Dan Healey – Head of ICT – First Choice Homes Oldham

The challenges facing housing associations are often driven by the need to modernise and meet the demands of a tech-led world. For us at First Choice Homes Oldham (FCHO) it was clear that to better understand our customers; to deliver greater care; and to facilitate more targeted services and interventions, a modern solution was required.

Working alongside Northgate Public Services (NPS) we began an ambitious digital channel shift, with the intent to have in place by April 2020:

  • an agreed ‘golden record’ for customers, with effective data quality processes
  • improved, consistent management of cases and contacts through NPS
  • an operational customer view used by contact centre agents
  • analytical customer view driving strategic planning within Neighbourhoods and Anti-poverty
  • targeted digital communications with our customers
  • increased transactions through MyAccount ( digital services within  NPS Housing), our default channel for rents and repairs
  • a new ‘Digital First’ approach to tenancy starts
  • a redesigned and streamlined website focused on effective resolution of customer queries.

So far, the journey to this point has been challenging but with plenty of learning to take away and evolve from. In particular, we wanted to share five tips to help implement a digital service successfully.

[1] Understand your customers

The importance of understanding customer demographics should never be underrated. Through this insight, you will have a far better grasp of your customers’ needs and requirements. We undertook extensive analysis that helped us to identify quality data about our customers.

For example, our customers:

  • bring in an average lower income than the UK and Greater Manchester, with significant inequality across Oldham Wards
  • are forecasted for significant population growth, driven by 65+
  • comprise of a significantly greater proportion of Pakistani and Bangladeshi households
  • have lower attainment in Early Years education
  • have lower employment levels.

While these facts won’t directly affect the technical aspects of the digital service you are looking to implement, it will help guide why you need a digital service in the first place (a very good place to start). It should help you to identify a direct need and, most importantly, how your digital service should look to address that need.

To exemplify this point our previous system had been designed to address inefficiencies with our service centre, not the people they served. This meant the system was flawed from the start, with high levels of customers finding it difficult and frustrating to use. This of course quickly led to a huge drop in users and meant our call centre was fielding far higher levels of calls; tackling simple tasks that should have been done via the digital service.

Moreover, understanding all of this allowed us to work on a digital customer engagement strategy that was bought into at the highest level of the organisation. For us, it was not just about updating  MyAccount so the customer was put first (though this was a large part of it). Instead, it came down to redesigning the processes across whichever channel the customer chose to use – whether that was by telephone, online, social media, face to face, or any other – to ensure they received a consistent, high quality, connected (or omnichannel) experience.

[2] Ask customers what services they want

Thorough research should be taken with your customers so you can best define what it is they require. We did this by talking with our customers and running focus groups to discuss the old system and what they would expect to see in a new one.

From these focus groups, we were able to pull out key focuses such as:

  • how our customers currently liaise with us; the channels they use (e.g. telephone or social media)
  • the devices they are most likely to use (e.g. mobile devices – meaning the platform would need to be responsive, or, in other words, able to resize to accommodate different screen sizes)
  • which services are most often requested and/or used
  • the processes in place to record customer information. In other words:
    • what are key customer details we need in place first, so our advisors can have a good view of each customer?
    • what are the key inputs and information we should be recording from customer interactions, such as phone calls?
    • how do we ask customers to provide these details?

As part of the customer access strategy, we also worked with business specialists to define, implement and test the new solutions, processes and insights.

[3] Building and implementing

The next step focuses on the building of the service and how it is implemented. While you are moving away from customer-led feedback, at least for the earlier stages, it is still important to keep your customers as the main focus.

A successful implementation should see you work closely with your IT and service provider. For us, this was NPS. Their experience and knowledge in this area helped ensure project aims were kept to. In this matter, for example, the aim was to design and implement a new customer self-service portal which:

  • is fully integrated with NPS’ housing management software
  • is customer-friendly, simple and intuitive
  • is designed with the customer in mind
  • will reduce calls to the Service Centre
  • gives customers access to key information anytime, any day
  • is device responsive (i.e. works on all computers, tablets and smartphones)
  • will reduce costs (e.g. printing, resource)
  • can be measured for success through existing BI tools
  • incorporates customer feedback and surveys.

We also found, in working closely with our supplier, that smaller (and often overlooked) issues were identified and resolved, delivering quick wins across the project. For example, NPS was able to highlight issues around address data quality – such as missing contact information – and aid us through finding a solution.

[4] Embedding processes

With the service ready to roll out, you will need to identify how you can embed new processes into the day to day working of your business. Staff at all levels should understand what the service can do and feel empowered to manage their business areas in order to make the required changes.

This is done through careful testing, reviewing and listening to feedback. It is rarely enough to be happy with the initial end product: new challenges will inevitably arise and so you should be ready to make improvements to your processes.

[5] Don’t rest on your laurels!

Neatly following on from this last point is the simple, yet effective, ideal that you should never rest on your laurels. If you are not continually challenging yourself and the service you are providing then what more can you possibly do to improve customer experience or help staff to improve what they deliver?

This is not to say that improvements should become complex; the simplest solutions are often the most effective. Instead, this final tip is more around the importance of correctly capturing and analysing data around customer interactions. From this intelligence, you can see what works, what does not, what could be better and where you can properly challenge the processes in place.

This data does not need to come from just your own business. Look at what other housing providers are doing. Look at what is happening in other sectors. You can learn from their experiences and proactively apply it to a continual process of review and refinement. In short, and we cannot stress this enough, good data is the key to understanding what’s happening…and what you can do about it.

If you would like to learn more about NPS and the transformational services they offer with their housing management solutions, contact the team here.

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