase in usage in the first few months of the pandemic.
Landlords made incredible changes at record-breaking speed. Steve Allcock, director of Data and Digital Transformation at Johnnie Johnson Housing Trust, described how they saw “more innovation in the digital space in the last 12 months than in the previous two or three years”.
Within this context, landlords have begun to realise that their tenants are far more digitally capable than they ever thought. Chris Holloway, head of Housing and Support Services at Greatwell Homes, told us:”We noticed that customers were more digitally able than we ever gave them credit for.”
However, this goes beyond just the realms of the pandemic. We’re living in a 24/7 digital world now, and expectations are growing.
Just as you order a pizza on an app as you head home from the pub, having ordered a drink via a QR code, residents expect their landlord to be available on their terms. It is no longer good enough that the only out-of-hour help available to residents is a website and an outsourced emergency repairs telephone number.
All that said, landlords are never going to be able to be digital-only. Dealing with tenancy, many complex queries simply cannot be digitised. But as one digital transformation leader recently described to us, if you think about banking when you’re doing your day-to-day transactions, you tap and pay – it’s a frictionless, non-complex transaction.
If you are setting up a pension or a complex set of investments, you’ll need some face-to-face consultation with a wealth-management specialist.
It’s precisely the same for housing, where many transactions are not complex, for example paying rent or booking a repair.
“Landlords are never going to be able to be digital-only – many complex queries simply cannot be digitised”
In these instances, it’s straightforward what the customer is after. We should be automating those, with the dual benefit of taking the load off customer service staff and extending the service to fit with how residents want to interact.
For anything else more complex, such as an antisocial behaviour case or a support case, this should remain non-digital.
Nicola Hope, director of Business Transformation at Futures Housing Group, summed this up perfectly in a recent interview with Futr.
She said: “Ultimately, the more that we can shift online, the more time that will be made available to focus on those complex tasks.
“It is not about employing fewer people. And, it’s not about having less contact with our residents. It’s about having the right level of contact with our customers, in the right way, at the right moment.”
So, let’s get down to the predictions for the future.
Digital services for transactional queries
In line with residents’ growing expectations and ability, social landlords will all have to increase the digital services available to their residents. This will be most true for transactional, non-complex queries such as rent, repairs, and frequently asked questions.
Self-service tools benefit the resident by satisfying their appetite for digital. Simultaneously, this helps the landlord free up customer service advisors’ precious time for those more complex needs. The choice to communicate offline will remain in order to cater for digitally excluded residents and complex-needs cases.
24/7 service through automation and self-serve
In a 24/7 digitally switched-on world, landlords will have to level up their out-of-hours services. Gone are the days of it being acceptable to only offer an emergency telephone number and website out of hours.
Of course, the perfect solution here is an always-on chatbot. With this kind of tool, you can automatically answer your tenants’ questions no matter what time of the day or night it is.
Today, landlords can answer queries with this kind of technology on their website and in apps residents already use, such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. An additional bonus of this tool is being able to auto-translate into any language, from English to Welsh, to Polish and Punjabi – so no tenant is excluded.
I predict that most landlords will have a chatbot deployed on their website within the next two years.
Workplace psychological safety & innovation
To keep up with the changing rate of resident expectations and technological advances, the best landlords will hold onto what they’ve learnt about themselves over the past year as capable of making quick decisions and effecting change fast. Workplace psychological safety will be critical in this. Successful innovation requires a continuous influx of new ideas, challenges, and critical thought.
Our working environments must not suppress or silence this; they must make colleagues feel safe to brainstorm aloud and voice half-finished ideas. It is only in workplaces with this kind of psychological safety that colleagues can innovate and that blue-sky ideas have the potential to become the next essential customer service solution for landlords. This is a notion touched on by Paul Taylor, Innovation Coach at Bromford Lab.
Digital literacy & tenant expectations
We’ve witnessed a meteoric rise in internet usage and adoption of new and existing tools by tenants, and landlords’ historically low expectations of their residents’ digital aptitude have been blown out of the water. Landlords are finally coming to terms with the idea that we live in a digital age and that their residents want them to keep up with that.
So, I predict that landlords’ expectations of the success of their digital transformation programmes will increase. As new digital tools are rolled out, landlords will have higher expectations of their residents’ uptake and continued usage of new tools.
The Social Housing White Paper & strategy
What article about customer service would fail to mention the Social Housing White Paper?
The White Paper dictates that social landlords should strive to give their residents the best customer service of the private sector. They must hear the voice of and continually improve the way that they engage with their tenants. And, of course, complaints should be handled appropriately.
So, my final prediction is that the pressure on landlords to listen to residents, hear their voice, and properly handle complaints will only continue to rise before this directive becomes legislation. The recent mould scandal at a tower block owned by Croydon Council only highlights how issues can spiral out of control when the tenant voice is not listened to and acted on quickly.
Andrew Wilkins is chief executive of Housing Digital Stakeholder Futr, the automated customer contact experts. Futr has recently been shortlisted for two Northern Housing Awards: ‘Product or Innovation of the Year’ and ‘Supplier of the Year’. Through its automation first strategy, Futr is helping social landlords across the country level up their customer experience and supercharge their customer service agents with its AI-powered chatbot solution.
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