With consumer activity shifting online, it is natural that residents want to communicate with their landlord in the same way. Simon Reay, group director of Rubixx, explains how associations can make the most of portal technology. Picture by Getty
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How has the market for software solutions changed in recent years?
Ten years ago, there was a monopoly of seven core housing system providers. It was perceived that there was strength in their size and reliability from their name, but the sector has now changed. Housing associations (HAs) need to publish value for money statements every year and it is a focus of everything they do. Welfare reform has also vastly accelerated the desire for efficiencies. HAs need smarter, harder-working systems that help them achieve more with less work.
A market of specialist alternative software providers and independent consultants has come to prominence. This arena is now becoming buoyant to the point where associations not only realise they have a choice, but some are actively preferring alternative providers because they get a different customer experience.
What are the benefits to housing providers of these changes?
More choice and clear elements of competition. Alternative providers are big enough to deliver while offering niche solutions for specific needs, but have a commercial eye on the customer experience as well. They are also sufficiently agile to see the demands in the market and strive to fulfil them in a timely manner. This is vital to them achieving maximum customer satisfaction.
What makes alternative providers different?
They provide focused solutions. HAs want integrated systems – this previously meant a single system. When any software house has to produce a single integrated system they are faced with managing dozens of modules, thousands of programs and tables, and an unsustainable variety of in-house implementation expertise. Core modules such as rents, arrears, voids and allocations were taken care of so these modules evolved and were maintained. Conversely, modules such as support plans or asset compliance were often afterthoughts, so lacked any rich functionality and depth of design.
Alternative providers specialise in their field, so their development roadmap focuses on that exclusively. This means that there are clear market leaders. For example, if someone asked me who they should use for, say, asset compliance or arrears management, there are clear answers now, where there never used to be.
Simon Reay is group director of Rubixx and has more than 20 years’ experience working in the social housing sector. An Advanced TrueParter Reseller and Progress Partner+, Rubixx specialises in fully integrated portal technology for self service along with OpenAccounts and eBIS support, and consultancy for housing associations ranging from 500 to 33,000 residents.
What changed in the market to make it more hospitable for alternative providers?
Historically, many third-party providers built great systems that would have stood alone or had some clunky CSV export running every hour to try to interface it.
Now it means working hand in hand with a provider on the core modules, but where the ancillary or specialist systems integrate fully into the core system. This integration has to be live, web-service based and robust. It has to be self-reconciling and it has to be reliable. The more forward-thinking traditional suppliers are on-board with these changes, realising the benefit and potential sales opportunities in integration with these alternative providers.
The other common feature of alternative providers is the model of service delivery. It is a ‘sleeves up’ approach, and this tends to save on time. The lack of need to project manage a big team means that the project management requirements are direct between the experts on the ground and the decision-makers in the organisation.
In what areas of their business are housing associations seeking alternative software solutions?
Housing associations are looking to fill gaps in functionality across most business units. The sector is still recovering from the welfare reforms and the roll-out of Universal Credit, so it is all about maintaining the high levels of service to their residents but delivering that in a way that is cost effective.
Another big change in demand is the standard of software in terms of the user experience. I could name at least three core supplier systems that look like they are operating in Windows 3.1, so if that client wants a portal and app for their customers it should be modern, slick, scalable and device agnostic. Those two things are like night and day in terms of how they are developed. I remember the old greenscreen systems which said they would never die, as they were reliable and solid. We must learn from history.
How can associations make the most of their software?
Despite what I’ve said, there are not many terrible systems out there – just terrible examples of implementations and maybe some terrible non-core modules. Very often HAs get to the point where staff have disengaged or changed.
My tip would be to engage with your provider initially to see if they will work with you but do not settle, you have a choice. Improve it, and if you can’t, there are alternatives. Review it, change it or replace it, but do not sit there and complain about it.
What changes do you expect in the software market in the next five years?
The future is all about channel shifting and integration between systems.
At least half of social housing websites have a resident log-in area. If done well, associations will be able to realise the benefits of that online service without any degradation in service. The trick is to make the online journey sufficiently attractive and slick, so that people choose to do it.
For example, the reason many of us choose to order from Amazon rather than going to the high street to shop is because it is more convenient, not because we have to. The successful providers in the next five years will be the ones that will work with other providers and their solutions. Here’s my advice to all providers, big or small: integrate, or risk losing your customer.