Using technology to develop outstanding, future-proof customer service

Recap of the NHF CX 2020 Seminar

Stewart Davison, DtL’s Director of Innovation


I found myself this morning on a very chilly platform at Bristol preparing for a trip into London to participate in a seminar session hosted by Castleton Plc at this year’s NHF CX 2020 conference. This normally wouldn’t warrant a blog post as in the 20+ years I’ve been working in social housing and technology a trip into London to speak at a conference has been a regular occurrence.  

However, today was a bit different as it was the first time I spoke as an ‘independent’. You see the last two plus decades have seen my either as a ‘client’ (Housing association or Local Authority) or as a supplier (15 years with Capita and 18 months with Gas Tag).  

2020 saw me start at DtL Creative as their newly minted Director of Innovation, a title my MD Dave Loudon came up with over a damp visit to Edinburgh just before Christmas. It’s an interesting title as innovation can be anything you want it to be. For me it’s those interesting and sometimes strange technologies, that perhaps at first glance don’t look like a fit for social housing.  

So, the seminar today was titled ‘Using technology to develop outstanding, future-proof customer service’. This is a tall order for me and the other two speakers – James Massey, COO of Castleton and Richard Harvey, Head of Digital and IS at Housing Solutions – to get across in 45 minutes. 

Luckily for me I just had the first 10 minutes of scene setting. This was where I initially wanted to get across that excellent customer service can mean many different things to different people. What works for me could be awful for someone else.  

This idea is often referred to as ‘personalisation’ and can be tricky to do well. We have all experienced what personalisation means to some organisations, just another way to sell us more stuff! However, this is where digital and tech can really help. Opening up a 24/7 service via social media could mean the adoption of a learning chat bot, all the way to sensors in a property providing pre-emptive data so that failures of appliances, like boilers, are minimised. 

Great customer service includes issue resolution quickly, high satisfaction from the customer, and being accessible anywhere and everywhere. However, in this rush to digital we cannot ignore the customer at the centre. They want to feel in control. They want to be treated like a person and not a number.

In this age of rapid technology change, it can sometimes leave us paralysed…

What is the right tech to adopt?

What is around the corner?

Will I be making the right decision? 

This situation means we are usually trying to catch up – most probably with customer data in silos, spread across multiple systems, and in a lot of cases with analogue processes for a digital world.

There are arguments for and against best of breed vs one system. This wasn’t what I wanted to broach in my short time allotted. Instead I wanted to point out that in the 12 years since the iPhone and the rise of the smartphone, social media and where ‘sharing’ has become embedded in general society, customers have very high expectations of engaging digitally.

These customers fall roughly into two camps – those who want to ‘do it themselves’ vs those who see themselves as ‘passive consumers of services’. I go back to this idea of personalization. In the shift to digital we can’t forget the human aspect.

I briefly touched on areas of new technology such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) chatbots, but cautioning that AI should enhance, not replace the human, and that virtual assistants really are a key thread of any digital strategy for the next five years. It’s always good to remember that machines are great at automating repetitive tasks but are lousy at empathy.

I finished off my bit by stating that the case for increasing the digital channel has been well made, so what’s stopping us? No lack of ambition, I think. I have many conversations with passionate people in social housing who see tech as a real enabler for increased customer service. I put it that you really must understand your own organisation, its ambition and that can help point you towards incremental change vs transformative change. What’s the appetite for doing something different? Does your organisation want to be an outlier or just follow the ‘herd’?

Handing over to the always competent James and Richard, it was great to see a real-world example of a housing association doing something truly innovative and being willing to just have a go with technology, to look to drive better customer service.

Usually my seminar sessions have been while employed as a supplier, so even though I haven’t always stood up to sell a specific product, there was always the underlying need to show to the audience that the company I worked for had the right answer. Now that I’m at DtL it’s more about passing on all that experience, looking to really help drive the sector forward in digital adoption, no matter what company, technology or product it is. 

If you want an independent view, get in contact. Always happy to have a chat.