Excellence on the cheap – the nonsense of digital exclusion

Excellence on the cheap – the nonsense of digital exclusion

Let me tell you how my daughter shops. She goes to a West-end store and, using her phone, she photographs herself in an outfit of choice and sends the photo by MMS or email to a collection of friends, with some variation of the message, “does my bum look big in this?” SMS responses flood back within seconds. If they are approving, she scans the bar code using an App on her phone, hangs the outfit back on the rail. As she leaves the store, using the 3G facility on her phone, she searches the web for the same outfit at the cheapest price. She then either buys it on-line for delivery within 48 hours or, if nearby, she walks to the store to purchase.

She is not unusual in this. Ask any mobile phone operator and they will tell you that teenage female clothes store changing rooms are hot-beds for 3G emissions.

If my daughter were a customer of a social housing provider, the way services are delivered by the vast majority of landlords would just not cut it for her. That is not just because she is young and modern, but more that she demands excellence as a consumer and she uses the technology available to her to achieve that.

Social housing providers are still way off the pace with e-services. Some part of this is a lack of imagination, but a good part of it is a lingering liberal pre-occupation with “digital exclusion”. The problem we are told is that “our customers are too poor to own a computer”. Such nonsense!

We live in a country with a population (60m), which is exceeded in number by the quantity of mobile phones (62.5m). Increasingly the basic model carries 3G capacity. Mobile phones are not a luxury accessory anymore – everyone has one. My 80-year-old mother-in-law has two. We have 26m Facebook users, and check out the social economic profile of this population. 1 in 13 people on the planet use Facebook. In the USA last year 1 in 8 couples who got married, met on line. Everyone is wired!

E-services are cheaper – everyone knows this. But often they are much better quality. Do you remember banking when you did it at the branch? Try banking at the branch nowadays. Banking on-line is convenient, fast, efficient and real time. How did the banks shift us? They nudged us on to telephone banking and invested in e-services. The offer became irresistible. They saved a shed load of money and we got a far superior service.

What does this mean for social housing providers? Close your public-facing offices; invest in e services; save lots of money and immeasurably improve your customer service. Of course there will be customers you will want to see face-to-face, or those who will want to see your staff. No problem. A lot of people meet in Starbucks. Oh, and then there are the confidential or sensitive bits. Let’s be revolutionary, let’s meet our customers in their own homes.

Chris Wood is the Altair partner leading on development and regeneration. He was a former Chief Executive at Newham Council. Speak to Chris on 07932 693 292