I really enjoyed reading through Visceral Business’s Connected Housing report this year. I thought I’d cover seven points brought up within it here. For the most part I’m being critical of UK housing in this post and this is a purposeful decision. There are a lot of positive points to be found within the report about the direction that the sector is taking but I do feel UK housing has a propensity for patting itself on the back for mediocre performance and ignoring the ongoing issues, therefore I want to address them.
Please feel free to get involved in the debate online. If you want to tell me I’m talking rubbish you can find me on Twitter @ThomBartley.
1) UKHousing vs. Charities.
The report states that the top 100 connected UKHousing Twitter accounts have only 3.5% of the followers that the top 100 connected charities do and on Facebook the statistic is even worse at only 0.5%. The question is why the gap?
Well it’s a combination of factors. We have less visibility in general, our target audience is smaller, our digital strategy is less sophisticated and less funded, the perceived value we believe we can gain for investing in it is less and crucially we’re just a less desirable sector to be associated with than the charity sector.
People like showing off that they support a charity on Facebook, do they like showing off they’re a tenant of a housing association? No, not really. I don’t know of a single Facebook page ran by a housing association that I would like if I was a tenant. Most of the Facebook pages I’ve seen may as well be just replaced with a page that says “We’re really sorry to hear about that, please message us your contact details and we will look into that for you.” If you’re just going to fob customers off you may as well not be there in the first place.
Theres two parts to this, one is that I just don’t think they are engaging but secondly and most importantly the nature of Facebook means that my like of that page tells my friends more about my life than I would like them to know, I doubt that I would like my housing associations Facebook page even if it was amazing. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t use it though, I’d just go and check it out as and when I wanted to without associating myself with it in the form of a like.
The report mentions numerous times that investment in the development of Facebook as a key customer engagement tool may be misguided given its relatively disappointing engagement rates. I agree with this finding and think that more emphasis should be put into building bespoke online communities, but I’ll come back to that in detail later.
2) We’re too slow
One little statistic but one which I thought illustrates a point quite well is that none of top 100 organisations link to Instagram from their home page. I’m not positive and please correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think any housing association at the moment currently has a Instagram account.
What this illustrates is the lack of speed of adaptation to new digital trends within our sector. I was speaking to some 18 year olds the other day and they all said that Instagram is now their favourite and most used social network.
We need to go where the customers are and we need to be quicker about it. Instagram has recently introduced a function where users can send images directly to each other, a perfect tool that could be used by a housing association in marketing campaigns and feedback.
Getting worried about the amount of people posting dodgy pictures of their houses on your Facebook feed for the world to see? Open up Instagram and let customers send you those photos that way which avoids that problem.
We as a sector are just too slow at adapting.
3) Online Communities
I was very pleased to see the report advocating the development and support of online communities. I believe that building online communities is of absolute key importance moving forward further into the digital age. The report states that only 10% of the top 100 currently have their own online community and hopefully over the next few years we will see this stat increase.
My colleague Matt Smart has recently set up a Streetclub community for some of our residents which is a first step and I’m personally working on a project which will hopefully go live later this year which should build upon this further.
I truly believe that online community building where there is quality two way conversation between organisations and customers is of the upmost importance. Not only because I value customer feedback and ideas but also because in the long run you’re going to be saving yourself an absolute load of money which you would of otherwise spent on a contact centre to handle the complaints and queries that customers currently ring you up about which are instead being dealt with in a much more cost effective manner online.
I’d love to go into more detail about how we should go about building successful community networks but as that’s currently part of my job I can’t go giving away all of my competitive advantage can I!?
4) Telephone engagement
The report states that 92% of customer engagement is currently handled over the phone. I find this to be a scary and expensive statistic.
I believe that the idea of the call centre will be completely dead by 2030 and if I’m right then UK housing has a hell of a lot of engagement shifting to be doing over the next decade.
It’s worth considering why the statistic is so high. Is it that our customers absolutely love phones or is it that we don’t provide alternatives that are worth making the customer switch?
It’s both, at the moment its safe to say that telephony is the customers favourite means of communication but 92% is too high. There is huge value to the sector by exploring and investing in alternative communication methods as these not only allow us to provide a higher level of customer service but also a lot of the time allow us to do this in a more cost effective manner than telephony.
