customer service in housing associations

Guest post by Phil Riley, S.Tel Consultants

For Housing Associations, customer service is key to success – it is essential to keep customers happy and make it very easy for them to communicate with the organisation.

Previously, customer contact has often been limited to office and telephone interactions.  Coronavirus necessitated a rethink to maintain service standards and customer satisfaction whilst creating a safe working environment for staff and contractors.  This has prompted the implementation of new innovative technologies – bringing forward plans and delivering new projects. Six key trends have emerged and will play out into the future.

1. The switch to a hybrid/blended contact model

An initial focus of the pandemic was that the traditional contact centre had to transition to homeworking.  Cloud and IP-based telephony and contact centre applications have allowed the same levels of service and staff management to be achieved irrespective of an office or home base.  Early in 2020, there were many “emergency” projects to deliver these cloud and IP services so the contact centre could become the homeworkers’ kitchen tables.

Several outcomes have improved the customer experience.  Homeworkers provide greater flexibility to cover short shifts to address temporary peaks in call volumes and allow supervisors to quickly introduce additional agents to cover unexpected events.  Homeworking agents can cover shoulder periods for extended opening hours without the expense of keeping offices open.  Out-of-hours repairs and duty lines can be delivered in this way avoiding expensive outsourcing costs for services which can often be unreliable.

2. Busier customer service teams – and AI to meet changing needs

Capacity has been a major issue for customer contact.  The pandemic introduced challenges such as greater levels of sickness, child-care, and self-isolation.

Volumes of outbound calls increased dramatically during the pandemic.  Many Housing Associations started to contact their more vulnerable customers, as part of their social responsibility to their communities.  Because of the economic impact, customers were also unavoidably facing financial difficulties, which has increased the focus on debt management and outbound calls to assist customers in difficulty and these will almost certainly grow as restrictions on evictions are lifted.

To increase capacity, a trend to implement artificial intelligence solutions, and in particular chatbots, has developed.  Deflecting simple calls (such as booking a repair) away from agents to AI has been shown to provide 10-20% more capacity which can be redeployed to handle complex calls where the “personal touch” is required.

As the efficiencies of these technologies become apparent, their use will accelerate.

3. Becoming more digital

To increase agent capacity, there is an urgency to move to digital channels where appropriate.  This ranges from simple automated payment lines to self-service applications so that customers access housing transactions in a way akin to banking and Amazon shopping.

Digital can improve customer access, e.g. Housing Associations can often reach customers via WhatsApp or Twitter who won’t pick-up a ringing telephone call.  This is driving adoption of a true omnichannel contact centre where interactions are conducted using the most appropriate media for each customer.

This pace of digital adoption, accelerated by the pandemic is unlikely to stop.

4. Making the most of data

The pandemic and the burgeoning adoption of Office 365 have created a focus on data to better serve customers and optimise operating costs.  Smart data analytics derived through PowerBI, PowerApps and other AI technologies delivers opportunities for proactive processes.  It provides comprehensive insights into customer demand and service costs, e.g. identifying potential problems and driving repairs and renewals.  It can identify customers’ priorities and analyse the root cause of demand, such as repeated repairs, or customers regularly requesting repairs, for example.

Having realised the value of data and the tools available, information management will remain essential to good business practice.

5. Greater collaboration and communication

Legacy applications have dictated office-based working in the housing sector who have traditionally relied heavily on paper documents.

Major adoption of Microsoft Teams has been a significant outcome of the pandemic.  Housing Associations have discovered the value of the Teams ecosystem, a fully-featured collaboration platform for both staff and contractors.  The scope of Teams continues to grow, for example with considerable momentum in the race to replace legacy PBX systems with Teams telephony.

The sector has widely adopted Microsoft Office 365 which in turn is driving digitisation.  The adoption of SharePoint provides electronic document management and automated electronic workflows allowing customer-facing staff to have accurate and up to date information and underpinning customer self-service.

6. Turning on video

Video apps are being adopted by Housing Associations.  Where customers have smartphones, the camera can be deployed.  Examples include improved triage of repairs to ensure that the tradesman is dispatched with the right part allowing “first time right” service delivery avoiding the expense of wasted visits.  Video and photos assist with reporting of anti-social behaviour, recording issues to be addressed as part of void processes, and to provide property views for choice-based lettings.

As the technology becomes embedded, the uses are endless.

The pandemic has introduced the housing sector to many new technologies and has accelerated the use of these, and as we return to “normal” I do not expect to see the brakes applied to their expanded deployment.

Phil Riley Biography

Phil has worked with a wide range of Public, Private and Third Sector organisations for more than 40 years, providing strategic advice for the deployment and procurement of IT and communications infrastructure and networks.

Phil’s early background was with the development of collaborative solutions including secure distributed database and communications systems for the Defence and Financial sectors.

Since 1995, Phil has been working with the Central and Local Government and Social Housing

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