In an occasional series of conversations, Phil Sorrell, CEO Housing Online chats with key customers about the challenges and opportunities facing the Housing sector. First up is a conversation from August this year with Dan Blake, Executive Director, Customer Experience at Berwickshire Housing Association.

Dan Blake

PHIL: Thanks for joining me, Dan. The pandemic has meant that we’ve all had to pivot and shift over the last couple of years. What were the key challenges that the pandemic thrust upon you?

DAN: Immediately there were issues around deploying the workforce. From an IT and infrastructure point of view, we had to make sure that we could continue to run the service. In order to do that we had to make sure that our staff were able to work from home. By the second week of March [2020] the offices had closed to the public and the first thing we needed to do was to get staff teams networked at home. Fortunately, by this point we’d moved our server offsite and we were cloud-based, which gave us a good baseline. We had also introduced a product called “Alertacall” which was great because we were trying to limit the amount of direct, face-to-face contact and these touchpads enabled us to do that with specific, vulnerable groups.

PHIL: These are touchpads?

DAN: Yes. They’re like an iPad within everybody’s home which they pay a service charge for, and it has our “OK Each Day” button: There’s a predetermined time that every individual sets, for example, “I get up at 10 o’clock in the morning” or “I’m up at 7 in the morning”. They then just have to hit that button [to confirm that they’re up and okay]. They can also manipulate the number of contacts they have, and the number of prompts per day. If someone is particularly vulnerable they might say, “I want to have three of those prompts, morning, noon and night”. It’s an additional measure that we have to say that person is okay. If they don’t [confirm that they’re okay when prompted], then there’s an escalation. We call them through the keypad and they speak to someone from the company.

"My mantra in frontline housing services is that you need to be visible and available to your customers…With our customers during the pandemic, whilst we were advised not to be making too many face-to-face visits, we made 12,000 wellbeing calls in the early stages just to make contact with our customers. We wanted them to know that we were here, and how to get hold of us, how to raise any concerns with us "

We found that, a lot of the time, people weren’t pressing the OK button because they just wanted to have a conversation. In terms of capacity that was a bit of an issue for the company initially, but I think the demand just increased exponentially through COVID because of loneliness.

PHIL: By not pressing the button, I can have a one or two minute interaction with someone?

DAN: Absolutely. It was an unintended consequence that we quickly had to work through. From a general customer service standpoint, our telephony system was very antiquated because we hadn’t invested enough as a company. If we wanted to move calls onto mobiles, or we wanted people to be able to take calls from home, that all needed to be worked through. We worked with GB Telecommunications and we’ve evolved our service as time has gone on. At first it was just simply getting the switchboard onto mobile phones, and we’re now at a point where we’ve deployed a far more mobile workforce and we’ve got call queues. Alarmingly, when we first looked at some numbers on this, we had a call abandonment rate of 40%, which was eye-watering. Now, and we check this daily, we’re at something like 98.6% call handling, so a very, very low abandonment rate.

PHIL: Was your 40% abandonment rate when you first switched to the new system, and that was your benchmark at the start?

DAN: We just started focusing on it. I was beginning to introduce our customer experience strategy and was asking what actually mattered in terms of customer experience. We’d started to analyse the trends and put in place some very primitive measurement: how many calls do we answer, how many don’t get answered? We’ve evolved from there and we are now getting into call resolution, call satisfaction and things like that. We accelerated everything we planned to do over a five year strategy into the first nine to eighteen months after lockdown, some things we did immediately.

We also looked at mobile working: we took our CRM system and put it into handheld devices and gave that to our Neighbourhood Managers, our Repairs Managers, frontline folks. We did over 12,000 outbound calls to customers and individuals throughout that period. We needed to change call flow controls and their classifications within our system. We did a lot of process mapping through this period because we realised that this wasn’t going to be a short-term change, what we were doing was going to endure.This is going to be an indefinite change and we need to embrace that.

PHIL: We all pivoted to working from home, and you’re working from home now, but what was the legacy of that for Berwickshire?

DAN: We’ve completely changed, we’ve reviewed our operating model as a business and we’ve found efficiencies within it. We’ve collapsed some of the middle management team leader / coordinator type roles and just pushed those people towards the customers. As a result, we’ve reduced our field patch sizes from around 400-600 customers down to about 250, depending upon the location.

PHIL: That’s pretty substantial.

