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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

'Housing organisations must embrace technology to survive'


Embracing new technology will be key for housing organisations to thrive, says James Caspell.

The majority of internet hits are now through smart phones. Yet the majority of housing websites, including CIH’s, were built to be navigated through an old-school desktop. Remember them?

This leaves thousands of members and potential members pinching around on their phones just to view content, let alone click on it, with most giving up before long.

This year, CIH is looking to rebuild its website and its absolutely right that it takes a mobile first approach to the layout and usability of the new site – both to make life easier for existing members, and attract new ones.

The Gartner Survey in 2016 found that 89% of companies expected to compete mostly on the basis of customer experience. In 2012, that figure was just 36%. Providing easy-access digital platforms is key to meeting this challenge.

Whilst print media remains important in reaching both existing and new customers, relying on it is at best managing terminal decline. Members and residents increasingly expect to be able to undertake end-to-end transactions through self-service, and not having to pick up the phone or post a form back.

The potential – and challenge - for CIH and the housing sector is huge.

One in three people look at their smartphone within five minutes of waking up, whilst one in six look at their smartphones 50 times per day. For many millennials and potential CIH members, these figures are likely to be even higher.

The housing sector is gifted with a handful of out-and out innovators (I’m looking at you, Halton Housing Trust and Bromford), but after that, the majority of the sector falls into the late majority or laggard end of the digital spectrum.

This is not about beating the sector up, but about making sure we are fit to deliver the purpose the housing – and CIH - exists for.

Very few housing organisations are making the most of second mover advantage in the digital arena. One of the reasons for this is an over-reliance on external digital agencies and off-the-shelf products – rather than learning from each other, and fostering a culture of true innovation.

Just as importantly, without clarity on what an organisation is trying to do with digital, it’s unlikely that online tools are going to be mainstreamed, and instead sit mothballed apart from them.

At Sutton Housing Partnership, we’ve written our digital strategy in less 140 characters. That’s right, it’s a tweet: “Deliver an effortless, consistent range of services to customers, 24 hours a day.”

For SHP, 43% of our income is automatically “collected” via housing benefit. Universal Credit is a game changer. If we attempt to collect using current methods (£7 at reception, £3 over the phone) the transaction costs alone will spiral.

We’re only in the early stages of delivering the seismic transformation needed, but we’re clear what our business case is and what success will look like. By 2021, over half of all our transactions will be by self-service. So far we’ve increased it from 9% to 14%, so still have a long way to go.

This will need us to go where our customers already are, for example Facebook and twitter, rather than building an overly bloated website or app that tries to do much more than facilitate online payments, deliver repairs quicker and more conveniently, and improve the quality of homes and neighbourhoods we manage.

We are asking our residents what they want from our digital offer and the responses so far have been straight forward. We’re also busting myths about older social housing tenants not being interested in digital – our oldest online portal user is 74.

Similarly for CIH, using social media and tools like Eventbrite means the reach to members and non-members will be wider, cheaper and more effortless.

Research also suggests that targeted, proactive customer contact – including customised texts and emails - can reduce between one in three inbound eventual customer contacts, and reach residents (and for CIH, members) in a way that is much more convenient and less intrusive than a phone call or door knock out of the blue.

As the housing sector becomes as much about clicks as well as bricks, it’s important that we don’t just catch-up, but instead forge ahead in the digital arena.

Embracing concepts such as artificial intelligence, proactive webchat and CRMs that can support a seamless omnichannel service are how CIH and the sector can future proof itself, so that together we can thrive - and not just survive.

James Caspell is head of business improvement and performance at Sutton Housing Partnership and a member of CIH’s member of the future advisory board, and CIH London regional board.

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