Housing Digital caught up with Steven Johnson of tech company Voicescape to find out how its clients have been using automated technologies to strengthen tenant relationships during the COVID-19 crisis…
As we slip tentatively into the second half of 2020, some in the housing sector are starting to take stock of what has happened over the last few months and acclimatise to a new way of working. We’re not out of the woods yet, folks, as the man in Number 10 likes to say, but we do at least have some space to breathe and to reflect.
Voicescape, a tech company committed to helping social landlords build more sustainable tenancies, has been on hand from the start of the crisis. From income collection to customer satisfaction and tenant welfare, agile working to automation, Voicescape continues to offer guidance to social landlords as they negotiate a landscape for which there is no roadmap.
Steven Johnson, Voicescape’s chief customer officer, says this guidance helped facilitate the sector’s shift from a debt-recovery-based approach to one based on support.
“While landlords were no longer actively recovering debt, so to speak, it became even more important because that providers were reaching out proactively to stay in touch with their customers, to engage with their customers, to triage immediate support services that might be required,” Steven says.
“So in terms of how the operation responds, some clients obviously stopped chasing arrears with our platform, but then what we managed to do was work with them to facilitate this new form of engagement that was required specifically because of the pandemic response.”
Voicescape’s digital engagement platform has helped facilitate this focus on engagement in a variety of ways. If a client escalates a rent-collection case, for example, or identifies a need for support, the platform would send out an automated voice message to the customer concerned.
But instead of a sterile or ‘Siri’ or ‘Alexa’ delivering the message, the voice of a staff member does the talking.
“It’s a real human voice reaching out to them saying…something along the lines of, we know there’s an issue with your rent, we hope things are okay, is there anything we can do to help?” Steven explains.
“Press 1 to transfer through, and then they can speak directly to an income-support officer or a money support team member or whoever the best person is to meet their needs.
“And if they can’t be reached in that way then we’ll drop them a voicemail, we’ll drop them a text message again, all with a very quick and easy opportunity to then contact the organisation to seek support or to resolve the debt.”
It may seem counterintuitive to suggest automation and digitisation as a way of improving customer engagement and tenant support. But as Steven attests, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that, if done right, automation can do just that.
“What the pandemic has done is…prove that customers are receptive to interaction through digital channels and prove that automation can bring very large efficiency savings without impacting negatively on the customer relationship,” he says. “Indeed, it can further strengthen the customer relationship.”
But compared to other, more commercial industries, the social housing sector seems to be technologically lacking. From Amazon to Apple, Barclays to BT, automated services and customer interaction have become the norm, improving both operational efficiency and the end-user experience.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have given the housing sector a boot up the rear in terms of modernising its operations, but it still has some ways to go if it wants to match its consumer-faced counterparts. Though, as Steven says, the sector must balance its social and commercial priorities, which can make thing that much more tricky.
“They [social landlords] have a commitment to social impact as much as they have a financial imperative associated with their business models,” says Steven.
“So automation and efficiencies often smacks of very transactional approaches to customer relationships…I think automation and digital interaction sometimes sends alarm bells ringing in that regard.”
He adds: “There’s a culture in the sector to preserve that face-to-face contact and absorb the resource implications of building and managing relationships in that way.”
“That notion of moving toward a more relational approach to engagement and away from a transactional approach has started to dawn on the sector”
Like automation, data is another facet of technology that social landlords have been frantically trying to get a handle on. Landlords across the country are collecting reams of the stuff – especially post-crisis – but how many are actually making the most of the data they collect?
How much data should we collect? How often should we collect data? How often should we update our data? What data should we collect? And crucially, what should we do with the data? These are all questions that landlords are, with varying degrees of success, attempting to answer. Not least so that they can better target individual customers and provide a truly tailored service.
“All providers that we speak to are very keen to take more tailored and targeted approaches,” says Steven, who says that doing so can help them understand which customers are in arrears or are likely to be in arrears and for what reasons.
“And that ability to take a more risk-based approach to intervention means we’re targeting and tailoring according to risk, so that we’re targeting the resource toward those customers that represent a greater risk when it comes to arrears collection.
“And then we’re targeting the messaging and the intervention to the particular needs of those customers to increase the effectiveness of that intervention. That’s something…we use our platform to facilitate.”
The bottom line
As we trudge out the other side of this crisis, though, it’s inevitable that some of the goodwill and payment ‘holidays’ will fall away. And in many ways it must: the social housing sector forms the foundation to many aspects of our society, but it doesn’t sit atop a depthless pit of money.
Even before the government introduced the Coronavirus 2020 legislation, the sector had suspended its recovery activity, meaning it had put a halt on chasing up arrears and charging rent, effectively cutting off its primary source of income. Understandable, given the circumstances, but not a move that can be sustained indefinitely.
But how can landlords reintroduce the tenant’s obligation to pay their rent without damaging the relationship and trust they’ve built up over the lockdown period? The answer brings us back to tenant engagement.
“For instance the proactive providers, and again we’ve encouraged and facilitated this with our own client base, have actively reached out through the pandemic lockdown,” Steven says.
“And if done well and done appropriately, that then solidifies the relationship such that when we start to emerge from the white heat of the pandemic and rent becomes payable again and things start to get back to normal…that relationship then increases the likelihood that the rent and the landlord is going to be prioritised.”
He adds: “That whole notion of moving toward a more relational approach to engagement and away from what could be considered a more transactional approach, I think that has started to dawn on the sector to a certain extent.”
“The platform is designed to gain a meaningful conversation with a customer, rather than just merely broadcasting some information to them”
Through their own research, Steven says a lot of Voicescape’s clients and other parties are waking up to the benefits of operating in a more customer-focussed way.
“A sense of, okay, we couldn’t collect the money but we’ve been proactively contacting customers with a kind of ‘how’s it going?, ‘how are you?’ kind of message,” he says.
“They’ve understood in a very real sense the medium- and longer-term benefit of taking that approach.
“And that’s where we’ve been of particular use and added particular value to our client base, because the platform is designed to gain a conversation, a meaningful conversation, with a customer rather than just merely broadcasting some information to them.”
This crisis has seen social landlords shift their focus from income collection to providing support to tenants, and while these different aspects of a landlord’s operation have typically functioned independently from one another, the pandemic has shown that they don’t necessarily need to.
And why should they, when there exists a veritable bounty of digital applications at their disposal?
Steven, then, with the last word: “As far as agile working goes and the ability to automate stuff and reach out digitally, let’s not save that till the next pandemic outbreak.
“Let’s use that learning to bake that into business as usual, in the short-term even, with a view to being more efficient and building better customer relationships.”
Read next: Going Digital: Housing in a post-COVID world