You’re digitising the wrong thing

In June 2018, a group of brilliant people from the housing sector released a very interesting report “Building Homes, Building Trust” which talks about the future shape of the housing sector itself. There is a huge amount of very interesting information in that report and I highly recommend you read it. What struck me personally as a huge risk that I don’t think was fully highlighted, was the following sentence:

“As more government and public services are moved online, including the management of Universal Credit claims, digital service is becoming the default option for interacting with customers. People are becoming used to increasingly sophisticated technology-based service offers.”

This same report also says the following:

“The focus on digitisation must be about delivering great service to customers. There is a risk it becomes primarily an ‘invest to save’ project based on the association’s needs.”

Do you see the red flag? No? Let me explain.

It is relatively normal procedure for most private businesses these days to allow their customers to contact them via a variety of means with the aim of minimizing face-to-face and phone interactions. Think about it – as you go about your day, especially in a city, how often do you still talk to a human being to get money out of the bank or buy your milk?

Whilst this kind of digitisation makes sense on a balance sheet, there are increasing concerns that this lack of human contact alienates us from our communities and also causes us to undertake what used to be someone else’s day job, thus adding further demands on our attention, time and thought processes (this is known as increasing cognitive load – the effort it takes to process information in a given scenario).

This phenomenon is incredibly visible and actually quite harmful in a housing association context. During a recent short project around how vulnerability is identified and addressed within a large housing group, what became abundantly clear is that over the years of already progressed digital transformation and during the course of planned digitization, face-to-face contact with tenants was almost non-existent. This by no means only happens in this one particular organisation, but in every housing association across the land.

What this means, in practice, is that if a tenant has no electricity to power their internet connection and devices, they may not ever be able to get in touch. If their phone runs out of pre-paid credit, they won’t be able to call. A tenant should not have to leave their house (or in some instances cannot leave their house) to log an issue with the landlord. Whilst I have been unable to find data for the whole country, we can use Leeds as an example - it is estimated that 13% of all households in Leeds do not have internet access which equates to 45,000 properties. This is even higher for social housing tenants, with 38% of them saying they don’t have access to the internet. As the report says:

These people are also more likely to be disabled, unemployed, on a low income or have low literacy and numeracy levels, so they are the very people who would most benefit from being digitally included."

Yes, this is an extreme example but consider this - even if they do get online and report an issue, the person receiving that query won’t be able to detect the tone of their voice or spot their posture to understand that something is wrong.

If they manage to log a repair, the repairs people have to take them at their word and go to the premises to verify the issue. Even then, they often aren’t trained to spot any other issues so might not report signs of domestic violence or issues with coping - with increasing reductions on staff costs for carrying out this work, this falls beyond their scope.

So what can you do?  We’d suggest that focusing digitization efforts on internal processes that enable customer-facing interactions to happen more smoothly should be the top priority. There have been studies that show there are clear interlinked effects to improving internal support on how external support is provided.

I have long been an advocate of ensuring experience parity between B2C and B2B customer experiences, and I still strongly believe that by improving the business systems your staff need to use from day to day, they will have more time and attention to help your customers, too.

It can be quite tricky to know where to start which is why one of the key things we do at Path59 is service visualisation which shows you exactly where the opportunity areas are, what’s lacking and where work is being duplicated.