Why 2021 is the year of digital & self-serve for housing associations and their residents

This post was updated in November 2021

The pandemic has seen housing association receptions and resident hubs across the country close and remain shut. As the coronavirus crisis led to a months-long nationwide lockdown, housing groups suddenly found themselves dealing with an unprecedented exodus to remote work.

Alongside this, normal face-to-face interaction with frontline operatives has been hard to maintain.

So, it’s little surprise that against this backdrop, residents’ behaviours also changed significantly in 2020.

For one, we saw the world become increasingly digital. Globally, internet usage increased by as much as 70% during the pandemic. And across the UK housing sector, residents’ appetites for digital channel use were no different.

Just as customers expect brands to provide an assortment of digital services, residents also want their landlords to be available in the digital channels they use. According to a 2021 report by Peabody, one of London’s largest and oldest housing associations, the pandemic had increased their residents’ Internet usage. More specifically:

  • During the pandemic, 31% of households had installed broadband for the first time.
  • A further 11% had upgraded their broadband package and purchased new devices.
  • Among online residents, 76% use the internet frequently.

Meanwhile, our survey with Inside Housing found that 88% of social landlords saw increased resident demand for digital products amid the pandemic. This change in customer behaviour also compelled 84% of landlords to increase their focus on digital transformation.

Related reading: Digital transformation in housing: 6 areas of change in housing associations

Where does digital self-service figure in all of this?

According to a Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) report, housing organisations in 2020 aimed to be more accessible to tenants by simplifying and making interactions more responsive. For some housing providers, this meant investing in a “better digital self-service offer.”

What is digital self-service?

Self-service or self-serve is a user experience (UX) feature that enables customers to complete an action or task on your digital channels without intervention or assistance from a human being.

Think of a self-checkout counter at a supermarket, for example. The checkout counter provides instructions on scanning your items, where to place them after they’ve been scanned, and how to pick a payment option. Sure, you may need staff assistance, such as when you’re purchasing a bottle of wine. But the process mostly happens with the customer in control.

The same principle applies in the world of live chat and chatbots. By providing a list of your housing services and answers to frequently asked questions within the chat, residents can help themselves find the services they need without speaking to one of your contact centre staff.

Here’s an example of a chatbot from believe housing, one of the largest housing associations in North East England, signposting users to their services and resources.

When implanted correctly, effective self-service solutions optimise your resident experience by giving them the tools and information they need when they need it.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, many of your customers don’t necessarily want to speak to your company representatives. Think of it this way: does a resident really want to sit in a call queue for several minutes just to change their direct debit information? Wouldn’t it be more convenient if they could do that on their own?

It’s no surprise then that 67% of customers prefer using self-service options over speaking with a live agent.

Why now is the time to make digital self-service tools available to residents

Fortunately, housing associations in the UK are adapting to changing customer behaviour.

Head of Communications at Catalyst, Anna Mitchell, explained to us that in 2020: “We adapted at pace, to communicate with our customers digitally.”

“Customers have come to expect this level of service,” she added.

Speed is another factor that makes self-service so important to customers. In fact, research shows that a massive 90% of consumers now expect an immediate response to a customer service question — “immediate” being 10 minutes or less.

So it is hardly surprising that a key lesson from 2020 for housing associations is that it is “a myth that heaps of customers only want to speak on the phone or via paper,” as Head of Customer Experience at Alliance Homes Group, Cath Pullin, puts it.

Rooftop’s Chief Executive, Boris Worrall, notes that “customer expectations have been rising over time, partly because of our experience as consumers in the private sector.”

This sentiment is echoed in the Social Housing White Paper, which declared that housing associations should provide “the best customer service of the private sector.”

How can housing associations meet the goals outlined in the white paper and meet residents’ expectations?

Providing self-service channels to your customers is the key. But the challenge is balancing the cost and effort of implementation whilst ensuring sufficient uptake among your residents.

In the current mix of customer portals, apps and new housing management systems, one tool, in particular, is proving a quick-win that can harmonise self-serve tools and capitalise on the wave of multi-channel digital adoption: chatbots.

Chatbots are the perfect vehicle for self-service technology, as they leverage natural conversation to engage residents and find out what they need. Investing in conversational chatbot technology ensures that your housing association is ready to respond to the growing appetite for omnichannel customer support.

At Futr, our chatbot platform can:

  • Automate answers to a wide variety of your residents’ questions;
  • Educate residents about your services;
  • Signpost to your existing self-serve tools;
  • And provide 24/7 support in the language the customer speaks.

Related reading:Chatbots for housing: How conversational AI supports your residents

Chatbots also allow for consistent messaging — essential in keeping residents up-to-date and connected with you, especially through the rapidly changing circumstances of the pandemic. 

Even better, chatbots free up your customer support colleagues to work on more complex issues. Self-service isn’t about taking away existing services; it’s about giving your residents more choice and thus improving customer service.  

Eight key benefits of chatbots for housing associations

  • Available 24/7: Perfect for weekend warriors, night-owls and Bank Holiday queries!
  • Any channel: Speak to your residents in the apps they use to speak to everyone else in their lives, be that text, Facebook or WhatsApp, as well as on your website – of course!
  • Any language: Automatically translate conversations into over a hundred different languages.
  • Immediate responses: We’re living in a time in which society expects an instant response as standard.
  • Consistent responses: Write the perfect answer to questions and be confident that human error will be a thing of the past.
  • Seamless live chat handover: Sometimes, human-to-human interaction is essential. Let your chatbot hand over seamlessly to a live chat agent at the right moment.
  • Get to know your residents even better: You can learn an enormous amount about your residents from your chatbot, guiding content creation and how demand is managed into the customer experience team.
  • Reduced operational costs: Every repeat question that’s automatically answered by a chatbot translates to contact cost savings.

Bring digital self-service solutions to your housing association

If you haven’t got a chatbot yet — or have one that isn’t up to scratch — now is the time to begin the conversation. This time tomorrow, you could have a bot live on your site and other digital channels.

Get in touch with Futr, and we can chat about your existing setup, understand your goals, and share a little more on how other housing associations are already using this technology! Be sure to follow the Futr blog for more insights on using chatbots to improve customer satisfaction in the housing industry.

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Futr is a VC backed tech start-up with the mission of delivering superpowers to support teams everywhere.  Futr’s superpowers are transforming the way organisations serve their audiences.

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