Many organisations, including those in Housing are interested in Chatbots as they make it easier to engage with customers by remove barriers to their services: there’s no App install required; and if someone knows how to use Facebook messenger, then they know how to use your bot. As always, with such a new solution it is easy to get caught up to the hype and assume that a bot is the best and only delivery route for everything.  In the housing sector, there are specific ways Chatbots could offer real value and change, but only by examining the sector and the customers it serves to understand the unique business challenges.

A good place to start is to understand what a Chatbot is naturally good at, and where we can use existing frameworks to speed up the development of a solution. But you should be wary of the Wix-type chatbot makers if you want to create a bot that will scale with the needs of your organisation.

Some tasks will be quick and easy to complete by a Chatbot, whereas more complex requests may need some assistance from the existing contact centre team to complete them correctly and thoroughly. This does not mean that Chatbots should not feature in the process, as a common mistake is to assume that the Chatbot is the whole solution, often it is simply adding a more efficient way for customers to access processes or information that already exists. Another advantage is that Chatbots are available 24/7 which makes the tenant/customer feel that there is someone they can contact at all times which ultimately provides comfort and security knowing that they don’t have to wait until working hours to raise a concern.

We’ve discussed the needs of the housing sector in other blogs, but to summarise, the IT department must be working with the business to lower costs, improve customer satisfaction and ensure that services are optimised. With challenges to lower rent by 1% year on year, and the rollout of universal credit – using technology to increase the efficiency services and lower costs are at the forefront of an IT departments priorities. Chatbots can help by speeding up the route to information and solutions for tenants/customers and enabling contact centre staff to focus more on the high priority cases.

One of the problems that social landlords face, is that there are too many incoming enquiries to solve across multiple channels which include the subjects of rent, repairs, emergency help (for broken boilers etc) and complaints. Without a Chatbot, all these questions need to be answered by a member of staff in the contact centre either on by phone, social media or webchat. A Chatbot is a great tool for dealing with the typical ‘FAQ’ enquiries across multiple channels, while your contact centre staff can deal with more intricate requests.

A bot can shield your contact centre from being high volumes, whilst being able to handle enquiries from across Facebook messenger, webchat or even a digital speaker in a tenant’s home, to ensure the simple enquiries are dealt with from end-to-end by the bot while the more demanding enquiries are handed to an experienced contact centre agent. Another clear benefit is a bot can carry on working for you out of normal business hours.  This translates into better productivity and an improved service from your organisation

However, Chatbots can be put to work in more targeted situations as well as a reactive point of contact approach. With the need to keep on top of customers who may be late with rent payments, an automated chatbot could be triggered to reach out if rent was late: making first contact to triage why rent is delayed and alert a member of staff if further action needs to be taken.

The key to delivering value to housing through a Chatbot is to not overcomplicate its design just to show off what technology can do. Focusing on the genuine business problems within Housing and solving it with an intuitive Chatbot is better than building a very complicated approach for a problem that does not need solving.

Sometimes less is more and most tenants are happy to talk to a bot if the conversation feels natural and they feel it is going to speed up the service, even if there are still a few things that the bot needs to redirect to a human.  When the user experience has been well-designed and thought through, any solution that uses familiar technology and removes barriers is going to be quickly adopted by end users. This becomes especially effective when we blend the bot into existing contact centre processes by allowing operators to jump in when required to deal with complicated queries.

A simple user experience that works across multiple channels for housing customers will attract more customers than a complicated one. To ensure we keep it simple, a bot that focuses on quickly providing the information required in natural language, or handing off to a member of staff will not require any prior knowledge from the customer, or a great deal of technical know-how to interact with it. If you end up with a web of complex loops and hooks in you bot conversation experience, the chances are you’re going to lose your users along the way. If you notice the Conversation Flow getting complicated, much like with code, you may find it easier to draw a box around that section of the bot and treat it as a separate bot in it’s own right, redirect from the bot to your webpage or escalate to a human operator. Whether it’s paying rent, or reporting a repair, or raising a complaint Housing Associations want their customers to be able to complete these tasks with ease and efficiency and not have the bot make the process made any more rigid or complicated than it would otherwise be.

Developing a bot with a supplier from scratch is not a simple process, it involves different disciplines, and the effort is often underestimated by inexperienced teams who have little basis to quantify this other than from some vendor demos that are designed to make it all look simple.  All whilst expectations from your project sponsors are being blown up by media reports running in overdrive about the amazing things that AI is achieving.  Thus, these solutions often end up delivering far less than expected and being more expensive to create than originally thought.  But not through any fault of your own.

Housing Associations are often keen to deliver innovative solutions, but with limited budgets and pressure to deliver, the room to experiment with new services such as ChatBots is limited. At cloudThing, we have created a lot of solutions for contact centres and have developed ChatBots from scratch. A great deal of the investment when creating a Chatbot comes from the early information gathering stages, and could be made far more pain free if organisations had access to a platform that was prebuilt to understand the most common conversations, in different languages, and be able to integrate into popular live chat systems.  This would mean that a bot project could become an exercise of installing the platform and adding tailored conversations for an individual organisation rather than a ground zero build. This approach cuts the bot creation time down, helps to manage stakeholder expectations, and allows far quicker realisation of ROI than is possible from a build-from-scratch route.

Thus, cloudThing have started development of a ‘whitelabel’ solution for Housing Associations that brings the best chatbot technology within reach of those organisations without the resources or knowhow to attempt such a project. We understand the business, people, and technical sides of Bots and Housing and are here to offer our help to your organisation. Please see my medium profile for more general information articles about bots, and this article Dynamics365 and Bots within the Microsoft AI Portfolio, which you can read if you would like some further technical information about where Microsoft are going with their investments in AI.

Bots don’t have to be complicated or a conversation/action to fear. They should be seen as a business opportunity, but also a technical advance which can benefit a housing associations who want to find ways to better engage their customers with their existing resources.

If you’re interested or want to know more, don’t hesitate to drop the team a message or chat to us on our Chat! We would be more than happy to discuss your thoughts and questions.