video Podcast Episode 17

Ian Gregg from Riverside Group

This week, we're talking with Ian Gregg, the Executive Director of Asset Services at Riverside. We talk about how to deploy a proactive repairs strategy, how prepared housing is to effectively use IoT data and the importance of procurement in adopting new technology.

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Podcast Transcript

Alex:
Hello and welcome to the Switchee Podcast. My name is Alex and I’m with Ian Gregg the Executive Director of Asset Services at Riverside. Welcome, Ian!

Ian:
Thank you very much Alex and thank you for the invite. I’m looking forward to hopefully sharing my wisdom.

Alex:
Perfect. Okay, well, we start a lot of these podcasts with the same kind of question. So we will not change the tradition just yet. So how did you get started in housing?

Ian:
I was doing a sandwich course building surveying degree at Salford University which meant I had a year out in industry. At the time I got a role at Manchester city council with their technical consultancy division. I graduated in the early 90s, very much into the early housing market crashes in the late 80s, which meant there weren't many roles around. Then I ended up back at the council working for the technical consultancy division which then merged and created roles within their housing team. I moved across that housing team and I’ve been in housing ever since. I left the council probably about a year after that to work for an organization that was called Manchester & District Housing Association at the time, which changed into something that was called Harvest Housing Group. Here I am 30 years later still working in housing and loving every minute of it.

Alex:
Perfect. Yeah, I mean that is the story that we hear a lot. Everybody ends up in housing and then they never leave, they just love it too much.

Ian:
Yes.

Alex:
Perfect. Well, so you're at Riverside now - you have been for the last sort of seven years I think, with riverside's large stock and the strategies that come along with that. You've been looking at moving from a reactive to a proactive repair strategy over the last few years. What would you say are some of the key learnings that you've had from that?

Ian:
Interestingly enough, we've moved a bit away from that now because when we started off, it was very much around what we call the MOT's fix your house before it gets broken and then I termed the red ribbon moment which is "now I've fixed it, don't break it", as we work with our customers trying to work that one through. And a lot of that was generated by what we called colour chaos. So we were understanding how our customers use their homes and the more repairs they had the stronger the colour. We had customers that would be ordering over 50 repairs a year!

So originally that was very much targeted at trying to address what we call the colour chaos and bring customers back down to the sort of standard range which for most people we accept that we'll do somewhere between three or four repairs a year per home on average. That's what we started to focus on. We've got over 50,000 homes so there's a lot of properties to get out and about to see. However, what we realized after some time was whilst you've obviously got customers that order lots of repairs. There is another type of colour chaos at the other end of the scale, where customers didn't order any repairs and actually what most organizations will find is probably around a third of their customers don't order a repair. The next third order about one a year. So something goes wrong. If you think about it in your own home, how many times do you get something that goes wrong in your house that you need someone to come and fix for you?

So, it's not unusual but what we were doing obviously was spending the best part of £800, because that's what an average MOT cost on properties, that didn't need any repairs or rather customers weren't asking for them. Clearly, if Riverside come and knock on your front door and say, “I want to come and do these things to your house”, people aren't saying, “No”. But we're spending £4 million a year to save £1 million. So the economics of it didn't stack up.

So it is about really understanding what your data is and how your customers behave and comparing that to what it is you're trying to achieve. The other thing that we also found is it was becoming very expensive for us to get our stock condition survey data by having our in-house teams doing it. Not just that but they were trying to order these repairs and do other things with the customers whereas actually, what we're looking for now is for stock condition data and particularly with the advent of zero-carbon, different skill sets. It's much cheaper in our case currently with the likes of Savills out doing stock condition surveys and zero-carbon rather than spending £300 for our inhouse staff to do it. So all in all that bit has moved on but, absolutely it worked and it helped us reset the balance, particularly in terms of zero-carbon work.

So there's been many benefits for us and the other key thing is it certainly means that we had something like 60% - 65% data on our existing stock assets. So when we were getting Savills to do the work for us, we could get a lower percentage sample because they can ascertain the quality of our existing data and add on their own data. So again, there were savings there for us.

