What do you think of when you hear the words ‘social housing’? Did you immediately think the housing sector is at the forefront of digital innovation? I doubt it. It seems all too common nowadays for those without a connection to the housing sector to hold specific, misconceived and somewhat stigmatised views about what we do. Benefit cheats, large single parent families or immigrants spring to mind? It saddens me really to think how widespread those assumptions may be. I’d love to challenge those people to step into the working world of social housing for one week and not find themselves both factually and emotionally corrected by the experience.

The truth is the housing sector and the organisations within it are often overlooked in favour of ‘sexier’ private sector organisations. But it’s a sector where I feel honoured to be trying to make a difference to people’s lives. There are truly some great people and innovations surfacing in the industry, especially when it comes to digital experience.

Yes ok we haven’t got the swagger of Virgin, the reach of Google or the brand advocacy of Apple, but then that’s not us. Sometimes though I do think some big brands could learn a lot from housing, specifically around social media. After all, the wonder of digital is that you no longer need to have the biggest budget to provide the best experience to your customers.

Here at Red Kite, one of the great uses we have found so far for social media has been our use of Twitter to open up historically private parts of any other normal business. During every Board meeting (and more recently our Executive Team’s meetings) we live tweet what we are talking about and the decisions being made. Do the big brands do that? Why not? Of course there are confidential items that have to be held back, but our followers seem to accept that. They like the transparency and ability to engage with us in real time, to not just listen to a story, but be part of it.

Is it a size thing? Do big private companies lose sight of the personal touch as they grow? You only have to look up some of the great viral examples out there like the Star Trek Netflix conversation or understand the benefits of the Easyjet app to see that some of the big guns do get it very right and do it more visually than housing. The private sector is after all still leading the way when it comes to digital.

I tried to engage with a big supermarket brand (the green one!) not so long ago on Twitter. I wanted to give them some constructive feedback. Some 9 tweets and several weeks later and I never had a reply. I expected them to be occupying that digital space for their customers (we’re there after all) but it seems to be just an advertising board for them. That’s one of the many benefits of Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites in housing. We can now start to bridge the gap with some of our private sector neighbours when it comes to customer experience. At Red Kite we’re not perfect, we are definitely on the journey rather than at the destination, but we do respond to every tweet and every Facebook post that needs one and we do it with personality rather than being robots. We do it 24 hours a day too because sometimes our customer’s needs demand it.

The challenge for us is how we embrace this flexibility elsewhere in the business. I normally describe such things to people as the need to do what’s right, rather than what’s easy. That’s kind of my mantra. We are looking at digital as a way of helping us to build relationships and improve the customer experience, not just for cost efficiency. I’d argue that’s becoming a pretty widespread view in housing now.

Now don’t misunderstand me, housing is definitely on the catch up. A great example of how things are changing though was on the 12th November when following a suggestion by Adrian Capon (@AdeCapon) #housingday was born on Twitter. Over the course of the day, some 37,000 tweets were sent highlighting all the good work that goes on. In fact the conversation was trending second in the UK for most of the day. Not all of these mentions were organisations either, many were customers. It was a community effort to raise the profile of what we do, to correct those misguided views. From Anti Social Behaviour (ASB) initiatives, community projects, working with elderly, vulnerable or digitally excluded groups, right through to just some useful insights into a day in the life of the housing sector. It was a feast of insightful information, all neatly sorted by a hashtag. How efficient. How refreshing. How digital.

So what’s next for digital in housing? Will it always be in the shadow of the private sector? Maybe…in fact probably, but the divide is shrinking. Digital be default the government say, I’d argue it’ll always be digital by choice. The challenge we’ve started to accept in housing though, is we have to make that an obvious choice.

Author: Matthew Hedges (@CustServiceMatt)

Matthew Hedges is the Head of Customer Services at Red Kite Community Housing. Having worked in the Customer Service profession for some 10 years, Matthew’s role at Red Kite is focused on improving the customer experience, building strong, personal customer relationships and embedding the organisations values of Partnership, Respect and Pride. Red Kite are a charitable not for profit organisation managing approximately 6,700 homes with and for a community of amazing customers in Buckinghamshire.

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