Helping housing associations improve tenant communication and engagement using digital

OPINION / 4th June 2019

The Government’s recent Green Paper has issued a wake-up call for housing associations: modernise the way you communicate and engage with tenants, or suffer the consequences.

Published last August, the Green Paper sets out to redress the imbalance between social housing residents and their landlords.

With approximately 9 million people, or around 3.9 million households, living in the social rented sector in England, the Paper calls for residents to have a “stronger voice” and for housing associations to provide them with a “clearer complaints process”.

According to the report, tenants should be able to challenge their landlord to improve their performance and delivery of service, and must be given access to a good complaints processes.

In response to these issues, ORM is hosting a hackathon on 26 June, called PITCH – People Innovating to Change Housing. We are inviting key players within the social housing sector to join us in solving some of the biggest challenges facing housing associations today.

The aim of PITCH is to bring experts from the sector together with design and software specialists to produce digitally enabled solutions that can be applied in the real world. By the end of the day we expect to have designed and developed working prototypes that will address real industry problems.

Ahead of PITCH, we ran a webinar attended by several housing associations, including our client Moat, as well as The Guinness Partnership, Saxon Weald and Worthing Homes.

The attendees, who are customer experience, tenant engagement and digital transformation experts, joined us to discuss the issues their organisations are facing.

Broadly, they agreed that there are four areas of concern:

  • Accessibility
  • Communication
  • Data
  • Repairs

Below we’ve highlighted the issues raised, and outlined the responses, which we hope to further explore at PITCH next month.

Accessibility

One of the biggest hurdles facing housing associations today is how they communicate and engage with their diverse range of customers. Typically, their tenants differ in age and ability to access the web. Plus, the level of engagement with tenants varies – some want to interact more than others.

Many of the webinar panelists said they have a lot of information they wish to share with their customers, but are unsure how to do it in a way that is accessible, or where everyone can interact with it.

Next steps:

In order to make it easier for tenants to interact and transact with their housing association we need:

  • solutions that are accessible to all tenants
  • a multi-channel approach to communication
  • to adhere to health & safety compliance

Communication

When it comes to engaging with tenants, there are broadly two areas of concern: how to improve communication with them and how best to listen to their needs.

Improving communication with tenants

Housing associations are struggling to know who their customers are, or which channels they prefer to communicate on. This, combined with the new regulations around GDPR, means they have become reluctant to share any information with their tenants at all.

Panelists on our webinar admitted that part of the problem is navigating the data from the multitude of complex back end systems, which means they don’t always have a ‘single view’ of their customer.

Yet, with technology gathering pace and adoption of the smartphone gaining in prominence, the sector needs to change. Tenants are increasingly becoming used to the types of digital services provided by Amazon, Uber or even Tesco, and expect this kind of interaction with their housing provider too.

Levels of engagement is another area of concern; it is not always as high as housing associations would like. This could be down to tenants feeling disconnected from decision makers. They have reportedly said that major decisions about their living conditions are made by people “who do not live in the building”. This is affecting their moral, and consequently they are becoming disengaged.

Next steps:

  • facilitate dialogue between tenants and decision makers
  • streamline and unite back-end systems to create a single customer view
  • learn from other industries such as Uber or Amazon in order to provide ‘live’ information in real-time
  • give customers flexibility to transact at a time convenient to them (not just Monday to Friday)

Listening to tenants

Many housing associations are working hard to listen to their customers. They are providing them with numerous ways to report their concerns –  from surveys, to mobile interactions, and even face-to-face services.

Yet, the issue for housing associations lies in translating what they hear into a tangible positive action. Our panelists reported of “drowning under customer data and analysis”. They say they are finding it hard to analyse all the nuggets of information from customers to find the root cause of the problem in order to take the right / appropriate action.

Next steps:

  • give tenants a single platform where they can engage and be heard
  • introduce clearer complaints procedures
  • identify hot topics / areas of concern to tenants

Data

Housing associations have become inundated with customer data. Yet, many have major concerns about how to use it effectively, and in compliance with the new GDPR regulations.

In our discussion, it was agreed that sharing of customer data, particularly with third party providers like health professionals, would be useful. One participant said it would help them to provide a better service for their most vulnerable customers.

Another suggestion was that all housing associations in England should collaborate and share relevant data. This would allow housing providers to become smarter and even open up new revenue streams.

For example, many housing associations up and down the country have vacant garages available to let. If there was a national database of vacant properties accessible for prospective renters, this could open up a new income opportunity for the sector.

Others wanted to use data to help personalise their services. Yet, they said their data sets are not reliable enough at this stage. Work needs to be done to ‘clean’ the data, in order to create a single customer view.

Next steps:

  • facilitate the sharing of customer data with third parties
  • use data to create a single customer view

Repairs

The current repairs process is clunky and inefficient. A great deal of time and money is being wasted on unsuccessful repair call-outs. This is largely due to residents mistakenly labelling their repair, so the wrong specialist is sent out.

In addition, repairs to communal areas are being requested on an ad-hoc basis, and don’t include all the communal repairs that are needed. So, instead of engineers or maintenance companies repairing the communal repairs all at once, specialists are being sent out over and over, which is highly inefficient.

Our paenlists also highlighted the problem wasting residents’ time. Under the current system, once a repair has been logged, tenants are given a time slot, say morning, afternoon or evening, to wait in for the engineer to come and fix the problem. As housing associations aren’t able to specify the exact time the person will arrive, residents’s time is often wasted waiting in for the repair person to arrive.

Next steps:

  • allow customers to report online
  • use a digital channel to keep customers informed of repair status e.g. timing of when reported, when engineer will arrive, akin to Amazon parcel delivery
  • streamline the process to allow for batch jobs to reduce cost

Is there an issue or area for digital development that we haven’t considered here? PITCH takes place at the end of this month and is the chance for housing associations to come together to innovate on digital products and initiatives. We want to be working on real-world issues so sign up and let us know what challenges you think could be resolved with digital.

Peter Patersen Peter Patersen Director, Client Engagement Peter Patersen