DAN: We did a big launch for this too, as we wanted to get a real profile behind it. We made sure that the Neighbourhood Managers hand delivered leaflets that explained everything they were doing. The leaflet explains the areas we operate in, how everything works and introduces the Neighbourhood Manager in the middle with their direct telephone number. We used to have multiple contact points, but we’ve streamlined everything and created a funnel into our Customer Experience team.

Every contact, and there were around about 10-12 different ways to contact us, all funnel into one team. Now we can get consistent, organisational controls and levels of assurance so that the customer gets the same, consistent response and we can build our organisational customer standards around that. Now we can say ‘if you contact us about this, then you will have a response within this amount of time’. We can task out our escalations to the right roles, we can make appointments directly into our teams’ diaries. The overall customer experience has improved as a consequence of the operating model launch and we are a more efficient business as a consequence. That’s a major change and I would say that it was driven by COVID.

PHIL: These Neighbourhood Managers are remote and they’re not now coming back and sitting in the office?

DAN: Absolutely not. They start work from their house and they finish work at their house. There’s not an obligation or an expectation to check into any hub whatsoever. A critical part is making sure that we give them the right tools to enable them to do that.

PHIL: You’re quite geographically spread, aren’t you?

DAN: Yes, it’s a big area. About 160 miles across, off the top of my head. If you want to travel from one end to the other, you can’t do that in anything less than an hour. More if it’s harvest time and you’re stuck behind a combine! These guys are not expected to come into the office. What we do have is a set “anchor day” on a Wednesday where everybody comes together. We’ve placed real emphasis on how we sustain our organisational culture. We have a quarterly staff briefing with all the team together, we have monthly team time, which is a mixture of bringing people up to speed, some training, some guest speakers.

Last month, for example, we had a company called Change Work come in and brief us on fuel prices and the impact the cost of living crisis will have and how we can support customers experiencing fuel poverty, We also had Penumbra come in, and they’re a mental health charity and social care provider who work with us, talking about the service they offer. We also have specific team meetings and we make sure that Assets, Repairs and Neighbourhood Managers and everyone will meet as a group once a month and don’t lose sight of each others’ contributions and the fact that we are one team and not in siloes.

"We’ve formalised flexible working. It has a name, a brand: The BHA Way. It has a policy which defines what agile and what remote / hybrid working looks like….We don’t have flexi working any more because the whole ethos of our model is flexi."

PHIL: That seems like a good future model: mostly remote but with those focused days where everyone is back together. There’s no point bringing people back into the office when they can do the job remotely.

DAN: We did a lot of in-depth consultation with our teams and we formalised it really early. I’ve talked to other organisations who are trying to work in a hybrid arrangement but who haven’t put in place any policies to ratify that arrangement. For me, that means that you’re still in limbo and people will want to know what future model the business is working towards. I recommend that any organisation which hasn't ratified this should make it clear that it is the future of the organisation and that they aren’t going back to the way it was before. If you aren’t clear in your communication, you’re running a real risk with your staff as the employment markets are very competitive. I get the sense that operational overheads, such as office costs, are driving these decisions for some companies. We are looking at the sale of some of our commercial assets because we’re a not-for-profit organisation and we can direct that money to places it can have a bigger impact.

We’ve formalised it. We’ve called it “The BHA Way”. It has a name, a brand, it has a policy which defines what agile working and what remote / hybrid working looks like. It has clear expectations and principles that people must adhere to. We’ve talked about respect, we’ve talked about communication; we’ve refocused on email etiquette. Simple things. Make it real and communicate it… but do it in consultation. We don’t have flexi-working any more because the whole ethos of our model is flexi.

PHIL: Yes. For you flexible working is not a special thing that you can choose to do, it is what you do.

DAN: Yes, it’s flexible by its very nature. And we can evolve this. I’m very interested in four day working weeks, and that’s speaking as a Customer Experience Director. As long as it’s not to the detriment of our customer service and is going to make us a more attractive business. If it’s going to make people potentially more productive or happier and more motivated, then I’m all for it.

PHIL: We're a remote company and we try to use asynchronous communication to have those conversations to allow for the fact that many of us are part time and we’re spread across the country. We rarely use email internally at all; we only use email when customers email us. We’re trying to make sure that you can get information without being bombarded and not knowing if it’s relevant to you.

DAN: That’s something I’m very interested in as we’ve clumsily embraced MS Teams and Office 365 and we’re stumbling through trying to find the best use for those systems. What’s not to like about finding a good flow of information that doesn’t mean you’ve got 100 emails waiting for you when you’ve been out working with customers on appointments all day?

PHIL: What’s changed for you in terms of how you are providing services to your customers?

