10 min Read
10 min Read

5 ideas to help you support vulnerable tenants with digital channel shift

Whether you’re looking to deliver better services or reduce costs, channel shift will be a major element to all housing association’s strategies in the next five years. We live in a digital world, with interactions and transactions becoming ever-more apparent, particularly after the impacts of COVID-19 that forced ‘instant’ digital transformation for many organisations. 

But where does this leave your more vulnerable tenants, that may not have the resources or ability to adapt to channel shift as easily as others? For housing associations of all shapes and sizes, it can be a delicate balance between moving forward with the digital evolution without leaving anyone behind. 

In this post, we’ve got 5 key ideas and tips to help you support your most vulnerable tenants when delivering digital transformation.

Why is it important to support your more vulnerable customers?

Of course, supporting all of your tenants is at the top of your priorities across all projects, so supporting the most vulnerable will likely be an essential part to your overarching strategy. But when it comes to channel shift, digital exclusion is an issue that’s not going to go away and can be a major inhibitor to success – 20% of housing associations surveyed cited community or client resistance as a barrier to implementing a digital strategy.

Research by the Office for National Statistics shows over 5 million people in the UK have either never used the internet or have not used it in the past three months – around 85% of which are people over the age of 55. Whilst many older generations tend to say that they don’t need or want to go online, they are most likely concerned about cost, security and lack of skills. Elderly people aren’t the only ones to consider, either. Tenants could be classed as vulnerable for many reasons – mental health problems, disability, age or illness – though many with these circumstances can equally be fully independent, but it is the housing association’s responsibility to ensure that their needs are being met, no less so than their access and ability to use online services.

It can’t be taken for granted that those defined as digitally excluded is because they lack internet access and/or have low levels of digital literacy, with the main factor being age, as well as other determinants including disability, learning difficulties, ethnic origin, location, culture and language. These people are at risk of being left behind, as more information and services move online, with no means to access the many benefits of the internet. Arguably, they have the greatest need to use digital services, with impacts of digital exclusion ranging from loss of earnings to employment opportunities, according to this ONS report on the UK’s digital divide.

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1. One size does not fit all 


Just as how there is no one set definition of a vulnerable customer, there isn’t one clear strategy to implement digital channel shift. It isn’t something that’s achieved overnight and there’ll be plenty of hurdles along the way. There will always be some customers who will never make the shift to digital platforms. But as a housing provider, your tenants need to be at the forefront of your channel shift program. 

If you’re finding resistance or lack of uptake, go straight to the source – ask people why they’re not using your online services and evolve your offering. Just because you have an online service, doesn’t mean that it’s fit for purpose or solving your tenants specific pain points. Connect with vulnerable tenants on a one-to-one basis to understand why they’re not online, with clear communication and education around the benefits to them. They might highlight key issues that are stopping them from using it – such as poor accessibility or unclear calls-to-action.  

2. Supporting all accessibility needs 


Making your online services accessible isn’t only a legal requirement, but a moral one, too. Difficulties in accessing services is far more likely for vulnerable consumers. This could range from limited access to a decent broadband service (12% of rural premises cannot get access vs. 1% of urban premises) to age-related issues such as poor eyesight. 

You have to consider the innate circumstances of your vulnerable tenants – older people are more likely to use Internet Explorer, for example, so you need to make sure your website and portal has full browser compatibility. Other aspects of accessibility are driven by an inclusive design, covering things like optimum colour contrast for those with low vision or colour blindness, to accessible font families for cognitive impairments like dyslexia. 

In general, signposting vulnerable people to clear support and guidance on how to use your website and portal can help. If you can give direct instructions – like My Computer, My Way – or start using videos and screen recordings to direct people, even better.

3. Understanding the vulnerable customer’s journey with you


Use the processes you have in place to identify vulnerability to help you understand their journey with you as a customer – and if you’re not sure who to consider vulnerable, provide opportunities for customers to tell you what their needs are. Dig deep into the data to consider their current journey with you, from web to contact centres to face-to-face interactions in order to see how they come in via these channels. You can then amend those journeys to slowly push them towards online options. 

Analyse the data you have at every possible touchpoint – why do vulnerable customers report report problems? What kinds of problems do they report? What channels do they currently use most? 

Being able to recognise the drivers for the behaviour of vulnerable customers can give you opportunities to change the interactions over time. Channel shift can provide unique new ways of connecting with you – someone facing domestic abuse, for example, might prefer to use an online channel to reach out confidentially, but they might not realise it’s an option. Which takes us nicely onto number four… 

4. Relevant promotion


Once you understand the reasons why they contact you and how, you’ll be in a better position to promote your online services in relevant ways to each individual. For a while, especially in the early launch stages of your new online services, you’ll need to do a lot of groundwork with vulnerable tenants in particular to make sure they have the access and support they need – using many processes quite the opposite of digital, but essential to gaining trust and interest. 

When social distancing measures ease, implementing floorwalkers can be a great option to start having conversations face-to-face with residents who drop in to speak to you, using IPads and computers to get them set up and guided through the process. Adverts in resident publications, direct mail promotional leaflets and informative posters placed in high-traffic areas of group homes can all help boost awareness of your online services. 

5. Educate 


With many citing reasons like no interest and lack of skills as the reason why they’re not online, it’s your job to help resident’s see the benefits of your online resources. When it comes to vulnerable customers especially, it’s the housing associations responsibility to deliver clear and comprehensive education – it shouldn’t be left down to the tenants to teach themselves, which can alienate them even further. 

All promotional outreach needs to clearly define the advantages to your tenants of using an online portal or a chatbot over picking up the phone – a long-term habit that’s going to be hard to break. Whilst creating educational content like infographics, videos and blogs is great, it’s digital, so you need to drive awareness around these resources offline, first. Marketing tactics like inbound can help, seeking to solve tenant’s pain points from the very beginning before slowly nurturing them to a digital solution. 

Encourage phone agents and housing officers to enquire why people aren’t choosing to use your online platforms, with in-person support groups and sessions available for people to learn. But tact is key – just because someone is vulnerable, doesn’t mean they’re incapable. Housing organisations need to invest in embedding digital inclusion support with localised, personal and responsive services.

By providing broader communal sessions with intensive breakout sessions, people will feel more included and independent, thus more likely to embrace digital as a channel of their own choice.

Is your housing organisation future proof? Take the quiz to find out!

Photo of Jacob Howell
By Jacob Howell

Digital Strategist