Offering a deeper insight into his recent HD Social Property Services presentation, Localz’ Paul Swannell talks with Liam Turner about how housing providers can use tech to improve customer engagement in light of the Social Housing White Paper
How would you define customer engagement, and why is it important?
I think the key thing about defining engagement is to recognise that it’s ideally a two-way process, it’s about dialogue. It reflects a bit of an evolution that we’ve been on at Localz for last six or seven years, because we started off and – still to this day – we were best known for giving customers real-time tracking information, sending them reminders and updates, and then ultimately allowing them to track somebody that’s on their way to their house. That’s brilliant, and it has a lot of value.
These relate to engagement, but it’s not a two-way process on its own. So, what we did probably two years ago, was to start trying to support the customer in being able to engage in that dialogue and respond to information. That’s been really timely because now, with all the focus around engagement. We’re able to say, well, it should be a two-way process, an actual dialogue, rather just said a one-way stream of information.
Engagement is about a dialogue rather than just notifications.
In your presentation, you said you were surprised at the amount of conversation that was going on around the Social Housing White Paper and customer engagement. Why is that?
Partly because, when you look at the legal process of the White Paper, it’s a kind of a heads-up of ‘this is what’s coming down the line’. But I was talking to somebody just this week, and they said that we don’t expect any legislation for two or maybe three years, but yet still at a very senior level within organisations within social housing there’s already a dialogue about, well, let’s plan for that.
That’s quite surprising, and it’s quite impressive really that people are already starting to think ahead about getting ready for when legislation is going to force them to do things. That’s the surprising part.
How can Localz help housing associations meet their Social Housing White Paper obligations in regard to customer engagement?
If you think about what Localz does, our intention is to give end customers transparency around what’s going on, and that in itself is part of engagement. Rather just keeping people in the dark and saying, ‘we’re coming next Thursday, we’ll see you then,’ we’re enabling the landlord to engage in a more structured sequence of communications with the customer.
The three specific areas and I mentioned in my presentation is, one, the regulator will be looking to landlords to actually demonstrate that they are innovating in this area, that they are trying to improve engagement. And I genuinely see that if someone is implementing Localz they can point to it and say, look Mr Regulator, we’ve done this. That is a definite effort and innovative approach to improving engagement.
The second thing is the whole area of customer satisfaction and again, for many years, pretty much all landlords have measured satisfaction in one way or another. And indeed, they publish the results, certainly, a summary level in their annual reports, and so on.
Our feedback mechanism, because it’s immediate, it’s simple, and because it’s sent to everybody or requested of everybody, we help the landlord get a much more fair and representative view of sentiment among their customer base.
We make them happier, and we make it easier to measure that happiness as well.
That third area of the White Paper that we can specifically help with is the area of complaints. Now, the White Paper talks about making the complaints process simpler, clearer, and better publicised, so that the consumer and the tenant or resident knows they can complain and they know how to complain.
One of the outcomes of that is there might be more complaints, because you’re saying to the consumer, by the way, if you’re not happy, here’s a process to follow and you know you’ll get recourse. We’re not saying we can impact the complaints process, and we’re not a case-handling system or anything like that. What we can say is, fundamentally, we could help reduce the number of complaints in the first place. That’s got to be the best thing.
How crucial is it to get that in-the-moment instant feedback from residents?
It’s important for at least two reasons. One is, the quicker feedback the more accurate that feedback is, partly because you’re gonna get more responses from people when you ask them quickly, it’s fresh in their minds. Partly because of that psychology of when you ask somebody about something that has just happened, they’ll give you more balanced view of it than if you ask them a week or so later.
“It’s quite impressive that people are already starting to think ahead about getting ready for when legislation is going to force them to do things”
And the second reason is that, when there are problems, and there will be, you’ve got a much better chance of turning that situation around if you can get on the case quickly. If you ask somebody about an experience they had a week ago, and it was a poor experience, they had a week to stew on it and then get more and more frustrated by it. And just practically, it’s easier to sort out problem when it’s just happened then when it was a week or two ago.
How does the Localz service improve efficiencies for landlords?
Okay, so first of all, the two main efficiencies at a simple and measurable and financially impactful level are no-access and inbound-query calls.
So, looking at no-access first. There are two main ways in which we can help landlords improve. The first is simply by letting people know what to expect and when. The customer is much better able to plan their day when they know exactly what to expect. It’s totally normal across the sector that people are given AM or PM appointments, so that means there’s a four- or five-hour window during which somebody might turn up to do my repair.
So, by giving the people the transparency around ‘they’re gonna be coming at 11:45 – ah, right’, that helps them know when they’ve got to be at home.
The second part is, because we’ve established this dialogue that makes it easy for the customer to tell the organisation something, we see all sorts of examples of customers giving a message directly to the operative that helps avoid no-access failed appointments. Examples are things like ‘could you knock on the kitchen window because our door bell’s broken?’.
And you can imagine, without knowing that, the operative arrives at the property, rings the doorbell that doesn’t work, stands there, nobody comes to the door, waits for a couple of minutes and then goes.
But when it comes to Localz: ‘Ah, right, I’ll knock on the kitchen window when I get there – bingo!’
