Bricks and mortar of good customer service being built with online help – Jehan Weerasinghe

There are some in housing who might see technological transformation as a fad – something to pay lip service to before jettisoning it in six months in favour of the next shiny new trend.

Customers of Glasgow Housing Association can go online to pay rent, report any issues, find out about housing options and even get discounts from high street retailers and energy firms

Others might see digital as part of the efficiency agenda – a way of ­stripping out the costs of call centre and front line staff overheads.

But when we think about the transformation of our services to meet the needs of an online world, there is only one thing we should be thinking about. Our customers.

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At Glasgow Housing Association (GHA), and our parent organisation Wheatley Group, we have always had a strong focus on excellent ­customer service. But now we are going one step further. We are determined to use our approach to digital as an opportunity to deliver services that are much more ­personalised and tailored to people’s individual needs.

For organisations like us, with ­people at the heart of everything we do, that means asking some tough questions – “What happens to our customers if we don’t adapt?”, “What do our customers expect and want?”, “How can we provide services in a way that are really tailored to their personal circumstances?” and “How can we use the very best ­technology to meet the challenges individual ­customers face?”

At Wheatley these are the ­questions we’ve been asking ­ourselves as our digital journey gathers pace.

When I joined GHA as director of innovation and improvement at the start of the year, I was lucky in that Wheatley Group was already well on the path to not only transforming its services through digital, but also helping its customers adapt.

Our ambition was well-defined. We believed firmly in offering personalised services to people and wanted, through our approach to digital, to redefine what that looked like.

Nowhere has it been more important than in changes to the benefits system. Across Wheatley Group we predict that 10,000 of our customers will be on Universal Credit by next spring. Each one has to have a UC online journal or they don’t get their housing costs paid. Ensuring ­customers are able to get online is crucial both for our customers and for our business.

Part of our wider response to that saw us develop GoMobile, a set of apps loaded on to an iPad and issued to every housing officer, with training. It allows the officer to sit with a customer, bring up their rent account in the comfort of their own home, use the UC calculator to plot out their housing costs and signpost them to local services that will help them. We can also help customers get online so they can do more for themselves.

One of the really exciting aspects of the digital world is that it gives ­customers more choice and control over the way they interact with us.

Web self-service, for example, enables customers to report issues, repairs, pay their rent or check their balance online – wherever and ­whenever it suits them.

Last year, we launched MyHousing, our new portal that makes sure ­every person who is looking for a home gets personalised and honest advice about their housing situation and the best help possible in ­finding one.

People start by answering questions online so that their housing options can be assessed. They then get a personal plan with tailored advice and information on their best housing options. They can then view the homes available, get much more information about them than before and note an interest in the properties that suit their needs – all online. It is simple to use and it is helping people find a home that suits their circumstances.

In the summer, we believe we became the first housing association to offer customers savings on their household shopping for transacting with us online. MySavings offers ­customers discounts on their ­shopping bill at hundreds of high street retailers. This has enabled ­customers to save thousands of pounds on a weekly grocery shop, school uniform, cinema tickets – even getting a better deal on their energy tariffs. Already we’re seeing a lift in the numbers of people opting to transact online with us as a result of MySavings.

Many of our customers are among the most disadvantaged in Scotland. There is a risk that, as the world moves on, already vulnerable and excluded people can be left behind. We need to tackle digital exclusion while continuing to transform our services.We are committed to leaving no ­customer behind in the digital world. That’s why we provide community computer learning centres and a range of other help to get online. We are also trialling a digital lending library project for our customers who are digitally excluded.

It’s an exciting time for both Wheatley and the housing sector and we will work hard to ensure our approach to digital delivers services that are right for each customer’s needs. We’re on a journey and I am certain, by putting customers at the heart of that journey, we can build on the great start we’ve made.

Jehan Weerasinghe, GHA’s new ­managing director.