Digital transformation – how can housing providers catch up?

Jon Slade, Director at Campbell Tickell, discusses how housing providers can maximise their efficiency through digital transformation. 

In pre-internet days, I used to go to my local branch of the Midland Bank on the high street with my questions about financial services. There followed many evolutions, first call centres and then around the internet.

As a result, when I re-mortgaged a couple of years ago, I borrowed more than £100,000 without ever speaking to a human being. I now run my bank account completely from my mobile phone. It has been a bumpy, slow, at times painful, and seemingly never ending journey. The high street branch is long gone.

The ‘call centre’ became the ‘contact centre’, which became the ‘customer service centre’. And now I expect that place to have a handle on the history of my interactions across all the service channels, should I ever need to pick up the phone. While some banks targeted lowest cost, sending their call centres overseas, others focused on quality and service. Do I prefer how my bank serves me now? Absolutely I do. I digitally self-serve 24 hours a day.

Profit and choice

All this change is driven by two imperatives. First, the opportunities for increased profit resulting from the massively lower cost-to-serve of digital transactions. Second, the need to keep pace with customer expectations in order to retain and attract customers in the face of competitors’ service offers. So where is the housing sector on these issues? I would argue that, by and large, the sector has barely nibbled at the edge of what is possible.

Most digital offers are somewhere between non-existent and barely there. Two fundamental differences account, at least in part, for the lack of progress: the sector’s approach to profit and customer choice. Banks’ shareholders and boards could envision the radically lower cost base of digital service and so pushed for those savings to be harvested in pursuit of better dividends.

Our sector desperately needs to build more homes. Our residents need better services. Our way of funding both is our profit, sorry, surplus. Internal operating efficiency is the key driver of the size of our operating surplus.

So, the lower our operating costs, the more benefit we can deliver to those we exist to serve. But housing’s view of profit is hardwired into the sector’s subtitle: ‘not-for-profit’. Even the language contradicts the very thing that needs to happen. And to further complicate matters, our residents do not have meaningful choice.

They cannot take their business elsewhere. So, the two biggest drivers present in commercial sectors are not present in the housing sector. This in part explains why the sector is so late to join the digital revolution.

Duty to customers

The simple fact is that we owe a duty to operate at maximum efficiency to those we aim to house and to those who live in our homes. They need more homes and better services and we can fund those outcomes by reducing operating costs. But to secure those better outcomes we have to identify and overcome the barriers that have so comprehensively hobbled previous attempts.

We have to move past the idea that profit is a bad thing. And go forwards from there into the really tough stuff: we will need fewer people to deliver current service levels, and we can fulfill lots of our service demand at lower salaries than currently.

This doesn’t mean an automatic bonfire of existing jobs: rather it could mean some staff being freed up for new roles, which are about more targeted work with customers who need and value that.

These are hard truths to contemplate, let alone implement. Yet the reason we should do it is the same reason most of us came to work in this sector in the first place: to make the greatest possible positive difference.

 

To discuss this article contact Jon Slade on: jon.slade@campbelltickell.com

This article is also featured in CT Brief, Issue 47 – Transformation edition

 

Campbell Tickell is an established multi-disciplinary management and recruitment consultancy, operating across the UK and Ireland, focusing on the housing, social care, local government, sport, leisure, charity and voluntary sectors.

We are a values-based business and firmly place the positioning of our support and challenge on helping organisations to attain change that is well thought through, planned and sustainable. At CT, we want to help organisations create the landscape within which we ourselves would like to exist: fair, inclusive, diverse, engaged and transparent. We build from our values in how we approach all our work as a practice.

Find out more about CT’s Innovation & Improvement Services.