With the housing sector facing the most complex operating landscape for decades, landlords are juggling multiple priorities and competing demands for stretched capacity and resources.

Whilst data is undoubtably at the heart of business plans, enables robust decision making and is absolutely vital to establishing baseline position – it is only part of the story. The sector has struggled to deliver the much anticipated post-pandemic channel shift that would have created additional capacity and improved customer experience despite aspirations being high.

Let’s start with the data – at a sector-wide level, over the past five years the needle has only inched towards meaningful channel shift, with averages for digital contact moving from around 20% a few years ago to between 25-33% in recent times.  During the pandemic, digital contact naturally increased, but so did telephone contact. As neighbourhood and repairs teams were redeployed during lockdown they were typically not deployed against new approaches, and more traditional methods prevailed.

What was interesting during the pandemic was the temporary increase that the sector saw in satisfaction. The more cynical amongst us would argue that the temporary suspension or reduction in repairs volumes was the primary driver behind improved satisfaction, but there was one notable difference in how customers’ needs were met, that went way beyond transactional services.  We got to know our customers! We took time to understand requirements and preferences, we identified any vulnerabilities and responded to support them through challenging times, and we channelled resources towards meeting the needs of our customers.

This increase in understanding, empathy, and tailored service undoubtably changed the relationship between customer and landlord, and we saw spikes in positive sentiment and satisfaction. Perhaps the most interesting of all of the data relating to the pandemic, was that those landlords who had a well-established digital strategy typically saw stronger performance and larger increases in satisfaction. The reach they were able to achieve quickly, the data they were able to analyse to understand customers’ needs, preferences and transactions, and the rapid pivoting of services, were delivered successfully by those landlords with an effective digital strategy.  Of course, we also know that human interaction is key, but organisations with an embedded approach to digital are efficient and can channel resources to areas where face to face contact is needed. Using that deep understanding of customers, and designing services that meet their needs, is key to improving customer sentiment, strengthening relationships, hearing the customer voice, and meeting the requirements of consumer regulation.

Wind forward to 2023 and some of the top-performing landlords are delivering a multi-channel service, with over half of customer interactions happening through digital portals. Given the current economic challenges and complex operating environment, it’s hardly surprising that providers who can deliver an efficient service and target interactions that meet customers’ needs grounded in a deep understanding of them, are faring better as they wrestle with trade-off decisions and try to do more with less capacity, given rising costs and reduced income from rents.

Exploring why channel shift has been so difficult is also complex. The pandemic was followed by a global economic crisis, and the perception that resources needed to lurch from customer contact to cost of living challenges, repairs backlogs, decarbonisation agendas and getting ready for emerging regulation was widespread. Digital transformation moved down the agenda for many, and the fear of potential disruption and change outweighed the reality of capacity and customer experience benefits. It’s fair to say that many organisations slipped back into historic ways of working, and only a small percentage of providers accelerated new delivery models and digitalisation. Fear of the unknown, seismic external landscape pressure and a perception that customers preferred traditional methods of service delivery, all drove behaviour and design.

But this brings us back to where we started – it is only by understanding customers’ needs and preferences that you can truly design a service that meets expectations and delivers a positive experience. Without an efficient way of capturing customer data, analysing trends and using the insight to shape services it is difficult to deliver a positive customer experience. Customer portals are a great way to ensure that interaction is recorded, analysed and used to identify requirements and expectations.   They also provide easy access for customers to communicate at their convenience, and provide the assurance of ownership, tracking and history. When I’m talking to customers, I hear so many stories about the fear of their feedback or complaints going into a black hole at contact centres.

So the punchline is that digitalisation isn’t an either, or! Nor is it a faceless, less personalised way of interacting with customers. It’s a really effective way of understanding your customers and providing them with convenient access and assurance, and supports compliance with legislation and regulation creating the much-needed capacity for landlords to channel resources where they are needed – including offering targeted services and support for vulnerable customers or those who are digitally excluded.

As someone who had spent my whole career designing products and services to meet the needs of customers I am passionate about the impact that a wider adoption of digital transformation strategies could have across the sector.

Rob Quayle

Housemark’s interim Chief Executive Officer