Although digital transformation has been a watchword within most organisations for more than a decade, Randall Shortland, Digital Experience Manager at Settle, believes the pandemic has prompted many to fast-track automated solutions.
During VerseOne's Social Housing Customer Day, he led delegates through the provider’s own recent digital journey and the impact it has had on its management of more than 9,000 properties across Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.
Randall freely admits, however, that the Covid crisis left Settle’s digital roadmap – and a large number of its customers – in flux.
“I think the general mood was affected by a whole series of events, which culminated in a kind of perfect storm of backed-up repairs that couldn’t be completed throughout lockdowns, the effect of the pandemic on the supply of materials, Brexit, and the national mood.
“These things all came together, and we’ve now got huge demand from customers – as well as all the regulatory stuff that’s been thrown into the mix,” he said.
“I suppose the question has now become – given this massive demand – how do you use digital effectively to pace yourself through it because, of course, if it’s done properly, it can make things easier for organisations.”
During the pandemic, VerseOne worked with Settle to deliver a media-rich management platform and self-service portal which would allow customers to access services at any time – whether at home or on the go. The provider was also keen to build an integrated site capable of hosting digital tenant onboarding – which handles much of the administrative work before a customer can become a tenant, alongside online payments.
To achieve this successfully, Randall told delegates, public-facing organisations must embrace a strategy which delivers digital services so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them choose to do so, while those who can’t aren’t excluded.
“I think that’s a really nice way of putting it and I think that’s a really nice way for a housing association to approach digital,” he said.
“People are not second-class citizens because they can’t do digital but, on the other hand, if you design digital experiences that are easy, most customers will prefer to use them.
“I’ll give you an example. Last year, the rent statement page on our website was accessed – or used – 174,000 times. Now, I don’t think I’m being subjective here, but I think that’s probably saved a few phone calls to the contact centre.
“Has it saved 174,000 phone calls? Absolutely not. But people use it because it's so convenient, and they might check it more often than they ever would if they had to ring up and sit on hold to come through to the organisation.”
Social Housing, as outlined at the Customer Day, remains one of the most dynamic and fast-paced markets in the country. A recent survey, however, pinpointed the impact Covid has had on the sector, with a majority of organisations polled witnessing a rise in rent arrears and empty properties.
Many also believe the crisis has had a negative impact on their efforts to deliver value for money, with delayed repairs and communication problems now common.
But organisations like Settle have adapted well by taking advantage of digital technology to serve customers remotely, and often more efficiently, than before.
The organisation’s new platform, driven by the powerful VerseOne CMS, allows customers to securely access information on any device, as well as confirm an appointment or report any issues, all via an engaging and interactive interface. And the take-up figures, Randall revealed, are looking good.
“Our website got 1.7 million views last year. At 5pm, when we all go home, its usage actually continues quite strongly until the late hours, and then it picks up again quite strongly at about 7am.
“We all know that digital is open 24 hours a day, but it's interesting to remember just how much use it’s receiving and reflect on how much your customers want to do at times that are convenient to them.
“It’s also effortless for the customer and, ultimately, cheaper for us. I don’t mean cheaper in terms of pounds and pence because that's not the reason we do digital at Settle, but it certainly frees up time for staff to do more worthwhile things for our customers.”
As well as adhering to the stringent demands of a tightly regulated sector, Settle’s new digital business platform had to include CMS software which allowed customers to report problems with properties, which the provider once again developed in partnership with VerseOne.
“I actually built this [element] based upon looking through about 3,000 lines of repairs reported by customers. I looked at the language that they used when they reported the repair on the website, and I used that kind of language in the design of the [self-service] portal,” explained Randall.
“Customers tend to call a window a window and not a DGU. So it’s important to pay attention to your design experience and try and get to grips with the language they use and how the customer thinks, and build according to that.”
Randall is delighted the website – and the portal within it – have now proven to be such a success with customers and staff alike – but concluded by highlighting one final element fellow providers should consider.
“Most of your website traffic will be from your customers, and your customers aren't that interested in your chief executive’s face. What they are interested in is reporting their repairs, getting stuff done, paying their rent and doing all those sorts of things quickly and easily.
“So, give your portal a really shameless location on your website and promote it all over the place. Really weave it into your content.
“Our customers will not be measuring us against the housing association next door, they’ll be measuring their rent experience against the banking app, [and] their repair experience against the delivery company who tell them when the van is going to turn up.
“That's their expectation and that's what you need to be designing for and matching. So, with the greatest respect in the world, don't worry about what this or that housing association over there is doing, just concentrate on what the customer wants.”