Alex:
Yeah, that's interesting. Yeah, it's one of those things that you hear about a lot in the industry is trying to move away from people reporting their issues. But obviously, the old-school way of approaching that is then to just go and survey everyone. To try and come in and do progressive works. It's an interesting problem that you have before the advent of IoT, where actually manpower was the limiting factor. Being able to go into people's homes and ask them those questions, that's tricky, right? Being able to just say, “Okay, well, at least we know we've got a standardized amount of repairs that we're going to do in a year, we're going to do that over all of the stock” makes it easier for budgets. But yeah, it's an interesting approach. A lot of the housing providers now are starting to look at it as a mix of those two, right? Instead of going okay, we're going to do 10% of our properties a year, we're just going to go in and repaint all of them. Instead, they're going to look at their properties and decide okay, well, these are the 10% worst properties that we now need to address. Which I think is a much more sensible approach. So as I touched on with the IoT stuff - with the rise of IoT and the data that can obviously help bring to housing providers, do you think that housing providers are actually prepared to utilize that information to get effective use out of it?

Ian:
Probably not Alex, if I’m being honest. We're still at the early stages of that. I think we're just starting to find out I think. Quite often we'll be scared by GDPR. I know, particularly our own organisation, we've just had a couple of scares recently using teams and inviting people because the data protection officer is worried that because you can't hide or mask email addresses, that's a breach of data protection and we need to let everybody know. But, also, I’m not sure that necessarily we've got the confidence in terms of what that looks like and people are probably a little worried in terms of the fear of it. Are you going to be spending a fortune on the Space Pen vs the pencil or I’m old enough, you're probably not, but we bought Betamax videos in our house rather than VHS. Obviously, you don't have that problem anymore with downloads but I think it is about seeing how the data can help and assist you and particularly about getting things assured.

So particularly, I’ve got teams of inspectors coming out and about checking and seeing whether buildings are safe, doors are locked, fire alarms systems work. We should make sure that's done remotely, checking systems, testing etc. Making sure things are working effectively. Going back to the other thing about trying to fix things - there are things where you can start to know when something's starting to break. So heat pumps traditionally (this is pretty much why British gas invested in Hive). They start to seize slightly before they break down. So that's the moment you need to go and change that pump, not when the heating's broken down and the customer's freezing cold but just beforehand. Likewise, what we've been doing now is we're starting to use the Switchee product where we're having the biggest repair cases because a lot of that comes around damp and the use or non-use of heating systems. So we're able to make sure that it works, the customer is using the heating system but also it makes it cheaper for the customer to use.

I think that's probably the other challenge about a lot of the technology and some things that start to appear. Whether it be the Google lamps or the Alexa lamps, our customers can't afford them and it is probably one of the areas where I think for social housing we would probably want to be a follower. When it comes to zero carbon and pushing through works that's something we're going to need to lead on. But we need to make sure that whatever products and things we pick up work. The other thing, I think, is making sure that the technology is easy to use from an end-user perspective in terms of what it looks like and feels like. Most of us struggle with using all the functions of our phones. As you go around to see them, and we've certainly seen it as we've been using our technology remotely over the last year or so during the pandemic, some people can adopt it quickly and some really benefit from somebody showing them how to use it. So I think it's a really interesting area but absolutely untapped.

There's so much data that we don't know we need to get insight and we really need to think about it. We're starting to bringing what we call the data scientists. What's happening? What's the insight? So that you can understand what you need to do. What is your customer drive, what is your demand but also, how can you understand, what are the repeat failures? What is it you consistently get wrong, what could you do to stop that? At the moment, we're not very good at that and that's something that both Riverside and the rest of the housing sector really needs to improve upon.

Alex:
Yeah, it's one of those things that you've got to be resident-focused with these things, right?

Ian:
Yeah.

Alex:
It's very easy for a housing provider to say, “Okay, well, we're going to gather as much data as we can and we're going to hold it but if it's not actually helping their residents and their social cause then there's not a lot of point to that. You're potentially just opening yourself up for no reason, right? But I do think it's an interesting point that you raise around using it to be resident-focused. The technology can be extremely complicated. I’ve got some of the smart home stuff here and it will break. It will break because it's not that stable. You need a piece of technology that is extremely stable and that's one of the things I think is interesting about IoT and social housing. We're starting to get to that point. In the early days of IoT, a lot of that was trialling it trying to demonstrate the value and now stability is the thing that providers and procurement look for to ensure that you're in a good position. Do you think that it has any real potential for residents in terms of improving their quality of life?

