Improving efficiencies and delivering a better customer experience needn’t be mutually exclusive

However strong the need to deliver it, digital transformation can seem so intangible and unwieldy as an undertaking that it is hard to know where to start. Frontline staff may be concerned about the degree of change that might be involved, and may struggle to make the link between the wider vision and any benefits that teams and customers can expect to see in the way things are done day to day.

Gate One’s approach to this is to encourage organisations to anchor digital transformation in something specific they are trying to achieve as part of their organisational purpose – yes, more than just cost efficiency!

A good starting point for this in housing is in the customer experience. I grew up in social housing, so this is something very close to my heart. I know, too, that the transformations that make the biggest difference can often be the so called small things – empathy, tone of voice, insight and understanding – the critical determinant being the extent to which consideration of residents really has been at the centre of the service.  I don’t mean pandering to one sub-section of ‘customers’ to the detriment of others, but rather to provide a fair, equitable and timely service to all.

When your digital transformation has the purpose to transform experiences, it becomes more tangible and compelling for everyone involved.

Insights, not assumptions

Making the service user’s experience the focus of digital transformation can have a profound effect on how and where money is spent, and the results this elicits across a broad range of improvement targets. Often, housing associations have become so removed from the perspective and experience of their customers that they can make wrong assumptions about the customer needs, which turn out to be both costly and counter-productive.

In one case, an organisation thought a useful welcome gesture would be to present new customers with a kettle as they moved in. Although the gesture was well intentioned, on mapping the customer journey, feedback was poor: many customers felt the money could have been better spent on vouchers to decorate their new home, part-payment towards a removal service, or food vouchers so they could stock their cupboards as they got themselves back on their feet. This insight led to the design of a ‘new joiner’ pack that included more of the things new residents more typically need. And because this was sponsored by local businesses, it didn’t cost the housing association anything. Most social housing customers are just £150 away from being overdrawn, so the right kind of help at what might be their most vulnerable point really can make a big difference.

But how might that feed into digital transformation? Well, to ensure that any digital initiatives would have a positive impact for customers –the higher purpose most housing associations aspire towards – we help map customer journeys and help you move away from the rules-based/process-oriented approach to doing things that many housing associations have become so trapped by.  The customer experience journey maps can provide the insights you need in order to redesign your services, and make decisions on which digital investments to make to enable a better experience.

Disruption can deliver positive change

One of the alternative ways Gate One adds value for clients is by sharing and implementing successful practices from outside the housing sector – from markets as far removed as travel, finance and retail. What these sectors have in common is organisations’ dependence on customer insights to succeed. Although housing associations do not have to compete for customers in the same way that commercial enterprises must vie for business, they do have to differentiate and measure up within the sector to survive, be it based on responsiveness, price per property, or other measures of customer satisfaction.

I can recall my own experiences of the absence of customer insights or empathy in social housing, as a child whose mother needed the support of the social housing provider to get her leaky roof fixed. The air of acceptability that we should be grateful for long-booked repairs that hadn’t happened for months was very demoralising.  So I wasn’t shocked, as much as I was disappointed, to see this continue in this day and age in the sector.  This breakdown of service provider/user relationship can be equally demotivating for those who have chosen to work in social housing as a vocation, who would probably do things very differently if they were freed from rules-for-the-sake-of-rules. To help them break out of this vicious cycle, we look at how industry disruptors like Metro Bank are changing the face of financial services by combining digital technology with new ideas – ambitions to simplify processes, reduce form-filling, give customers what they need, and generally remove the pain and friction to good service and a good experience.

What flexible digital technology allows organisations to do is reintroduce good judgement: if modern systems can unlock and combine existing information, look up other data sources, and generally join the dots, people can be freed to think creatively again – to look at the customer in front of them, and understand how best to help them.

Meanwhile customers’ crises can still be dealt with efficiently, even if they don’t have their official details to hand or call at the ‘wrong’ time. The CRM system can simply identify them by other means, and digital channels make it possible to register issues without someone having to be in the office.

By harnessing technology appropriately, housing associations can start to do things in a more human way again.

Empowerment encourages self-reliance

Rooting your digital transformation in improving human experiences can yield wider social returns on your digital investment.

Digital inclusion for customers can lead to more supportive cultures, where more isolated or eldering residents could be equipped with inexpensive tablets so they can Skype family members or access online services, making them feel more secure – and less likely to press their emergency alarms just for some human contact.  Helping customers get online can give them better access to benefits entitlements making it easier to pay their rent.  It can give better access to job opportunities, leading to improved employment rates.

Digital transformation shouldn’t be an intangible, far-off vision. It should make a palpable difference to both your customers and your teams.  With a bit of lateral thinking, it could change people’s lives for the better. And when employees see that, they’re more ready to embrace it too.

We have worked at RHP, The Guinness Partnership, Catalyst Housing Ltd and Peaks & Plains.  Why not talk to me about what digital transformation could mean in the context of your own housing association’s priorities. I am just at the end of the phone, on 07841 947 119.


Umbar leads our digital team. She has 17 exciting years’ experience in digital and has delivered end to end digital transformation in a wide range of businesses and sectors, from strategy and portfolio direction to digital innovation and culture change. Umbar is passionate about digital and its power to help organisations and their customers discover new ways of doing business and living their lives.