We need to talk

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Why face-to-face involvement is as important as it’s ever been.

Over recent years at Derwent Living there has been a strong focus on providing services for customers digitally. As well as the efficiency and cost saving that digitisation brings, there’s rightly an expectation from customers and staff alike that services should be available 24/7, and be quick and easy to use. After all, that’s how most of us choose to live our lives.

We’ve also been hard at work getting feedback from customers through digital channels, and that’s somewhere we’ve had significant success.

Channel hopping

By using text messaging, social media, our website and other online channels, we’ve been able to increase the number of people getting involved by more than 300%. And it isn’t just a flashy statistic, we can correlate that increased feedback directly to higher customer satisfaction scores and improvements to our service.

The main reason technology has worked so successfully for us, is the reason it works for so many others - convenience. With everyone leading such busy lives, convenience is a hugely influencing factor in whether or not you have the will to do something. By giving people convenient and simple options we find many are more than happy to have their say on issues and topics.

It’s also down to geography. As with most housing providers, we don’t just operate in one city, town or borough and have properties spread across the UK. We couldn’t hope to conduct involvement and engagement activity in each of the 43 local authority areas we operate in all the time, so in that respect technology has removed geographical borders, allowing everyone to have their say - at once and en masse.

A piece in the jigsaw, not the whole puzzle

Digital services and engagement isn’t for everyone, and shouldn’t be seen as the only way to get things done. After all we’re part of Places for People, an organisation with a strong focus on communities and people, so there always needs to be interaction in person, and that also has to be accessible.

But given the increasing dominance of digital services, how do you create a face-to-face proposition that is still relevant, attractive and effective in an age of technology?

Facing up to the task

As I mentioned earlier, convenience is one of the key factors for why digital works so effectively, but there’s no reason offline engagement can’t be convenient too. It’s never going to be as immediate or suit absolutely everyone, but there are things you can do to maximise take-up and outcomes.

Over the past few years we’ve refined our offline offer significantly, delivering things as varied as camper van and car-boot consultations, community clean-up days and even involved customers in documentary films. Other engagement opportunities for groups like our scrutiny team, independent complaints panel and mediation team now include a vocational learning element, where customers study and learn new skills while they are helping shape our services.

I suppose the big takeaway here is to always frame engagement opportunities around the lifestyle and interests of those that you want to hear from.

And for those who say that face-to-face engagement only appeals to a certain age demographic - that’s simply not the case.  It’s how and when you offer that face-to-face contact that determines who will take you up on the offer.

Most recently at The Meet at Bustler Market, we put that thinking into practice once again with a very different take on the traditional customer conference. Using an informal inner-city street food market as a setting, we put colleagues from customer-facing teams front and centre, with the intention to start as many conversations as possible, answer questions and solve issues.

The following film from that event shows that approach in action and highlights the importance of face-to-face interaction and the benefits that customers feel it brings. 

From my own experience of the day it shows how powerful having conversations can be, the trust they build and how crucial they are in adding detail and narrative to the customer experience.

And from speaking to colleagues since, they felt after talking things through with customers they were able to better understand where staff were coming from when delivering services, and the extent of their powers and limitations.

Wrap up

Regardless of whether the engagement is face-to-face or digital, landlords still need to deliver on promises they make to residents.  Doing so ensures trust isn’t broken and relationships can continue to grow positively.  

We’ll continue to work across digital and traditional methods, gathering valuable feedback to improve our services further. And we’re always keen to hear what customers, and our industry peers have to say on the topic of digital and traditional involvement. Why not join in the conversation on Twitter or come out and see us the next time we’re in your area?

About the author: Mitch joined Derwent Living in 2002 and worked initially in the community development team before it became the resident involvement team, and now heads up the customer engagement team. He is responsible for coordinating the organisation's approach to engaging customers in service delivery, improvement and co-regulation.