Podcast Episode 15
Nick Atkin from Yorkshire Housing
This week, we're talking with Nick Atkin, the Chief Executive Officer of Yorkshire Housing. We talk about his biggest digital transformation success, creating a digital transformation strategy and new technologies.
Hello and welcome to another Switchee podcast. We're joined today by an innovation guru: Nick Atkin. Thank you so much for joining us! Nick is the Chief Executive at Yorkshire Housing. I’ve known Nick for a few years and seen that he's always been at the forefront of digital transformation and innovation in the housing sector. So really pleased to have you onboard Nick. Just before we get stuck into a few of the questions that we've got, I do like to ask people how they got involved in the housing sector in the first place and I think from looking at your LinkedIn profile, you're a bit of a lifer here. So perhaps you could share with our audience how you got involved in the sector?
Yeah, well, I suppose I was born and brought up in Donny in South Yorkshire and like many people, thought I needed to escape when I could. Much to my dad's irritation. So I managed to do just enough work to get just the right A-Levels to go to Uni in Manchester. I did geography with an environmental studies degree, the last two years of which were all housing. Graduated from there just at the start of the economic crash in 1991. I had two job offers, fortunately. One was a Housing Officer for Warrington Council and the other one was a trainee Store Manager for B&Q but based in Penrith and because I hate the cold, and I thought Penrith sounds blinking cold sat in a cold warehouse somewhere. I thought you know what, I’ll take the housing one and that's how my housing journey started and I’ve been here since. Yeah, fell into it like most people like I guess.
But, yeah, and gone through some great opportunities and organisations during that time. So one of the main sort of areas that I wanted to talk to you about Nick is I’ve looked from afar at the work that you were doing at Halton and now with Yorkshire and seen lots of digital transformation projects that you've done and things that you've implemented and I think the first question from my side is I guess what have been the biggest successes with regards to that journey?
Well, okay. I suppose the pretext to all of this is that the housing sector is quite risk-averse. You know, we generally don't tend to be doing what some of the wider world is doing. So, I’ve taken quite a lot of my inspiration predominantly from retail. My two favourite retailers are Amazon and Apple. I just think they're amazing and also a bank called First Direct who I’ve been with for 20 odd years and they are just - everybody there has been sprinkled or has like been injected with magic fairy dust. So instead of having the COVID vaccine, they've all had this magic fairy dust for the last 20 odd years injected into them.
But I think, where I’m coming to on that is I think the customer experience hasn't always been great in housing. It's been very traditional every Monday to Friday, every 9 to 5 - one of the things that I sort of took from them interestingly during the banking crisis in 2008 was the rise of self-serve and how that can be used not as the banks did to slash costs but how it could be used to reallocate resources in your business to provide more intensive support for those customers who really needed it. So we embarked on a journey towards self-serve back in 2014, 2015, when I was at Halton and at that time it was really interesting because I remember in the summer of 2015, speaking at a few conferences. I remember the comms team coming up to me and saying, “For goodness sake, can you stop talking about the transition to self-serve?” and I remember one of my comms teams said to me, “You'd be more popular if you said you were going to kill every new-born baby in Halton under the age of 1, than if you said you were going to actually provide a great self-serve offer”.
I think it was interesting because at that time there was quite a lot of resistance to where we were heading and I think it was always predicated on the fact that we wanted to release resources that were just dealing with processes and I suppose service failure because that's why people were contacting us because things had gone wrong. They needed us to fix it and actually just sort of deal with all of that through a really great self-serve option a bit like Amazon or First Direct offer. And we started that journey. I suppose we didn't get that message clear enough at the beginning about the purpose of it - that was my fault in terms of the purpose. But, I think very quickly we got to a position where we were able to not only provide a great self-serve offer for customers but also interestingly integrate that so that it was live into the housing system. So that actually the customer journey was straight through in terms of workflow without anybody in the business actually interfering with that transaction and certainly when I left Halton what back in March 2019, it got to a position where 9 out of every 10 customer generate transactions we're going through that online self-serve process and I think that reflects a wider point really when I talk about being paternalistic prior to starting that journey.
You know, at Halton, we'd done a lot of research with customers and the overarching message we got back was, to summarize the news at 10 headline, would be that you're a landlord - you're a hygiene factor. We just want you to do something when you say you're going to do it, we want it to be easy to get you to do stuff. The rest of the time, we want you to get out of our lives and we've got bigger and better things to do than deal with you which was really hard. I'd invested all this time and sort of work in terms of getting our customers to love us and feel great about it but actually they were saying you're a landlord get over yourselves. You know, it's predominantly a transactional relationship. Yes, for some people it was about providing lots and lots and lots of really good quality tenancy support. But the vast majority of people just wanted to have a really safe, secure, affordable, great quality, roof over their heads. You know, and the rest of the time they just needed us out the way.
