Of course digitalisation is a powerful tool to support efficient service delivery, and those organisations with well-established digital transformation programmes and digital access for residents typically see stronger performance, but the benefits of effective channel shift goes so much further than cost efficiency.
Since deciding to pick up the reins at Prodo, the housing sector's leading digital transformation agency, I’ve been blown away by the stories I’m hearing from residents, from housing officers, from Boards and from technology leads. Whilst efficient service delivery plays a part, and there is no doubt that landlords need to deliver a positive resident experience with less, it’s the other benefits, including hidden ones that I’m hearing a great deal about.
For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not saying that digital transformation won’t deliver efficiencies - it will support the streamlining of processes, the provision of access for residents and enable providers to channel resources and will ultimately reduce the cost of transactions. But what I am saying is that if cost is the only driver, it is less likely to succeed.
Having spent my whole career designing products and services that are grounded in customer needs and preferences, that also deliver something useful for customers, I totally grasp the feedback I’m hearing about benefits. When you start and end with the customer, design principles, structures, processes and technology become anchored in the proposition and outcomes for the customer. It is so easy to get caught up in the system and not the mindset required to make the change successful.
We need to start with understanding customers needs and preferences, and digitalisation is a powerful route to capturing data about customers, as well as capturing data about the homes they live in. The Regulator for Social Housing commented on the quality of baseline data in its recent assessment of damp and mould in the sector, and the Housing Ombudsman has also commented on the sector's patchy relationship with data. There can be no doubt, that finding an efficient, timely, embedded route to understanding your customers will improve customer service and help landlords to meet the expectations of enhanced regulation.
Let’s jump in next and dispel the myth that offering a digital service will somehow remove effective relationships or leave vulnerable residents unable to access services. Understanding your customers' needs and providing digital access will create capacity and ensure that housing teams can focus where they are most needed. PA Housing, following their digital transformation journey contributed to a book - Shift - How to Make Channel Shift Happen in Housing - and cited a 14% reduction in call volumes the first year of their programme, with 10,000 self-service processes completed monthly. They go on to talk about how the empowerment and engagement of staff has also improved resident engagement and participation. If you do the maths - 14% less calls is customer service capacity that can be targeted towards adding value or meeting the needs of those who may require a different approach.
I have also heard powerful stories from housing officers who were so weighed down by paperwork that they had forgotten the real purpose behind their role and had certainly had to sacrifice the time to talk to residents. Being freed from administration by digitalisation is leading to improved relationships and in particular capacity being created to understand and support vulnerability.
I won’t dwell on 24 hour access, as it’s a well-rehearsed narrative, how residents are used to online banking, shopping and bill paying so why not expect the same service from their landlord, but is important to acknowledge that ease of access at a time to suit the customer is table stakes in modern society.
Sticking with empowerment - engineers, repairs and neighbourhood teams can all deliver a more positive customer experience if they understand residents needs and property history. Agility is key in modern business and at Trafford Housing Trust, they flipped the principle of training being delivered by trainers and empowered repair technicians to support residents to report a repair digitally, allowing time during routine repairs visits to show them how to get online and report in the future through a digital channel. This shift in mindset, accompanied by practical steps is how real change is delivered and sustained.
Mindset and readiness are the two main critical success factors for successful channel shift. Organisations that succeed tend to feature a clear lead from the executive team, and are not confined to technology or marketing project leads. It’s important that landlords don’t make assumptions about digital access, I have heard so many providers quoting barriers to digitalisation without really understanding their customers' needs and preferences. I talked recently about how organisations with mature digitalisation fared better during the pandemic, not just, as one might expect because of their ability to reach residents - but more notably because of how quickly they could understand their customers' needs, preferences and vulnerabilities and also because leadership mindset tended to be more pioneering and innovative.
So in summary digitalisation is a powerful tool for delivering efficiencies and a positive customer experience in a cost effective way, but we need to make sure that we also talk about all of those other benefits that say so much more about an organisation's attitude to residents - understanding their needs and preferences, providing access in an easy, user friendly way, channelling resources where they are needed most, setting housing management teams free from time consuming paperwork and connecting them back with their customers, empowering teams to make a difference and encourage change by training residents and finally, providing leaders with the frame to shape a modern, agile 21st century organisation.