Ian:
Absolutely. Because I think again we need to understand how homes are performing, how they're being used, the whole thing. We've got stuff where we look after people that are older or more vulnerable. Have they opened the fridge when they're supposed to open the fridge, has the toilet being flushed when it should have been flushed, has the toilet being flushed too many times during the night? I mean, it's scary because big brother can do all this and it's all got to be appropriate on a customer by customer basis, but yeah, there is so much that we can do. I think ultimately, the technology will enable you to do anything and I suppose the question you've got to ask yourself is why? What is it we're doing it for and what is the benefit - it's got to benefit the customer and ultimately benefit us to some degree. Otherwise, you're not going to do it - ultimately we're getting the satisfaction, right?

One of the things we've understood by looking at our data set is that we know that if it's a customer they'll complain to us after just over 8 days. So if we get all the repairs done within 8 days, we aren't going to get the complaint. Technically, I think it's 7.2 days. We've seen that one through data and we can see what it looks like by the different trade types. So all these things are clear. We start to set the expectation and start to see it through. The ability to actually diagnose a repair by remotely attaching to people's phones, that's something that we've been looking at. So we can see it because ultimately, I’ve always talked about we've got two types of repair. You've got the repair that you've not seen, which is the vast majority of them. Someone rings up and says, “I’ve got a squeaky floor” and until a trade person, a fully qualified joiner or whoever goes to have a look at that problem, that could quite simply be a loose floorboard, in which case a screw or a nail will suffice. Or it could be a floating floor and something's gone wrong or even the floor could be rotten. As far as customers’ concern, they've got a loose floorboard. You're not going to know until you get there and then, you're able to deal with what you're doing.

So, I think probably the thing that we also need to look at is where we can see patterns because I don't think we look at the patterns of what's starting to break down. What consistency is it or is it actually something broader that's going wrong? So yeah, the possibilities are endless and it's about making sure you pick the right ones and you work through it.

Alex:
Yeah, it's an interesting point about the floorboards. Very quickly somebody on a phone camera can identify what the issue might be but that's a person who has to go out and you know, all of the carbon implications of that, right?

Ian:
To send somebody out in a van and they might not be in or it might not be convenient for the resident. Well, the cost to get somebody to the home is around about £80, we've worked it out. So when we were costing the MOTs previously, the way that paid for itself is that, I could do 10 repairs in one visit, which in effect meant I wasn't sending somebody out like 10 times because that's the cost and then hopefully they get through the front door, you know. So you look at £80 for a visit, and 8p or whatever for a digital transaction. That's where you start to get the cost benefits. More of us don't want to speak to a human being. We want it to be able to work, we want to go online, book it and get that thing done at the time it suits you. You might be watching the telly and it's kind of boring or it's something that your other half is watching that you're less than interested in, and think "I’ll just organize that thing". You can do it quickly and effectively and that's what our customers are always going to want.

Alex
Yeah.

Ian:
And I think that's going to be our broader challenge as we move forward which is how do we make sure we provide the same digital platform based service that the customers experience everywhere else that they go. Yeah. And I think that's where we've got to get ourselves in the right place.

Alex:
Yeah, very much so. Okay, well, let's have a slightly different kind of approach to this because obviously installing new technologies is all well and good and as long as the motive is sensible and appropriate. One of the things that you hear a lot about is actually getting new technology can be sometimes tricky, right? So how important do you think an efficient procurement process is in actually installing new technology?

Ian:
Oh! Absolutely key to it, I think Alex. The key thing though is understanding what it is that you want and also the possibilities because as I say, what we tend to focus on here at Riverside is do something called “Soft market testing”. Put the queries out there about what we're thinking of buying, this sort of thing or that and what does it look like. So for example, we used the provider for that phone technology and then what happens? Everyone says, “We want X products” and we say, “Well, no, we don't want X product, we want something where we can connect to someone's phone” but what else is out there? So we used that to be able to get that system in the end. Then there are lots of great frameworks out there. So, once you've been out and understood what you want to get, then you can use things like G Cloud, which enables organisations like housing providers to be able to go and buy the product that they want at the right rates. They're always competitive rates because that's how it's worked through the G Cloud process.

The other thing though if you do want to go your more traditional route in terms of actually we want to go through the procurement process, is to think about how you're going to price this. The issue with some technologies is they can be very expensive and you want to work one through and to make sure you get good quality. So, it's key you understand what you're trying to buy and understand and work your way through that. You've got some clear criteria but if you're going to get the benefit from this, you've got to enable the flexibility that whichever partner you pick, they can bring their own value. My advice for people would be to make sure that you've got proper demonstration days and certainly you've got a couple of stages in the process that make sure that you can see the product you're going to get. So you can start to evaluate it.

