After claiming the top spot in Housing Digital’s Top 30 Digital Housing Providers list, Paul Croston, director of Technology, Digital, and Data, explains what it is that makes Halton’s digital operation such a success
Why do you think Halton claimed the top spot in the list?
One thing that we do quite well is that we’re very clear on what we do with customers. We engage with them, and we try to transition that across into our service delivery. Our core aim is to improve people’s lives, and that’s embedded in our entire work. From an idea to committing to deliver a project, we are very clear on what value that is going to bring.
Sometimes, I hear examples in the sector where I think, I’m not entirely sure where the value is. I think one thing with me coming into the organisation is that everybody is focused on and challenging what this value is actually going to bring us and to the customer. Is it going to bring value to our colleagues? It’s about having that focus.
Why was the launch of your digital-first programme in 2013 such a pivotal moment for Halton’s digital journey?
It was a whole shift that was being experienced by the sector and change in Universal Credit that really drove that, the emphasis being that we have to change our service delivery model completely obviously to lower the cost of transactions.
At the same time, customers were obviously getting more and more used to utilising digital services in everyday life, banking and all that kind of stuff. Clearly, it was a natural thing that was going to happen anyway, but that was very much the key driver that set the business case.
I think what’s happened since then – that whole taking paper out, the introduction of mobile devices into the hands of everybody in the business – where that absolutely paid off has been the last 12 months in the transition from working in the office.
You can even see it embedded in the office move that happened. A whole new office was built over that last seven or eight years, and it embodies the whole digital thinking in that it’s not a traditional office, it is very much a touch-down place.
Even the physical has overlapped with what we’ve been doing on the digital. What was explained to me – as I wasn’t here when the first lockdown started – everyone left the building on the Friday and there was no real disruption, aside from the obvious frontline services that have been impacted…We had transitions from some users using Skype, moving over to Microsoft Teams, that just accelerated massively. Whereas everyone now is incredibly comfortable with Teams, and a large part of the world are as well.
I think it’s been the bedrock of everything, all of it can be dated back to the first programme.
How did your Customeyes progamme come about?
I think very much it was about making sure that we had a customer perspective on our services and how they interact with us. And so with a lot of the projects we’ve got lots of people looking at what we think we should be doing: we should be having an app, we should be having a customer portal, we should be having chat box, we should be having all of these things.
But what we want to do was to make sure that that was in line with what customers are expecting or wanting. I think that’s paid off.
But it’s not just all been about technology, it’s been about how do we interact with customers from the front line when we’ve got operatives that arrive at a property and what do they do. So it’s been looking across absolutely everything.
A really good example of that is we’ve launched our new portal and app offering in January, and we did that in a very agile way using an agile process. We got customers involved very early in the build process and said, look, here’s what we’ve got today, here’s what we’re thinking about what we need to put in into that.
Once we had designs built, once we actually implemented them, we had test programs with customers where they were actually testing for us. We incorporated a huge amount of feedback into the final delivery.
How does the Customeyes programme link in with the Driving our Future programme?
A lot of that was taking the information we got back from customers, understanding that we need to do something with what we had in the existing portal so that, while we already had internal objectives that we wanted to put in place in the portal, we knew we could do more through it.
It really just makes sure that…we want to deliver more services digitally to engage more customers digitally but also have a range of different options. It’s making sure that we’re going in with better confidence about our investment, that our investment is actually going to make a difference.
“Customeyes has made sure that fundamentally, we don’t presume, we actually know what customers want”
Another aspect that we covered in the presentation was home-systems alignment, making it easier for customers to book their own appointments. And that’s part of the next phase of launch through the new customer portal, the new website. We’ve held back on those sort of things, so we’re not dropping too much on customers at any one time, and we’re able to walk them through.
We can encourage the maximum take-up of these things rather than go big bang and confusing people. Customeyes has really paid off and made sure that fundamentally, we don’t presume, we actually know what customers want.
You’ve also been doing some work around virtual diagnostics and augmented reality repairs, is that right?
So with the virtual diagnostics, something that was on our landscape but has been accelerated because of the pandemic, there will be a nervousness around customers about people entering their houses for a while yet. That’s why we thought, okay, lets accelerate our virtual diagnostics, there’s benefits for the customer, there’s benefits for us because clearly it will be much cheaper for us to deliver the service; we can prevent actually sending someone on site.