Query calls is much more straightforward. People phone up to ask ‘where are you?’. And they do that particularly when they’ve been waiting for a few hours. So, we help by giving them information that they’re phoning up about automatically. They don’t need to phone up to say where are you because, A, they’ve been sent a message saying we’re going arrive at 11:45; and B, they’ve got access to a tracking map that shows the van is on its way.
One of our biggest clients in social housing, before they implemented Localz, they did some analysis within their repairs contact centre. They determined that 50% of the calls coming into the repairs contact centre were to book a repair or request to repair, the other 50% were to chase progress on that repair. So, it’s a really big chunk of inbound calls that landlords are having to field, and we can have a significant impact on reducing that.
How do you go about navigating the issue of privacy and data protection, both on the part of technicians and residents?
Quite a big subject. Fundamentally, if you think about personal data security from an IT perspective, that brings up the question of GDPR as well.
And that’s got a number of different central pillars or principles, one of which is only we as Localz should request the data that we actually need to carry out a job. A good example of that is, we don’t actually need the customer’s name because we can address them as ‘dear customer’ or ‘dear resident’ or whatever.
The second is to only use the data for the purpose that it’s intended for, update people around an appointment that they booked, but not use it for promoting another service or anything like that.
Avoid hanging on
Another is to only keep the data for as long as you need it. We always agree with clients and regular process whereby we delete the data from our platform after typically 30 days. We give them the ability to extract it first, and a lot of the data came from their systems in the first place anyway, but we’ll remove it from our platform after 30 days because we’ve got no further use for it.
The fourth thing is to store it securely, and we do that by using Amazon Web Services, which has all of the certification under the sun when it comes to physical and data-centre security.
And then when it comes to things like sharing data between the parties involved in this process, we deal with that by, actually, we’re the conduit for that messaging. So, we provide the customer with an interface that says ‘click here to send a message to John, who’s the guy coming to see you’. They send the message, but it comes through Localz, and we pass it onto the operative, so the customer never actually gets the contact details.
Has the kind of service Localz provides gained more importance since the pandemic?
It has. As a company, we’ve been relatively careful about trying to get on that bandwagon, you know, ‘oh, COVID means you need us now.’
But we’ve actually been told by some clients where it’s become useful, and that’s in a number of ways. One is we’ve actually had clients amend the messages that they send through Localz, and they’ve asked us to amend the information we present to the customer to include some basic instructions about wearing a mask or minimising the number of people in the room, that sort of thing.
Secondly, we – particularly early last summer – saw lots of examples of messages customers were sending through Localz to the operative that were COVID related, things like ‘when you get here we’re going to be in the living room, but we’ve left the front door open so can you let yourself in’.
Even the feedback process has been mentioned as being relevant because there are actually still quite a few organisations out there that have a feedback process that’s based on the operative handing tablets to a customer, says, ‘can you fill in this feedback form before I leave?’ There’s all sorts of reasons why that’s not a good idea.
Our feedback process has removed all of that because people are providing feedback on their own phone or their own tablet at the end of the job.
Are you planning to make any changes to the Localz service? Does it even need changing?
Absolutely. Naturally, we’re continually evolving the technology and trying to spot trends and proactively deal with new requirements before they come up. But ultimately, it’s about listening to our clients, and they tell us all we think we need this kind of capability.
A couple of examples that are coming along this summer. One is extending the dialogue, which is currently between either the operative and the customer through the messaging process or is between the customer and the organisation through the feedback process. We’re extending that to become a three-way process, or a multiparty process, such that the operative, the customer, and the back-office environment can see and engage in a dialogue.
“There are still quite a few organisations that have a feedback process based on the operative handing tablets to a customer – there’s all sorts of reasons why that’s not a good idea”
The second thing is much simpler. We’re looking to expand the number of channels through which we can communicate. So, we’ve got text messaging, email, we’ve got landline, we’ve got push notifications.
We’ll be adding WhatsApp as a as a channel later this year because lots of people like to use WhatsApp. It’s another really good way of getting people’s attention. People tend to look at WhatsApp messages as they do with text messages, and it’s likely there could be a cost saving involved in that as well.
For landlords who aren’t doing too well on customer engagement, what should they do to improve?
I do genuinely think implementing Localz is a great suggestion: it has a quick and fundamental impact on some important areas of customer engagement and, importantly, it more than pays for itself in efficiency savings.
However, if I think about ideas that don’t involve implementing new technology, my first thoughts are related to feedback. Most landlords gather feedback in some form or another. It may not be very efficient, and it might be costing more to gather than it could or should do, but the key thing is to share and respond to it. Rather than just adding feedback to an annual statistic, share it with all customers and explain what actions are being taken as a result.
Ideally, respond to each piece of feedback – especially when someone has raised a concern or a problem – because that’s the best way to ensure customers continue to give feedback on a regular basis.
I think another good place to start is for landlords to regularly mystery-shop themselves. Have colleagues go through various processes of engagement from a customer perspective, highlighting points of friction, frustration, difficulty, excessive red-tape, and use this to identify priorities for improvement.
Housing Digital Stakeholder Localz is a mobile workforce solutions company that provides customer notifications, live ETA tracking, two-way communications, and real-time feedback around housing appointments.
Main image: Ivan Kruk/Shutterstock
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