DAN: There was an immediate change. My mantra in frontline housing services is that you need to be visible and available to your customers. It’s business continuity planning: how reliant are you on your IT systems to form a relationship with your customers? For things like emergency repairs, you can always go back to a telephone call just by making a number available. With our customers during the pandemic, whilst we were advised not to be making too many face-to-face visits, we made 12,000 wellbeing calls in the early stages just to make contact with our customers. We wanted them to know that we were here, and how to get hold of us, how to raise any concerns with us. This led to us gathering a lot of insight; once we started lifting the stones, we started uncovering all sorts of other things, often quite concerning things.

Once you’re equipped with that sort of information, you have a duty of care to do something about it. Our Community Resilience Hubs were capturing this insight and then making sure that we could appraise it, prioritise it and then refer back to it in a data compliant way; ensuring that we had a use for the information we were capturing and a purpose for retaining it. We worked with a company called MMC Marketing and Research to design a scope and a methodology for capturing customer insight through COVID. We started with an online survey in two phases. The first part was pure demographic stuff: gender, age, various quantitative things and other things we really needed to refine, like contact information.

PHIL: Which means that you already have a process for collecting that information in place for the Regulator.

DAN: We do. We would normally collect this information at sign-up, but it became apparent that we were only asking these questions when we had physical contact, and suddenly there was a barrier to that. When was the last time we were in every single one of our customers’ homes? We, and by extension a contractor, are trained in the detection of vulnerability concerns, public protection issues and the like. We know that, whilst we’re not personally responsible for this, we have a duty to escalate and refer any concerns to the appropriate person in our business who is responsible. But when was the last time this happened? Do we have any assurance that we’ve done that? We’ve also got customers who aren’t on the grid for gas, so we may have never been into their homes.

We started to realise that there were people who we’d not been in touch with for some time, and perhaps not ever. So we started to do that, and we had a real focal point of priority to do it and we were collecting the data to drive it. I think a big legacy from COVID is that the role of the data analyst with a housing association was suddenly understood to be critical. We need to attract these kinds of skills into our sector because they drive the insight into the demand for our services and where we need to be.

The second part of the insight project was about perception: do you want us to open from seven in the morning until six at night, or are you happy with an out-of-hours service? Do you want to contact us on an online portal, or do you want to talk to us on the phone? We really broke down the things that people wanted from us as Berwickshire Housing Association. From a customer point of view, what did good service look like? We’ve learned a lot from that too.

PHIL: Are you able to share any of those insights?

DAN: Absolutely. There are some contradictions: people were telling us that they wanted to contact us via telephone, or they wanted to speak to someone face-to-face. But if 40% of our calls are abandoned, why would you want to speak to us on the telephone? That’s not a good service at all. But they’d never had an online facility before, or the only one they had was to complete a form on our website. So if that’s all you’ve got… and that was unreliable too as, before we set up the Customer Experience team, multiple different members of staff would respond and your request would be ping-pong-d around the business.

PHIL: Yes. If a customer’s experience of reporting repairs online is that someone rings them up a few days later, then why would you do that rather than just ringing in the first place? But if you can report a repair, maybe book an appointment and see that this is now on a list and assigned to a contractor and is then fixed, then why would you want to ring? Having a portal isn’t a silver bullet, it’s what’s behind it that makes it work or not work. If it just goes into a bad process, then it’s not going to be a benefit.

DAN: That’s where we are in our journey. As you know, I’ve been talking to you about your portal for a long, long time. Having that type of a portal is absolutely where I want to be. From a repair point of view, I want us to have a repairs diagnostic tool that’s embedded with our scheduler rates. That automates everything. I don’t want us to be building scripts from the tool to the diagnostics into our system around their scheduled rate. I want to try to do something that’s as automated and as functional as you can possibly find, so that we can be really, really responsive to the customer at the point that we launch. It’s got to be a reliable, dependable alternative to lifting the phone. It’s got to be something that people say, “I used that and it was fantastic. I’m going to go back and use it again”. First impressions are everything, whether it’s a human first impression or a system first impression.

It’s not lost on me that when we launch this portal, we have to have a very clear strategy around onboarding. We have to have an organisational clarity around what the value of this product is and why staff should promote it. We have to make that value really clear and evident to customers and we have to persevere. We have to have some organisational resilience and also some empathy and compassion towards those who don’t want to use it. My strapline is ‘choice, convenience and control for the customer’, but organisationally digital has to feel personal. It can't just be about efficiency.

