Why should you be able to book a train ticket at midnight, but not a repair?

When I had my boiler serviced at home, I went to the British Gas website, picked my appointment slot, popped it on my calendar and waited for the phone call from the engineer to say they were on the way.

How the right planning and design decisions for heat networks can reduce future repairs and breakdown

I left their site not only a satisfied customer, but also a rather embarrassed housing association CEO.

Why couldn’t we offer such convenience, ease and certainty to our own customers? After all they could bank online 24/7, manage their utility accounts at anytime and even book train tickets online at midnight.

One of our objectives is to be a “Great Landlord”. But were we, without such easy, convenient access to our most important customer service; repairs? We thought not and felt we had to act.

Many associations claim to have on-line repairs booking, but in reality they’re little more than a fancy e-mail; they still need schedulers to process the request and staff to initiate an e-mail response to the customer to confirm the appointment.

Our aim was to develop a system with zero staff intervention, up until someone turned up at the door to carry out the repair!

We used customers as our system developers with the help of a User Experience consultancy who ran a series of workshops, where in true agile style we designed, and refined on the fly.

Internally, all staff involved in the process chain were involved.

Having initially laughed in our face at the very idea, we turned the scepticism of our repairs operatives to our advantage. They rose to the challenge of identifying everything that could go wrong and, critically, the appropriate mitigations.

Kirona, providers of our dynamic resource scheduling and Capita, suppliers of Open Housing worked with us to bring the data together and our in-house ICT team designed a range of valuable bespoke features to develop an intuitive new system logic, with our own integrated dynamic scheduling and a simple and intuitive interface with clear, unambiguous repair descriptions and drop- down menus that prioritise the most frequently reported repairs.

Efficiency is the mantra of the moment, so how can it be efficient for us to answer 12,000 repair calls per annum, to log the repair and our scheduler to allocate that work to a repairs team member.

We reckon it cost us £3.40 to take the call and at least as much again to allocate the job. Now it costs about 8p per online transaction. So what happens to all those savings?

Much of it will feed straight through to increased surpluses, meaning we can build more homes; whilst some will be re-allocated to support those vulnerable customers who may struggle online.

We genuinely believe this to be a small group. We actively banish the lazy stereotype that many of our elderly tenants will automatically fit into this group.

We’ve organised and run numerous beginners classes and lost count of the number of nonagenarians we’ve helped get on line.

We wanted to develop a system that was genuinely helpful to customers – easy and intuitive to use night or day, high days or holidays. We think we’ve managed it. By the end of our first week 22% of online contact was out of office hours.