Yeah, that's really interesting and like you're saying there about being able to reallocate resources to those that need it because there are different needs within the sector. If you've got 85%, 90% of your residents that just want you to go away and for it to be simple and easy then this allows you to do it. What you're saying they're about a little bit of a resistance to change and innovation and people taking the wrong end of the stick with what you were trying to do there - I think from my perspective with Switchee, we deal in data and we deal in property data but we're also trying to positively affect people's lives as well. There's a sort of noble pursuit there. But the thread is if what you're aiming to do always has good within it, you'll be able to do that. So, yes if you collect lots of data you can do bad things. Yes, if you want to put everybody onto a platform rather than deal with them face to face that could be bad for your residents. But if there's always good at the core of it in what you're trying to do, then it usually works out. So we've heard a little bit about the self-serve model which you put together there, I think there'll be lots of housing providers that if they took a good look at themselves internally are probably almost at the beginning of their digital transformation journey. They might have dipped their toe in and done a few things. Have you got any advice for other housing providers who identify themselves as being at the beginning of that journey?
Oh! Right, okay. I think it's always the issue that it all feels a bit big and overwhelming and it's like, “Oh my goodness! We've got to get from A to Z” and for me, I think the point would be to take some small steps. Have a clear end goal in mind in terms of what you want even if it's being quite loose but actually take some small steps towards that rather than trying to do a huge transformational project which will catapult you forward in 9 months. In all reality, that's not realistically gonna happen. So I think it is about having that real sort of high-level objective.
So, using the example from Halton, we had a target that 90% of all our customer-generated transactions would be online self-serve by 2020. Now interestingly, it's a good example of where you need a loose target because I remember going into a board meeting in January. Sorry, it wasn't 2020, it was 2018? I remember going into a board meeting in January and the board member saying, “Well, that's our target and we've not quite met it” and I said, “No, no, I didn't say January. I said 2018, I meant December” so the end of the calendar year. Always buy yourself a bit of flexibility, that's my top tip. And that board member knows exactly who he is.
I think the other thing is just also perhaps linking to what we talked about earlier, bespoking the sell depending upon the audience. So for example, if you're talking about digital transformation to the real decision-maker in any business and that's not the chief exec interestingly, that's the FD. The FD is the true power broker in any organisation. You need to talk about the cost per transaction of in-person versus online self-serve. You need to be talking about repairs that cost 4 times more to be done as reactive repairs as opposed to being pre-empting. You need to be talking about the average void cost of £2,300 per round. All those sorts of things that, make them tick and get them excited. Whereas for, perhaps somebody who works in customer experiences about how fantastic that customer experience can be from moving from a position of a service failure, which is basically what we deal in, to one which actually pre-empts when things may happen and that you intervene before that happens, so the customer doesn't have a negative experience.
So I think it's about bespoking the message and thinking about who you're trying to influence in the audience to actually enable that to happen and to get people on board because it won't happen unless you get the majority of people on board for that journey. The end destination that will interest them will differ depending upon where they're coming from. So yeah, it's up to always, always get the FD on board and you know the FD, don't you? Because they walk in a room and even if it's sunny it goes cloudy and sort of miserable, doesn't it? Sorry, I love you really. You keep me safe. I love all my FDs believe me. But they are the true power broker in any organisation. It's interesting because the chief execs probably the least influential because everybody sits there and smiles and goes “Yes, yes, yes” but really there's a speech bubble above their heads that is thinking, “No way am I doing this. As soon as I get out, I’m going to do the exact opposite to what he's asking me to do”
Indeed. Well, there are a few quotes in here already Nick, which we'll send you afterwards.
It'll go down as the end of my long career in housing?
Not at all. I’m sure they won't be the worst. So just in terms of bespoking, I think that that rings true. I’ve been working in innovation within housing for the last few years and you've got to get your messaging right. That's anything from for the resident you know, the what's in it for me how is this going to affect my life, my home, to within the landlord, you've got frontline staff, who might be worried about compliance and risk and things like that. And then your mid-levels and up to exec where it can sometimes be more about the money and governance and finance. But yeah, picking your audience and bespoking your message to them, we've interestingly found that it's not just residents and landlords but you start having to think about the economy and the climate as well in terms of these stakeholders and sort of addressing that. We've done lots of talks recently about net-zero and where different processes and technologies and funding streams sit in that. And I guess moving into the technology sphere or maybe what's happening next, so we've talked a bit about digital transformation experience that you've got so far and where other housing providers can learn from those successes and maybe some failures. But what are you seeing out there that excites you at the moment either from a technology perspective or an innovation perspective?
Okay, I think there's a couple of ingredients and I’ll sort of put those into where I think they could be used practically in housing. So the stuff that really excites me. I think some of the AI, some of the Artificial Intelligence stuff is mind-blowing, isn't it? That really excites me I think that the opportunities that offers are almost, it almost hurts your head to think about to try and process it in all in terms of where it could go. So I also think you know, chatbots as well offer a big opportunity. I was on a call a couple of weeks ago with somebody who's developed a Yorkshire chatbot which is funny. Didn't quite have some of the phrases right. But there's that usual thing of how do chatbots accurately sort of pick up some of the local dialects that you have - the richness of the language that we have around the UK but how do you pick up those dialects and not always make it clear that you're speaking to a bot. There are times when you need to be clear about that and the times when perhaps you could put that to one side.
