You would struggle to name a housing association that doesn’t have aspirations to ‘go digital.’

The sector has long come to terms with the fact that if we are to keep pace with changes in society and how our customers live their lives, we need to adapt the way we deliver services and communicate.However, knowing that you need change is one thing, implementing it is quite another.

Some organisations have already travelled a long way on their digital journeys, while others are still taking their first steps. But wherever you are on your journey, having a clear strategy is the key to sustained success.

There is plenty of evidence out there that can help organisations as they look to develop digital strategies. But while all the report papers, think tank sessions and magazine articles are useful to a point, at ForViva our transition to a more digital service began with some serious number crunching.

To be meaningful, digital strategies must be grounded in a genuine business case. Too often such strategies can be viewed as a ‘nice to have’ or ‘soft’ by Boards or exec teams. But this couldn’t be further from the truth – digital strategies are absolutely integral to the future of housing associations.

Last year, across our organisation we had more than 250,000 contacts with customers either over the phone or face-to-face. Not only is this an outdated and expensive way to do business, it’s a huge drain on time and resources as well as taking energy and focus away from our wider organisational goals. Moreover, our data shows us that the majority of customers would rather engage with us online.

In short, our digital strategy allows our customers to contact us when they want, and how they want, while freeing up cash and resources within the business.

This strategy impacts every part of our organisation, and has caused us to fundamentally question the way we work and the targets we set for ourselves. If we want customers to use our online services as a first port of call, then do we need to reconsider the KPIs we set for our customer service centre, for example? And how to we ensure consistency of service across all of our channels?

Changing the way we think as a business is challenging. It takes bravery for staff to part with tried and trusted ways of working, which is why strong leadership is crucial.

From the executive team to the receptionist, our goal is to make digital part of everything we do. Everyone across the business has a clear understanding of the strategy and where we are heading, and we have hammered home the message that our approach is not about hollow words or vague ideas, but creating real and lasting change in the way we engage with our customers and deliver excellent services.

This month, we took a major step when we re-launched the websites for our group members City West Housing Trust and Villages Housing Association. A huge amount of planning and preparation went into this, but throughout we have continued to ask ourselves a few basic questions. What do our customers want? What do they need? And what will keep them coming back?

The sites have been stripped of dozens of pages, with services front and centre at all times.

But a shiny new website is not much use in isolation. Our strategy has stretched across every channel – a new 12 month content plan for Facebook, re-thinking our approach to how we handle calls in the call centre, and working with stakeholders in the community to help them get our ‘do it online’ message out – to make sure we have a truly integrated strategy.

Our data shows that around 75% of our customers have access to online services, and of those who don’t well over half have identified barriers that we can help overcome. Through our Digi-smart campaign, we’re working with people who need a bit of extra help to get online, and the clever use of our data means we can adopt a very targeted approach to make sure we’re offering this service to those with genuine need.

What has become clear as we have developed our approach is that having a digital strategy is not just about creating portals with the potential to do clever things, it’s about creating a genuine two way engagement with customers, and developing a simple and effective service that means people will keep coming back.

Paul Carhart is Group Director of Customer Services at ForViva

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