Also make sure you've got end users in there, so whether that's staff, who are going to help you with a new job management system or it's technology that's going to be working in the customer's home. Make sure you've got customers there. They can say what works, what doesn't work, how does it work for me and hopefully you'll get there. I think there's been many a doomed IT project when people have gone for, “Let's do this and buy all this and bring it all together”. I think very much now what we start to see with agile working is shorter sharper sprints. What does it look like, how does it work, is this how you're supposed to be doing? So people get a sense of “that's what I meant, bring it back to me” rather than “I think that's what I want”, “No, I meant this now”. Partly because sometimes the world moves and we've had issues internally when we've tried projects over a long time, by the time we got to the end of it, “Oh! We've moved on.” But we have got places in our systems where we can link, particularly in compliance with our C365 system, our housing system repairs and everything is automated. So it all works through and when you think about looking after 4000 shared spaces, there's a lot of transactions that go through that.

All that is about making sure you know what it is that you want but also making sure that you check clearly and engage with the market. To go back to thing around the phone analogy, you go into the apple shop, they'll tell you everything the phone can do because they've got all those gurus. Find out what it could do because they'll grab something there that meets exactly what you need.

Alex:
Yeah.

Ian:
And that's what the market, suppliers want to do because ultimately, they know that if they can sell you what their products got, there'll be a difference between their products and their competitors and that might be the thing that swings it for you. So, really get out there and do that. I think some people think you won't get the value out of it but you really do. That's what we've found.

Alex:
Yeah, I agree. I mean, one of the things that we've had an enormous amount of success with is doing smaller trials in order to understand "well does this work in these types of properties" and to prove that to housing providers. Yeah of course, we know that it works at scale. We know that if you install it in all your properties it's going to be great, right? And we know that it works at a smaller scale but every housing provider at the end of the day might feel differently. They might feel that their resident needs things are different and so working through that process before you go, “Okay, we're gonna install" is a sensible thing to do before you get to that stage, right? So you do your little trial run.

Ian:
Yeah, absolutely Alex. I think that's the key to it. Be flexible. Does it fit, does it work in all places, does it work for all customer groups. Going back to the MOT analogy, it worked for half the customer base but for the other half of the customer base, it didn't work. So one size very rarely now will fit all. There are certainly things that we can learn and look to.

Alex:
Yeah. Well, let's close this out. We're nearly running out of time but we'll close out with one final kind of question. Obviously, you've been doing all these improvements and you've been working to improve the process, the asset management process if you want to term it like that, at Riverside for the last few years. The question that I have is what's the impact it's had on resident feedback and why do you think that's been the case?

Ian:
I think when we did the MOTs, we saw a 5% increase in how people rated our quality of homes. The latest innovation that we've been working with is we've been working with Advanced to trial what's called “Operative on the way” So you can track your trade person on route. It's a little bit like every Friday night I’m tracking my delivery driver thinking where is that takeaway. Our customers now get the benefit of being able to see where they are. You know, so first of all, are they coming? Yes, they coming and actually I can prove they're coming. So, a little bit like the taxi driver, when they used to say he's just around the corner. You now know that he's not around the corner, he's some distance away. I’m really surprised when we work with advanced, who obviously sell the product, it's their scheduling system, we're one of the first providers to actually do that now we've done it at scale. So we've got pretty much 500 trade colleagues now being tracked and monitored around the country. So this is one that we can do nationally and it is something we're seeing and tracking.

We've seen around about a 2% increase in the satisfaction scores already between those that open it and those that don't open it. So it clearly is something and it goes back to that early point I said around people wanting to see that same experience that they're getting elsewhere.

Alex:
Yeah.

Ian:
So we need to make sure that our websites etc are the same slick processes that you get whether you're on ASOS or Next or whatever else. That it works and it's real-time. So there's lots for us to learn the more that we do it and I think, unfortunately, what we're going to see is we're going to have to keep on moving. We will have to keep making missteps but we can't sit still because the technology is here today. Let's use it. Let's make sure that it works for our customers, works for our business and works for our staff. Hopefully, that's been helpful, Alex.

Alex:
Yeah, it's been brilliant. Well, thank you very much, Ian, for joining us! Hopefully, we'll have you on again at some point and delve more into some of the more technical details of this, but, you've been an absolutely fantastic guest and thank you very much!

Ian:
Thank you! Great to see you. Thanks now!

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