Futr | The age of the Transformer

Futr | The age of the Transformer

What’s driving digital channel shift and automation? Futr’s Housing Account Manager, Kitty Hadaway, gives her view on housing’s digital transformation, and a market that seems in an increasing hurry to innovate.

There’s been much talk regarding the recent acceleration of digital transformation in social housing, with landlords innovating to make information and services more readily available through new channels. Futr has worked with a range of social landlords over the course of the last 12 months. 

Some have been well ahead in their digital transformation journey, while most have been less well advanced, but all have recognised that this is a time to act and introduce new digital solutions. Why?    

A Futr ‘chatbot’ customer since September 2020, Ryan Heseltine, Solutions Architect at Ongo, explains: “It’s been clear that housing customer contact needed to move on if it was to be effective and sustainable, and that over time we needed to shift as much customer interaction as possible onto digital channels, without excluding anyone from that journey. 

“We have a mantra when it comes to customer service — ‘digital first — but with no one left behind’. But significantly, society has been changing — particularly people’s technical ability and expectations around customer services, which are moving the goalposts on ‘no one left behind’.

“Add to this the impact of the pandemic accelerating change way beyond housing, these barriers feel less of a concern. It’s felt like pushing on an open door.”

Change, change, change
Ryan and Ongo are far from being the only landlords to feel the force of accelerated change, and over the course of the past year we’ve received consistent feedback themes from landlords. These have included: 

  • Customers seem more willing to use new or existing online services
  • Increasing numbers of customers are using online services for the first time
  • Residents’ expectations of their landlords are changing, in part as a result of their digital experiences in the private sector 
  • Our tenant offering needs to mirror our new more agile ways of working
  • We need to reduce the burden on our customer contact teams so they can deal with more complex customer needs  
  • This is the right time to further tenant self-service, and increase usage of tenant portals   

Based on our engagement with the market, although the online accessibility gap is narrowing, the digital divide could be at risk of widening. A recent Ofcom report revealed that the number of UK homes without internet access has fallen by 5% to 6% since the start of the first 2020 lockdown, and also highlighted that online shopping, banking and video calling family and friends, as being the biggest factors in encouraging new internet use — particularly amongst older age groups.

Other research suggests however that the real driving force behind digital growth has come from an explosion in existing web users adopting new services. It is therefore crucial that inclusive digital channels are developed to encourage and enable as many people to benefit from new online services as possible — channels that are logical and easy to use for the vast majority.   

As Ongo’s Ryan Heseltine observes: “Our focus is now on ensuring that our digital services are of a quality that customers switch to them permanently.”

True digital transformation only occurs as and when a new channel is tried, accepted and permanently adopted.  

Efficiency, choice and accessibility
In our experience, a more digital savvy customer base is enabling landlords and tenants to embrace and share in a number of mutual benefits. Firstly, making more processes digital or automated is reducing the need for human involvement, particularly on simple, repetitive tasks such as reporting a repair or checking a rent balance.

This in turn is helping to address certain stubborn inefficiencies, particularly in how and where skilled people use their knowledge. For example, customer contact staff can now focus their attention on more complex issues (and the pandemic has created plenty of these), and those people who really need their experience.

But most importantly, customers are now being given more choice as to how and when they can engage with and access information. Rather than being constrained by nine-to-five, Monday to Friday, they can make a 24/7 automated channel their first port of call and take it from there.

To better understand what’s going on, Futr took the opportunity to review aggregated chatbot data from across four landlords with a total of around 70,000 homes from September 2020 to June 2021. Of the 32,625 requests made by tenants via landlord chatbots, almost 28% of those were made outside of core working hours. So the bots are still working hard when staff are at home.  

Automated contact channels are also lifting the barriers on language, Futr’s bot has responded to customers using 31 languages other than English. This is a big step forward for enabling engagement with diverse communities. Landlords are also reporting that 80 or even 90% of customer enquiries are being resolved — and the average response time taking 1.39 seconds. 

Most questions from residents are understood by the bot and answered straight away, often signposting or upskilling residents towards new and existing other self-serve tools, rather than an ongoing automated conversation.

So how does it work?
Futr’s chatbots have been designed specifically for civic markets such as housing, the police and local authorities, and are the result of sector-specific refinement, learning from every customer interaction. Once a question is submitted via a landlord’s channel of choice (either on their website, customer portal, via social media or WhatsApp), it’s then analysed using something called natural language processing (NLP). 

Users have a licence to chat naturally with the system, allowing them (not the chatbot) to set the terms of the conversation. This new level of freedom in expression means customers can ask what they want in their own words and chosen language, rather than having to select from a limited number of pre-programmed options, as with early chatbots.

Looking ahead, I can only see the pace of change getting even quicker. The more tenants become used to digital channels, the more willing and ready they will be to adopt new ones. 

We know from our experience, that some landlords have been hesitant to promote or market new digital services, waiting instead until they are confident in their readiness, preferring to initially soft launch. This will change.

AI and automation is also ready to jump another level. For example, as mentioned Futr’s chatbots are being seamlessly integrated into existing live chat channels such as WhatsApp and Facebook — and we’re already integrating voice-activated recognition via Alexa for clients. This could have very positive implications for older people or those with certain disabilities — such as the visually impaired.

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