I think the other thing is data analytics. I’ve got 3 kids. You know, I hate them all as much as they hate me probably. And you know, my long, suffering wife she's been with me 25+ years and they're all fed up with me. So we've got a dog but I suppose the point of this, sorry, completely sort of gone off of a tangent. The point of all of this is that you know, I think that's the real future and I’ve said to my kids get into data science. Needless to say, they've done what they always do and completely ignored me and gone nowhere near data science but I actually think the opportunities particularly as we start to scrape open-source data. That offers a really big opportunity to shift the whole approach which is where I think then it links into housing and what it can do for housing.
I mentioned a couple of times already on this call but, we deal in service failure. So we have lots of things that happen and we wait for them to happen before we then do anything about it in response. So I don't just mean repairs but repairs are a simple and easy example. But also people falling into arrears for example. People choosing to end their tenancy right through to also things like ASB. There are a number of those elements that can be predicted or pre-empted and what we actually do is don't think through that lens. We think let's wait for the customer to tell us. Well, why do that when that's normally at a point when the customer is quite understandably grumpy with us and they want something fixed and we then rush out with blue flashing lights on all our vans and all our cars and whatever else to try and sort the problem out. It's really expensive as well.
So for the FDs, because I love FDs, really I didn't mean what I said before here's one for you. The average repair is 4 times more expensive done as a reactive repair as opposed to one which is planned and let's face it. Things - particularly like gas boilers, always fail out of hours. There's no gas boiler in the UK that has ever failed in normal working hours. They always wait for Friday night and then all pack in together. And actually, what you can do and I suppose the big piece of work that's in Yorkshire housing's business strategy is talking about transforming the housing service as a whole from being reactive to being pre-emptive. And for me, there are three key ingredients to do that. The first is “Data”. So we're doing a big piece of work at the moment to get our data analytical ready. So in other words, making sure that the data we're putting in is clean, accurate and timely. And so the first element is data analytics.
The second element which I think is really exciting is all the smart stuff and this will be music to your ears bearing in mind what you do but it's all the smart home tech that's available out there and it's changing so rapidly. For me, this is now to a point where I think it's a revenue investment and not a capital investment. So you know, people are looking at this in the same way as putting a new heating system in or changing a roof. For me, this is a sort of disposable in-year type expenditure because the way technology is shifting now, you want to mix and match and blend and change things as you go through. But that smart home tag, in terms of assisted living, in terms of just basic repairs. In terms of keeping people safe. There are so many opportunities and that, I know we're probably tight on time but you know, I could probably talk about that for the whole 20 minutes podcast on its own.
So that's the second element and I think the third element is around real-time customer insight. Not customer satisfaction data saying when you last had a repair three years ago how did we do. That's not relevant but what I’m talking about is real-time customer insight which enables us to really sort of sense check, have a toe in the water in terms of what the issues are for our customers. So you blend those three elements together and that I believe gives you the core key ingredients to make that shift from being reactive to being pre-emptive and that's why some of the new tech or some of the new ways of doing things really, really excites me in terms of how we could really take the housing service to another level and shift it from being a British Home Stores to an Amazon.
You've heard it here first. It makes total sense but it's not obvious and easy. We definitely thought, if you rewind 5 years, even with the greatest intent, there wasn't actually the product or services weren't mature enough to do everything that was required and it's changing so quickly as you mentioned. But yeah, getting data analytics-ready, using new technology that's emerged in the last few years and then yeah, a real-time element on it rather than a retrospective is obviously some key ingredients and I’d be interested to hear how your favourite, the Chief Financial Officers look at the revenue move as in moving from capital to revenue because that's always been a sticking point for this type of thing.
But, as you say, if it's changing so much you need to be able to change with it and it can be an in-year expense. It doesn't matter if you've invested in that thing for that year and it was right for that year and it's shown some improvement that year. If it's obsolete in 5 years time, that's not necessarily a problem. That's what all of these bits of technology are for us at the moment. There's an environmental impact which is a different question. But yeah, blend it in the year.
Nick, we are unfortunately out of time, it goes quickly. But perhaps we'll take you up on the offer to come back and do another podcast with us. We've covered off a few interesting topics today, some insight from the digital transformation from a few years ago what's gone well and maybe what hasn't gone well, the self-serve model and bespoking your messaging to the different stakeholders that are involved. And finally, yeah, the bit that I’m most excited about is what happens next, where does the technology take us, where is the innovation going in the housing sector and with the challenges that we have around compliance, risk, net-zero, climate change, pandemics, resident engagement all of these things that must be rattling around your and your exec team's brains, it could be a perfect storm actually to revolutionize what the housing sector does and how it does it. So be an interesting journey. But, thank you so much for joining us Nick!
Oh! Thanks very much for having me and yeah please, please do bring me back. I can talk for England. So we're always happy to have to chat with you folks.
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