PHIL: You do get efficiencies from a portal, but if efficiencies are your main and only goal then it isn’t going to work. As a useful context, we provide 25 tenant portals that are now live, mostly in Scotland. You’re what? 2,500 properties?

DAN: Between 1,950 and 2,000

PHIL: Okay. So there are a couple your kind of size. Of that spread, there’s a huge difference in how organisations have taken that same tool and how they’ve embedded it into what they do. In organisations where it’s embedded in everything and everyone is involved in it, they have a much better end result from the start because it becomes about everything you do. It’s part of your service.

DAN: Whilst we have a Customer Experience team and they will ultimately service and maintain the product, it will also be the Neighbourhood Managers, the Repairs Managers, asset guys. Tenancy sustainability people…everyone would have responsibility for owning the product and its success. As I said to the teams, don’t be fearful or threatened by products like this and think that they’re going to take your job. They’re not. What I want is a proactive organisation; I want our services to be proactive. I would say that we are 90% reactive.

The new operating model was designed to be more proactive because it sends the Neighbourhood Managers out into their patch to be visibly present. 70% on patch, 30% at home. That’s where we’re at, that’s a proactive model. If you can channel people onto the portal and they’re working with us there, we can instead do outbound calls proactively to make sure that we’re assured of quality and customer experience. There’s lots we can do proactively. Yes, we’ll always be reactive to some extent, but at the moment we’re almost exclusively reactive in these teams. I want us to say, for example, that if we’ve got a campaign coming up, or that we’ve got a service or product that we would like to try to promote to these individuals, we have the data and the customer insight to actually target the right people. I want to proactively contact these people and make sure they’re clear on what they can get from us and really get value from their rent and from the service that they receive.

PHIL: Freeing you up from things that you don’t need a qualified person to do means that you can spend your time doing the things that you actually are skilled and qualified to do. It’s a refocus; being proactive and doing the things you don’t have the time to do when you’re being purely reactive.

DAN: It helps everything. Proactive in terms of arrears, “we noticed that you’ve not paid your rent this month”. Let’s catch this really early and have a conversation and fix this before it becomes a big issue. It could be anything, it could be “You’ve raised eight repairs to your boiler in the last three months. What’s going on? We’re interrogated the data and this is a proactive contact to you to say that we may need to replace the heating system now. It makes business sense for us to do it, because we could have it replaced for the cost of coming to visit you eight times”. That’s the kind of data-driven intelligence that enables us to be proactive and to deliver a better service, but also to be more viable as a business. That’s where I want us to get to, it’s about being totally open and transparent with your teams because there is a fear of AI, webchats or anything like that. “Does this mean my job is going to be surplus?” No, absolutely not. It just means that we can be better in terms of what we deliver as a service and that we can really really start to exceed customers’ expectations. Beyond their wildest dreams, hopefully. But I do understand that there is a journey to take, but that’s what we want to do.

PHIL: I have mixed views about chat and AI chat. Anyone who's ever used it knows that you're not going to be replacing humans any time soon to provide a good service. It has to have a purpose; it can solve those simple queries and signpost people where they might need to go, but beyond that, the actual nitty gritty of “I have a problem and I need it resolved”, a computer can't do that. It needs to be a human being, and I suspect for the foreseeable future it will be human beings that have to provide that nuanced approach. It’s making sure you have the right level of solution. Too often with organisations, it’s a knee-jerk reaction. We must get a tenant portal. Ta-da! Tenants, we’ve got a portal. Use it. And then, a year later, wonder why no one is using it. Why is our customer service level still there? Because it's a tool, it's not the solution on its own.

DAN: In terms of strategy I’m really clear that, whilst we’re not where we want to be yet, it’s because we’ve deliberately put our foot on the ball. We have to make sure that we’ve got all the right things in place first for our teams. The Customer Experience team needed to be created before we did the portal. The new Neighbourhood Manager needed to be relaunched. All these key things, these key pillars needed to be in place to allow us to accelerate through what we now hope to put in place. Hopefully it’s not going to be too distant to a time when we can actually implement and deploy these projects.

PHIL: Thanks for your time today, Dan. That’s been a really fascinating discussion.

DAN: No problem. It’s been a pleasure.

About Housing Online

Housing Online design and build digital solutions for Housing Associations across the UK and beyond. Our My Home Tenant Portal is live in 25 organisations across Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, many with fully integrated websites designed and developed by our team. In April 2021, in collaboration with seven Scottish Housing Associations, we successfully launched These Homes, a Choice Based Lettings web solution.