I’d like to see that 92% statistic drop to 50% by 2020. I think it’s entirely possible with the right investment, skills and belief in developing alternative systems.
5) We’re scared of our own customers
36% would welcome stakeholder comments on their websites.
39% would welcome blog comments.
44% support user generated imagery and video
50% support resident led campaigns.
If there was one selection of statistics that really shocked and bothered me from the report it was these.
I’ve believed for a long time that a lot of what we pump out about resident engagement and wanting to listen to our customers was just said to make the company look good, said because it’s expected not because we actually truly want and value that feedback, these statistics seem to confirm that.
Last year I created a project called BromBox that asked our customers to submit their feedback, complaints, ideas and stories with us in whatever way they wanted to. They could write a blog, make a video, take a photo or do whatever they wanted and I promised that whatever they sent us, good or bad would be put up on the site and promoted for the world to see.
It was great and we had some really awesome feedback come into the site and what I really enjoyed about it was that it felt real. We didn’t take feedback and then run it through a communications machine and churn out a dull, seen it all before, praisey self congratulatory cringe fest that we’ve all seen and ignored a million times before. We had pure, true customer feedback presented in the way that they gave it to us.
And guess what? The world didn’t end, we weren’t inundated with lots of negative feedback, in fact we had two pieces of feedback that could of been considered negative during the entire time it was open. We allowed our customers to get involved and the world didn’t come crashing down a a result!
Concentrate on running a good business and providing good customer service and then you don’t have to worry about opening up to customers. Will you have the occasional horror story posted? Yep of course you will but that’s completely fine. I’m much more likely to trust a company that has a combination of good and bad feedback that is real. True feedback coming from the actual customers as opposed to a company who completely manage their entire social presence so that you only ever hear what they want you to hear.
Support your customers and give them a voice. This sector complains about social isolation and lack of digital engagement. Is it surprising when you look at those above statistics? What are you doing to help? Not a lot at the moment by the look of it.
6) We’re patronising
“Outdated cultural and service delivery models can be compared to parent to child, as opposed to adult to adult, communications that can ward off engagement.”
I fully agree with this statement and it’s something that needs to change. Although the way we communicate has the best intentions I do feel that in general we patronise and speak down to our customers. I also still believe that we broadcast instead of engage and when we do engage the tone we use to do it lacks any emotional resonance. It’s too computerised, too formal.
Quality communication is extremely difficult and finding that balance between professional and friendly is difficult to do but it’s something I believe can and should be improved.
The development of online communities and actually believing in the value and power of customer feedback will go some way to address this problem.
In my initial report for BromBox I wrote that I wanted to create a system that instead of being us and them was simply us. I believe we need to move in this direction. Slowly but surely break down the barrier between us and our customers so that we can work together to provide better products and services.
7) Focus on quantitive not qualitative data.
UK Housing has an obsession with statistics and you only have to go to Twitter and look at the comments about this report to see that. I’ve barely seen anybody talking about the points raised within it but I’ve saw a ton of people talking about their rankings and patting each other on the back.
My worry when I see a report like this is that organisations will instead of working to address some of the issues raised work only to try and improve in areas that can be quantified so they can push themselves further up the rankings this time next year.
I personally believe that the Twitter accounts ran independently by colleagues are more important than the official corporate ones. I also believe there is a lot of value in the digital schemes and services that are being developed that fall outside of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. I hope that UK housing continues to develop these services instead of just concentrating on getting Twitter followers and Facebook likes up in order to push themselves up a league table.
I hope that UK Housing learnt from the mistakes it made with the way it covered the implementation of Bedroom Tax where instead of talking about the stories of the lives of our customers who it affected we instead spoke in numbers and talked about how much money we would lose as a result of the changes.
The public doesn’t respond to blah blah million lost off a balance sheet, they respond to the story about a mother losing benefit because her disabled kid uses an extra room.
The best engagement, the best stories can’t be easily quantified. Concentrate on your customers and making them happy, not on statistics.
UK Housing is too inward looking. It seems the majority of the noise we make is to impress other housing associations. We’re very good at patting each other on the back but we are comparatively terrible at networking with organisations outside of our sector and engaging customers in a meaningful way. Instead of showing off to each other we should try to show off the excellent work we do to the wider business market and public at large.