Love it or hate it, AI is here to stay. The pressing question is how we can welcome its integration into interactions with employees and customers. While sectors like retail and entertainment have been using chatbots for many years now, the concept is relatively new for the social housing sector.
Home Group Chatbot for Employees
As consumers, many of us have had experiences with chatbots — and those experiences have been varied to say the least. It goes from being straightforward and helpful to leaving you wanting to reach in the computer, grab the chatbot and shake it.
At Home Group, we introduced automated chat functionality for internal colleagues in early 2020. As one of the UK’s largest providers of housing, health and care, we employe more than 3,500 individuals. The chatbot initiative helped introduce a range of tools to support employee work and make them feel more at home in our business.
This included our automatic First Year at Home chatbot for new hires. This tool takes new employees through all the essential milestones within their first year and prompts their managers to ensure there are regular check-ins, both on a personal and professional capacity. Implementing these features recognizes the importance of feeling valued and having well-being put in high consideration — especially for those new to the business.
Home Group also introduced chatbot tools to support using our internal communications platform, Workplace, as well as a glossary bot to educate colleagues about the specialist language that we use. We understand that in social housing there’s a range of technical language that may be unfamiliar, as well as our own business-specific terms for opportunities and groups that colleagues may want to be a part of.
We’ve also developed smaller time-sensitive chatbots and tools to feed into our internal communications activities, especially around awareness days. Home Group engages in extensive work on DEI campaigns and sharing colleague and customer experiences. The inclusion of interactive elements further aids in absorbing this information.
All our chatbots have been developed with input from colleagues across the business, which was a testament to our power as internal communicators driving the project. We’re skilled in building cross-functional relationships and identifying the key information needed to be shared more widely in our regular communications. Leveraging these strengths and skills ultimately helped continue to educate the chatbot.
Since launching to colleagues in July, it has been a huge success with significant uptake. In the first four months, over 760 colleagues had engaged with our chatbots, providing an extra level of engagement and interaction on top of what they receive directly from their team and managers. It’s about striking a balance between using technology and retaining that human touch that has made our business so successful — and we think we’re finding a good balance so far.
Home Group Chatbot for Customers
The success we had with our chatbot for colleagues led us to explore how we could utilize it to the benefit of our customers. We felt that chatbots could provide a powerful way of supporting customers with readily available information while easing the burden on existing staff.
However, we knew this would be a new and significant step in our engagement journey with customers — one we felt could backfire if we got it wrong, leaving people feeling more frustrated.
Home Group’s success was dependent on our ability to work collaboratively with colleagues across the business and to ensure the project was easy to contribute to and, importantly, exert influence.
The result was our Help for Customers chatbot. The tool was designed in partnership with colleagues to support them while working directly with customers, and to provide a bridge between our technology and the personal contact with which our customers are familiar.
This customer chatbot has allowed for a more effective approach to our business, as colleagues can advise and guide customers through the information rather than overwhelm them with it. It has also allowed for Home Group to capture much needed customer data in a standardized way, maximizing the amount of support we can secure for our customers. This is a vital part of our business responsibilities, as a large proportion of our customers continue to face challenges from the cost of living crisis.
Through this chatbot, our colleagues have been able to support customers in receiving cost of living payments, disability payments, winter fuel payments and warm home discounts. Additionally, they can refer customers to our Financial Inclusion team, who are then able to try and recoup further savings for our customers.
In the first six months after its launch, our Help for Customers chatbot supported 65 customers, with over 220 instances of help reported. This averaged to assisting with three to four issues at a time, which otherwise may have taken multiple conversations and meetings. Within those 65 customer requests for help, we were able to support:
- 50 cost of living payment applications.
- 12 disability cost of living payment applications.
- 27 warm home discounts and 21 winter fuel payment applications.
- 10 crisis grants or community care grant applications.
- 29 referrals to Home Group’s Financial Inclusion team.
- 38 customers identified as at risk of fuel poverty.
- 15 cases of specific issues with customers’ homes to be logged.
In the time since that data was gathered, we have seen use cases and positive outcomes from our chatbot continue to increase. At present, our chatbot is safe from the wrath of frustrated users.
Home Group is still taking relatively small steps on our chatbot journey, but we are continually looking for opportunities to widen our stride and expand our offer to colleagues and customers. The key to this is looking at best practices outside the housing sector — toward those who have fine-tuned their offer to the point where customers want to reach into their computer and hug their chatbot.
Our first hug is maybe some way down the road, but we’d be delighted with a small pat on the back for now.
About Home Group
Home Group is one of the UK’s largest providers of housing, health and care, employing more than 3,500 colleagues. Home Group provides homes for over 125,000 customers across 60,000 properties in England and Scotland. In the last year, Home Group has delivered support to over 11,000 people with mental and physical health issues.
The North-East based social enterprise, set up in 1935, has a strategic goal to build the right homes in the right places, supported by Persona — its outright sale arm launched in 2018. All profits from Persona are reinvested to build more social and affordable homes.