Increasing focus on ‘the customer’ and the need to ‘digitalise’ have been on the agendas of Registered Providers for a while. However, over the last seven months they have undoubtedly moved top of the list. The impact of COVID-19 on customer behaviour has been sweeping and immediate. Associations have had to drive through digital strategies and adapt daily to keep pace. As Associations prepare for the winter, Berwick Partners were delighted to host our latest quarterly Customer Service online forum, where participants discussed the topic of the customer offer, lessons learnt from the first lockdown along with the drive to digital and the challenges and opportunities that come with that.
Customer offer – How has this differed since the first lockdown?
One of the biggest lessons from the initial lockdown was the duty of care that organisations gave to their customer base. Given the circumstances, there was a distinct lack of physical presence from Associations in their regions and so it was imperative that Associations went beyond marketing and proactively reached out to their customers. This has been done by making individual welfare calls to offer genuine support. An example of this is where one organisation moved a section of their in-house repairs team into a ‘Customer Resilience Team’ in order to offer support.
The long-term impact of these positive ‘customer experiences’, inevitably, will be the building of stronger relationships. Given the economic uncertainty and the end of the job retention scheme, this duty of care and the need for senior leaders to demonstrate high levels of emotional intelligence will be once again thrust into the spotlight for Housing Associations. Delegates also commented that it is vitally important that teams demonstrate empathy. However, there is a balance needed and Associations need to be cautious not to adopt too much of a paternalistic approach and be seen and used as a fourth emergency service.
Another key lesson has been communication. The pandemic has changed the focus and the speed at which Associations connect internally and externally. This has taught Associations how to shift and diversify the way they approach customer communication. Associations have learnt that there is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach that is needed; some demographics enjoy online marketing material whilst others prefer traditional written material. In addition, some regions may need completely different information given localised lockdowns. Moving forward, many commented on the importance of an effective marketing and communications department and the need for leaders to collaborate closely to improve the level of communication.
The art of digital
Lockdown also put digital strategies firmly in the spotlight. Digital delivery quickly became a necessity for customers confined to their homes. More customers than ever before have embraced the digital approach. This has been noted by the intake of online transactions as well as customer involvement panels moving to online - this would not have happened had it not been for the pandemic and lockdown. One of the key issues, though, are around inclusion when moving to digital. Housing Associations are understandably concerned about the sections of their customer base who are missing out. Many may not have the skills or infrastructure (hardware or connection) to connect to the internet.
Many delegates estimated that their digital strategies had been fast forwarded by 8 months by COVID. This, naturally, presents its own challenges. Internally, many have discussed the need to adapt their ‘customer journey’ to be more aligned to the likes of Amazon and Uber. For Associations, online portals were already set up and more customers have been using these channels during lockdown; however, since restrictions have been lifted, a large proportion of customers have reverted to using the telephone to connect. The issue is whilst the majority of Associations do have more people registered on their portals than ever before; they don’t have the back-end processes set up to deliver good quality service. Solutions have included moving a number of their contact centre staff to deal with queries on their ‘chat bot’ option to increase efficiencies on that channel.
All agreed that digital transformation offers the sector an opportunity to re-invent itself and improve issues that continue to thwart progress in the sector. It will be instrumental in transitioning the sector into one which is more effective and productive and one which understands its customers. This, in turn, will create a better experience for the customer and move Associations away from their paternalistic approach.