In her latest blog, Thrive Homes Chief Executive Elspeth Mackenzie argues that a bold approach to new technology makes sound business sense.
I was recently speaking at a networking conference about the growing role of technology in all areas of our lives. There continue to be incredible advances in this field, from potentially life-saving ‘virtual doctor’ gadgets to the welcome introduction of online passport renewal, all aimed at increasing convenience and efficiency.
Digital technology is now part of everyday life, with laptops, smartphones, tablets and apps used by a huge percentage of the population – including housing association customers – to buy their groceries, browse the latest fashions, book a holiday or check their bank balance.
Social housing providers are often behind the curve of other businesses, such as retail and banking, but we can’t escape that technology is the future – and we must not be left behind.
In recent years there has been much talk in our sector of ‘going digital’ and ‘getting online’ as if it is a separate entity, an add-on to whatever else we do.
But technology has to be intrinsic to the business model we are operating, not a ‘bolt on’ to our existing processes. It is only then that technology can deliver the time-saving, cost-efficient results that can ensure the best use of resources and improve our performance in a tough financial environment.
In order to do that, we need to think about the impact technology can have on our organisations and the kind of businesses we want to be.
Changing the goalposts
The increasing use of technology reflects a growing trend among our customers and the wider population but, to keep pace, we must understand how to interact effectively with them in different arenas and take into account the resulting differences in their expectations.
For example, John Lewis department stores have a great reputation for customer service, with a highly successful business model focusing on in-store, face-to-face contact with consumers. But, when the company went online, it learned the hard way that those customers needed a different approach – they are not interested in personal contact and effusive apologies for delivery delays, they just want their goods to arrive on time with no quibbles and no fuss.
The point is that we have got to understand what is important to customers in the particular arena in which they are engaging with us. In turn, that will shape new measures of satisfaction and related performance targets. For instance we currently set targets for completing certain types of repairs within particular timescales. But, for our customers, convenience of the appointment time may well be more important.
In this new world, it is about knowing our customers and ensuring, within our own financial constraints, we make our offer clear to them from the outset – what level of service they will receive in return for their rent.
But it does beg the question as to how tough your organisation is willing to be in terms of switching its offer. Endlessly double layering technology on top of existing channels is not the key to success in making time and cost efficiencies.
While easing the transition, we need to encourage and cultivate behaviours which are good for our business – for example, narrowing our communication channels to just the phone or online. We must be bold, based on clarity around what we are trying to achieve.
At Thrive, we have recently started producing publications such as our annual reports only online, doing away with print versions, and now only send rent statements once a year. Far from sparking a wave of indignant outrage, there have been no complaints and no impact on arrears.
Similarly, we are working with some tenants who are having to move to allow for redevelopment – and, rather than insisting on letters by post, they were perfectly happy to give us their phone numbers or email addresses so we could let them know about suitable alternative homes.
Our staff must be taken on this journey too, so everything we do reflects what is important not only to the customer but to the business. For instance, instead of focusing on how fast our customer contact centre team answers a call, we should perhaps shift our performance targets to concentrate on how well we deal with those inquiries.
I firmly believe that, rather than viewing technology as the decorative icing on top of our service ‘cake’, we should be adapting our businesses to work so they are truly supported by it. To make the most of what the digital age has to offer – and becoming more efficient and effective in our use of resources – we need to embrace the change and remodel our business processes accordingly.