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Digital Transformation in Housing: How Housing Associations are Embracing Technology

05.10.20 Written by Ged Richardson

Technology is the great disrupter.

The likes of tech companies such as Uber and Deliveroo have, in less than a decade, revolutionized industries that remained unchanged for decades.

On its rampant path, technology is even playing a role in how the housing sector operates, transforming the way in which services are delivered.

In this article, we delve into the ways tech is changing the game, and what lessons can be learned. As we’ll see, technology is already transforming how housing associations work.

How Technology is Transforming the Housing Sector

Viewings

In this era of COVID, viewing properties to either buy or rent is complicated. Virtual tours on property sites like Rightmove have seen a huge increase with more than 100,000 properties with online tours.

But virtual tours are a mere entrée. Thames Valley Housing, which owns and manages 15,000 homes, creates virtual reality versions of their new homes that they show their prospective tenants around, much as they would a brick and mortar property.

“Virtual reality versions of our new homes helps us ensure that we’re confident we can carry on building…we’ve got the ability to sell people into that idea quite early on.” said Kush Rawal, their commercial director.

Affordability Checks

But first, prospective homeowners need to know they can afford a house.

Thames Valley have also been working with MetroFinance to introduce a chatbot on its website that allows customers to go online, put in their information, and find out in minutes whether or not the headline affordability is there.

Commercial Director Kush Rawal says “a view very quickly of whether that property is pursuable or not from an extra perspective, and from our point of view it helps sort the many applications we’ll get for a home,”

Repairs and Maintenance

Plumber fixing tap

We’ve spoken to the UK’s leading housing associations and asked them specifically what the main pain-points are for their customers. Right at the top of the list is ‘How do I book a repair?’.

In their 2019 annual report housing association Notting Hill Genesis’s (NHG) admitted it had issues with its repairs and maintenance service, revealing its customer satisfaction rate was at an unsatisfactory 65%.

Fortunately for their residents, NHG are already ahead of the game as they have started to use an online marketplace platform (built by tech company Plentific) that provides a quick and seamless way for customers to log faults and find contractors at a competitive price.

This ‘Uber of repairs’ helps customers source local repairs and maintenance contractors who have already been screened and vetted, like a private ‘ratedpeople.com’ of sorts.

Another housing association that has also seen results with this approach are Peabody. “Self-employed, skilled residents can bid for work themselves, and we’ve already seen hundreds of smaller, local tradespeople and businesses delivering quality responsive repairs in and around our homes.” said Peabody’s chief operating officer.

Predictive Analytics

Digital transformation starts with customer experience, and while a platform for reporting faults and finding contractors is great, its even better if those issues don’t happen in the first place.

Here is where what’s known as predictive analytics helps. It’s a fancy-sounding term, but simply means using data to preempt issues before they happen.

For example, predictive analytics can inform you when a lift is likely to break down next, so it can be fixed before anyone gets stranded on the 15th floor. Or boiler failures before they happen.

It can be used to predict who is not likely to pay their rent and hence take action to help them before they get into rent arrears.

Field Management

Behind the scenes, technology like Propeller is also helping housing associations manage contractors and drive efficiencies and compliance across an entire housing stock.

According to Dave Wilson, operations manager at Propeller, “It’s been a natural progression for us as with a lot of housing associations, we’ve worked with them through their contractors over the years, and what we’ve found is that a lot of housing associations have a massive impulse now to really get an overview of how compliant they are”.

Automation

Robot

AI automation is also making in-roads into the sector and there are a few players in the field.

One transformation of particular interest to us (as we at Futr make chatbots) is the automation of live chat support.

Housing associations have on average 15-20 contact centre staff and the questions they receive are highly transactional and in many cases, highly repetitive.

So how could a chatbot help housing associations contact centre teams?

Well, there are broadly two types of chatbots to deal with this. The first is a ‘button style’ or ‘scripted’ bot where users click through a series of preconfigured questions and answers. While these can be effective if done correctly, set up is onerous for the housing association as they have to second-guess everything a tenant may want to know about.

The second type is an ‘NLP-enabled’ chatbot (NLP stands for Natural Language Processing) that uses AI to do all the heavy lifting, and decipher the ‘intent’ of the question and serve back the appropriate answer.

Here at Futr, we have deep domain knowledge in the sector. We have a bank of over 1,000 frequently asked questions asked by housing association tenants which forms the basis for our ‘NLP’ knowledge base.

We marry this with a ‘scripted’ bot flow of ‘button driven’ themes covering the top frequently asked questions. This gives tenants both the speed to access their top issues quickly and efficiently, and also the breadth of data to cover the most particular of queries.

You can see an example of one of our bots at work on the homepage of housing association Believe Housing.

Tenants can ask the chatbot anything they like, and the bot will point them in the right direction, or if necessary escalate the issue and handover to a live agent for tenants more complex bespoke queries and issues.

This is great news for customer support agents as well as customers. According to Believe Housing, the take up has been promising “tenants are willing to adopt more technologies, they also prefer the service.”

Summary

As we’ve seen, digital transformation is happening at an incredible pace in the housing sector, and forward-thinking housing associations that take full advantage will be tomorrow’s winners.

As customer expectations change, the companies that embrace technology will garner a superb brand reputation. Because word of mouth matters so much in housing (neighbours do like to talk!), your customers could be your next brand advocates.

And that is, as they say, a win-win situation.

  • Published 05.10.20
  • By Ged Richardson
  • In Features
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