2020 saw a flurry of digital transformation activity across the housing sector, and for some social landlords, the first brave steps with automated messaging. Six months after supporting believe housing to launch its first ever chatbot, housing automated messaging specialist Futr’s Business Development Manager Kitty Hadaway, reviews their half-year data.
If there’s one thing that recent events have taught us, it’s that a lot can change in just six months.
When we first launched our automated customer messaging system (chatbot) to the social housing sector late in 2019, no one in the industry could predict what lay in store over the coming year — nor how important effective communication between landlord and tenants would become.
From our prior work supporting civic organisations — including local authorities, police forces and charities — we knew that housing associations were likely to face many of the same customer service challenges, and that our unique system could help unlock vital capacity within contact teams.
Until September 2020 however, our chatbot hadn’t been tailored to support customer service within housing. Our Artificial Intelligence improves by learning from each new customer interaction to improve the efficiency and efficacy of conversations, but it needs a bank of data to begin with.
Futr’s chatbots have been working tirelessly for UK social landlords, 24/7 for nine months, and the system’s accumulated industry knowledge has now tipped-over to make our automated messaging solution ‘plug and play’ for new customers.
But let’s explain how we’ve got here through a landlord’s perspective.
Formed in 2015, North East landlord believe housing have an audacious approach to innovation, which has only been catalysed since rebranding in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated their digital transformation drive last year, leading to automated messaging and Futr.
believe housing were the ideal partners with whom to collaborate and define the parameters for our housing chatbot. After several weeks mapping their most common customer enquiries and assigning responses, the chatbot was launched on www.believehousing.co.uk in September 2020.
Simon Bartlett, believe housing’s Customer Experience Business Leader explains: “We took the decision to work with Futr, who at the time had limited experience in housing, but had an impressive track record of working with civic organisations with a similar audience profile.
“We’d looked for an end-to-end solution for a while. Futr’s product is the first we could get up and running as an integrated solution and reap the benefits really quickly.”
By the end of March 2021, customers had been using the housing chatbot for a full six months, providing a wealth of data and insight. As our first housing client to reach the milestone, it’s been interesting to analyse how, what and when the chatbot is delivering for believe housing customers.
When the chatbot receives an enquiry, it analyses the contents and picks the most relevant response from its ever-expanding database, using a method known as ‘confidence scoring’. A high level of confidence (based on prior conversation data) delivers an almost instantaneous response.
A total of 5,000 chatbot conversations took place during the six-month period, in a total of only two hours. This miniscule average duration (0.67 seconds per enquiry), demonstrates the routine nature of most enquiries and the efficiency in providing answers automatically.
Simon Bartlett agrees: “More often than not the customer isn’t seeking a conversation, but rather the right information at the time of their choosing.
“We had a good understanding of this based on feedback from our customer contact team, who would regularly be signposting people to the right information via our app, rather than untangling more complex situations.“
Situations don’t come much more complex than the COVID-19 pandemic. Like all social landlords, believe housing’s customer contact team found themselves answering questions that had never been asked before, so their chatbot needed to do the same — ensuring customers received consistent support.
With all chatbot users able to rate the quality of their automated messaging experience, and real-time reporting of all conversation data, believe housing have been able to efficiently identify any information gaps and supplement the system with additional content, as Simon points out: “The chatbot also helps us to proactively shape the information and content we produce and make available, by highlighting trends in people’s enquiries and questions; meaning we can get on the front foot in keeping people informed.”
Possibly the most rewarding finding from the data was that 31% of all chatbot enquiries happened outside of office hours. For a landlord aiming to offer customers a ‘life without barriers’, it’s been useful to demonstrate this accessibility of information and support — whenever someone needs it.
The chatbot has not only responded to customers in their own time, it has also allowed believe housing to communicate more fluently on its customers’ own terms. Through Natural Language Processing (NLP), the chatbot can understand slang, nuance and even translates into more than 120 languages.
Simon Bartlett has been impressed: “Our contact centre is only available during office hours, but our customers want answers any time of day or night. Futr has given us the ability to resolve customer queries first time, when they want it.
“Automated contact also lifts the barriers on language, and to date, our bot has responded to customers using seven languages other than English.”
The next six months
In developing our housing chatbot, we knew that automation could never replace the vital service provided by customer contact teams. Automated messaging is, however, proving adept at delivering efficient, effective responses to everyday housing enquiries, and making support more accessible.
As Simon concludes: “On reflection, automated messaging has been a positive step for believe housing, meshing well with our ethos and values, and assisting us in promoting digital transfer and customer self-service at a difficult time for us all.
“Most importantly, of course, our customers are finding it an increasingly useful source of information as and when they need it.”
Potentially the best news; as well as newer Futr clients Ongo, First Choice Homes Oldham and Bolton at Home, is that believe housing customers’ experiences of automated messaging are only likely to improve over time.
believe housing’s initial setup activity in September 2020, the additional content they’ve supplied over the past six months — and crucially — every single automated conversation conducted with customers, adds intelligence to the chatbot system and allows it to proactively improve its efficacy.
We’re excited to see what fresh insights and learnings are provided by the next six months of data.
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