It’s been a challenge for a variety of reasons, both technology reasons, helping customers understand how this is going to work, being able to interact with the customer on their phone… The challenge we have is whether the customer has got the right type of handset or device, that the WiFi or 4G signal is sufficient, and also for our own staff being able to learn how to use the technology. I think it’s only going to get bigger because of the company we’re using.
How are you overcoming the challenges you mentioned?
Where we are having difficulties, we follow up with the customer to understand more about their capability. How do they feel about using digital services, understanding where they are with their location, so we’re understanding what we would typically expect from mobile phone networks, what services. We get a better picture of the customer in terms of their capabilities to try and ask them digitally.
It might well be that this customer is just not suitable for the digital services. The more data we’ve got, the more tailored our services can be. So, we’re not pushing digital services to a customer who’s not going to be able to do it, going to get frustrated, and ultimately will impact their satisfaction with our services. So, it’s about us acting smarter as well.
So, it’s more about providing a range of options to customers to see what works best for them?
Absolutely, it’s having a suite of tools that we can deploy and making sure that it’s tailored. We’re working on all these different things, and we want to make sure that there’s an option for everybody.
There is a customer who will only want to talk to us via voice call. Where our focus is there, it’s not directly on the customer, it’s on our colleagues to make sure that the systems they’re using are seamless and that we’re not asking them to jump through hoops to give that great service; the suite of systems they’re using are as easy to use as possible; we’re putting the right information in front of them at all times.
So obviously, from call centre type of perspective, the customer has their issue resolved on that first call, not passed from team to team through an organisation, so that’s what we’re focusing on.
How does digital transformation and digital engagement link in with your efforts around the green agenda?
We’re doing a lot of work with academia, around our base projects and understanding the building fabric performance and that’s really helped us understand a lot more about our stock and what we need to do. My colleague on the leadership team, Scott, he’s having to formulate plans to meet regulatory requirements. We want to make sure he has the best available data, making sure that we focus on data quality and ensuring that delivering him the business intelligence so that he can plan and focus on investment.
“It’s having a suite of tools that we can deploy and making sure that it’s tailored – we want to make sure there’s an option for everybody”
Not only that, but when we deploy that investment, we need to be able to then measure the difference between what was there before and what has come after investment.
We’re using a range of different technologies – IOT, smart sensors – and at the moment a lot of work is being focused on how we harness that data and make it actionable. We’ve got lots of data already on our stock and a number of different activities to make sure we know exactly what we’ve got, where it is, and how it flows through the business.
What emerging technologies are you looking to incorporate into your services?
We’ve got a raft of different things, from smart sensors that tell us the humidity, the temperature; we’ve got sensors on boilers that tell us the performance of boilers… So, we use predictive analytics to preempt when boilers are going to fail.
We’ve also got smart lighting. We’ve got to do drop testing on lights to make sure they’re operational in all our communal areas. We have to send engineers out to do those tasks, whereas we’ve got technology that can test it remotely and report back. Drone scanning technology that can measure the thermal performance of properties…
The biggest challenge for us as an organisation is how we collate that data and build it in to workflows that is actually going to make sense for us. So, when we do get a failure of a lighting system, certainly where I am, I want it to be automated through process so that an engineer is booked, nobody has got to touch it, it just happens. We know what’s happened, let’s get someone out to fix it.
What advice would you give to organisations that are struggling with their digital journey?
I spoke with an organisation earlier this week who had that very same problem. They were outside the housing sector, and they were struggling to define what digital transformation meant for them. They had engaged with consultants who had come in and said, yeah, we can do all of this, with a big ticket price; and they’re sat there thinking, we’re not entirely sure what that’s going to give us, what value that is going to give us.
What I said to them was, don’t forget, are you trying to digitise a paper-based process? Or, understand where your pain is in your processes. But don’t forget, transformation can be a small process tweak. There’s different forms – I interchange innovation and transformation – but there’s different types of transformation. Are you trying to disrupt the market? Or is it evolutionary change of your systems and processes? I think they just need to understand where they are, what pain they’re feeling, what pain their customers are feeling.
I recommend they go and do a Customeyes-type program. And I’ve been in other organisations that have done the same thing, being very clear on what their customers want from them. They should also say what their employees want, as I think that is a big part of it.
Halton Housing is a housing association based in Cheshire that owns and manages over 7,000 properties in Runcorn and Widnes.
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