As the Government presses ahead with an agenda to empower tenants, Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO of Content Guru, argues that AI is crucial to transforming social housing providers’ engagement with their customers
Social housing is central to the lives of around nine million people in England, including some of society’s most vulnerable groups.
“Many people living in England’s four million social homes feel ignored and stigmatised, too often treated with a lack of respect by landlords who appear remote, unaccountable and uninterested in meeting their needs.”
This is the damning verdict of the Government’s social housing Green Paper, “A New Deal for Social Housing”, which sets out the Government’s aim to rebalance the relationship between landlords and tenants. In the aftermath of tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire, the Government has put the needs of social housing tenants front and centre – attention unlikely to be altered by the change of Prime Minister. A key component of this is ensuring that those living in social housing are able to air concerns, and that housing associations and councils are engaging with tenants and addressing their problems.
With the focus squarely on how social housing providers are interacting with those occupying their properties, it is vital that housing associations and councils embrace solutions that ensure effortless, efficient and effective customer service for tenants.
A failure to engage
The scale of the problem is set out in the Green Paper. Around half of the 8,000 households surveyed have a least one vulnerable family member. This includes people fleeing domestic abuse or facing homelessness, those with learning difficulties and mental health problems, or even older people looking to lead an independent life. Meeting their many and varied needs are critical. Yet landlords consulted by the Government have emphasised how difficult it is to engage all their residents, especially those who are vulnerable or isolated.
This lack of engagement and failure to provide a system of communication that gives a voice to tenants and tracks issues has consequences. Not only do tenants become frustrated and feel disenfranchised, but people’s mental and physical health can be put at risk, and in extreme (but sadly, not unknown) circumstances, there can be disastrous human costs.
The tools of empowerment
There is a way forward, however, if social housing providers are willing to pick up the tools. The tech industry is already developing omnichannel communication solutions, providing more opportunities for tenants to get help and feel supported.
But there is more work to be done. Providers need to overhaul their interaction strategies by embracing AI tools. AI, combined with existing omnichannel communications strategies is the answer – if deployed correctly.
This technology boosts the customer experience and empowers tenants, especially the more vulnerable, to feel safe and secure. It can also bring significant advantages to the business by delivering increased efficiency and cost savings.
When considering AI deployment, social housing providers should develop a strategy that focuses on priority groups first. AI can enhance omnichannel communications, ensuring immediate service for those most in need.
For example, an AI solution can recognise from where a call is being made, who lives in that household, and if they are a vulnerable resident. Thereafter, calls are redirected to a call-handler who can respond quickly.
When a resident contacts their social housing provider with a question, they want to be identified and know that they are important to the provider. The human agent can benefit from augmented intelligence with information prompts readily available on their screen to deliver a personalised service and reduce the pressure on their workloads.
A connection with a tenant established only once they have made a complaint is a communication started too late. Well-informed residents are happy residents, and the importance of pre-emptive communication cannot be underestimated. Providers can improve relations by demonstrating that they are aware of all the issues, such as maintenance of the property, which tenants face on a daily basis. A scalable AI-powered solution can send large numbers of automated personalised messages to tenants to inform them of repair work in advance. This way, housing providers give tenants the knowledge they need to feel supported, while agents are freed up to help the most vulnerable of residents.
Equally, when a disaster strikes, having the ability to provide mass communications by scaling up on demand is imperative. Ensuring that a tenant in a crisis is able to quickly get through to communicate with an agent can mean the difference between life and death.
Additionally, something as simple as a tenant portal where providers and tenants can interact will improve knowledge and understanding on both sides. AI can enhance this experience, having already recognised the tenant through the data available to it. It can then present information about the tenant to the housing advisor through the portal, allowing them to deal with queries without frustrating the tenant by passing them to different departments.
Delivering an improved level of service with AI will result in queries being resolved faster and more accurately, ultimately leading to informed and engaged customers that feel valued and heard. This is essential particularly for vulnerable residents who need the extra layer of support and assistance. It also ensures that potential problems and crises are prevented before they can occur.
Further benefits are potentially on the horizon. The Green Paper floats the possibility of incentives to reward good performance – offering more reasons for social housing providers to provide the best customer experience for their tenants.
Housing associations and councils cannot afford to ignore the need to overhaul their tenant engagement. They must act now, take advantage of the AI tools available to them, and come out on top as providers of the best places to live and the best customer service.
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