Now is the time to innovate – not hesitate

Ryan Heseltine lifts the lid on Ongo’s digital transformation journey so far and how the pandemic has accelerated the move towards AI.
p36 - Ryan Heseltine, Solutions Architect, Ongo 300 DPI - Credit Ongo (3)

Like many others across the housing sector, we’re welcoming the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions and are focused on ensuring that our customers have the right support and encouragement to get back to normal routines and activities as soon as possible.

While there are so many diverse learnings to reflect on from the last year, it’s vital that the sector also recognises and capitalises on the progress made in certain areas – so that momentum isn’t lost and customers continue to benefit from the best innovation across the sector.

Many housing associations have made real progress on their digital transformation journeys in particular; ensuring that customers have the right tools and support to manage far more aspects of their tenancies independently. At a strategic level, decisions on digital investment have been prioritised and fast-tracked, to meet the rapidly changing needs of customers.

It’s been reported by global consultants McKinsey & Company that digital transformation has accelerated seven years in just over twelve months. In housing, that’s manifested in more of our customers being willing and able to switch from traditional to digital channels.

Ongo’s new chatbox. Credit: Futr.

Digital first – with no one left behind

It’s almost ten years since we set out on our first digital transformation. Our goal was to give customers more efficient access to information online and as a result become more independent, with our contact teams benefitting from more capacity to deal with only the most complex cases.

It wasn’t long into the COVID-19 crisis that we realised things were changing rapidly. Even though Ongo prides itself on being innovative, we have tended to take a conservative approach to digital channel shift, conscious of customers who may be either unwilling or unable to adapt.

We have a mantra when it comes to customer service – “digital first – with no one left behind”, but with the pandemic accelerating change way beyond housing, these barriers felt less of a concern.

Any new technology or solution needs to solve an identified problem. In Ongo’s case, we had been looking to increase our capacity to support those residents who need us most, and especially those taking their first steps towards digital self-service.

Taking that step requires confidence in the technology and the knowledge that any new solution is representing the business and its values impeccably at all times. There’s only one chance to make a good first impression with and we didn’t want to risk putting anyone off with channel shift.

After such rapid progress over the past year, we’re now confident in our ambition to move 75% of all customer interactions online by 2023. We are convinced of the appetite for channel shift among our customers, if we continue to provide the right tools.

No one should feel excluded in our digital transformation, so we needed a customer-focused approach to developing new solutions. One effective way of ensuring user-friendliness has been to include customers in the development of new online tools.

Ongo’s Digital Tenant groups have been busy over the past year test-driving new digital solutions to ensure they are fit for purpose and as simple as possible for everyone. During the first lockdowns, we naturally explored new tools and services that would help customers and staff operate remotely.

The last 12 months has seen a significant increase in registrations for our My Home app, with 4,000 customers now able to access support or services at a time that works for them.

To maintain and build on this momentum, we’ve just launched a year-long pilot project in our Westcliff neighbourhood, providing digital and online-based training – as well as promoting better digital engagement among all residents, to help improve wellbeing and reduce isolation.

Our pilot video repairs service has been particularly successful in diagnosing, triaging, and in many cases, fixing repairs issues via video calls. Similarly, automating rent payments has saved around 245 hours of customer advisors’ time over the last year, which we know is much better allocated to supporting customers with more complex, time-consuming issues.

Ongo’s new customer chatbot. Credit: Futr.

AI & Ongo

Automation may sound like an intimidating concept for some; but if it’s able to improve or extend the service we can offer our customers, while freeing up other frontline staff to deliver positive outcomes more efficiently, then we have an entirely open mind to new technologies.

That’s why we were excited to hear about the latest generation of automated customer messaging available from a company called Futr, whose solution harnessed the power of artificial intelligence to revolutionise the capabilities of a traditional chatbot system.

For us, there was no point in offering our customers automated messaging unless we knew they would receive a tailored and intelligent service – as if they were speaking to a member of our team. That’s when we saw AI playing a practical role for our customers; matching or even improving on their expectations – and we’ve been really pleased with the results so far.

Thanks to its unique natural language processing (NLP), the AI chatbot can understand and communicate with our customers in over 120 languages, 24 hours a day – offering far more reach and accessibility than we could ever expect from our traditional customer contact team.

So intuitive is the system, it can even identify slang and conversational language, so that customers can converse in their own terms – rather than trying to navigate prescribed user journeys. The AI even detects subtleties much like a human might, and applies the appropriate actions methodically.

Whenever a customer asks a question, the system considers the various aspects of the enquiry and comes up with a “confidence score” – i.e. the percentage of confidence that it knows the answer.

Over a certain percentage of high confidence, the system will present a single definitive answer. In the next bracket of confidence, a number of options may be presented. Lower still and the “chatbot” may ask intelligent clarifying questions to assist the customer in finding the right answer for them.

If necessary, the chatbot can always seamlessly transfer a customer to continue the conversation with a member of our contact team. We have always seen automation as a means of improving and expanding the service available to customers – never as a replacement to existing operations.

At the start of 2020, we never would have envisaged AI to be playing such a frontline role in our customers’ online experiences by this point in time. By embracing innovation at a time of real necessity for our customers, we’re in a better position to meet any new challenges head on.

Ryan Heseltine is solutions architect at Lincolnshire housing association Ongo.

Main image credit: Ongo.

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