The way we engage our customers is changing, and we shouldn’t be nervous about it

Comment from Charley Oulton, Customer Engagement Manager at Orbit

Last year forced a lot of businesses to change established ways of working, none more so than the ways in which we engage our customers.



Previously, Orbit provided around 20 large customer engagement activities a year. They were always well attended, but usually by the same customers, the same business functions and the same partners, which meant they could only provide us with part of the big picture.

Most of us still think of customer engagement as traditional, face-to-face opportunities. Of course, this method still has an important role to play, but last year we took a new approach with the launch of a digital engagement portal for our customers – Your Voice. Since the launch we’ve seen major improvements in the way issues and ideas are communicated to us, and ultimately responded to, and in our frequency and volume of customer engagement opportunities.

Our digital engagement platform also helps us to achieve our vision, to lead in building thriving communities. It encourages customers to engage and play a more active role in their community, by providing a digital space where they can find out about upcoming community events, engage with their property manager, talk about the things that matter to them in their neighbourhood, and take part in estate inspections.

As a result of our new approach, last year we completed 130 engagement activities, many of them interactive and online. This dramatic increase in scale has resulted in a huge increase in the numbers of customers now getting involved and sharing feedback with us. Customers can now hold us to account in real time, having live conversations with different business areas to make sure issues are resolved at the time they are raised.

We’re seeking to be more innovative and embracing the digital opportunity through programmes like our Scrutiny Hackathon – a one-day programme that brings people together to address a common problem and identify solutions together – but an area where I still see room improvement is collaboration.

We often talk about sector collaborating, but it only happens occasionally. That’s why we invited other housing providers to take part in our Your Voice Virtual Conference. This was a sector leading approach which saw a mixture of customers, internal colleagues, board members and other Social Housing providers come together for a five-day programme of round table discussions, taster sessions and interactive webinars covering topics as diverse as the Social Housing White Paper and customer engagement, through to raising awareness of equality, diversity and inclusion, and sustainability. We knew others would face similar issues to us and by involving them in the conversation, we could ultimately share best practice from across the sector to achieve better outcomes for our customers.

There’s now a realisation that every interaction we have with a customer is a chance to engage and understand what matters to them. Previous forms of engagement, whilst obviously still useful, had grown repetitive and in some cases outdated. To breathe new life into the process, we increased the number of colleagues from different industries who had no prior housing experience, to help us think and behave differently, and are continuing our digital journey with our customers.  

Of course, there is always room to improve and not every community feels the impact of good customer engagement. I’m also very aware that other industries, such as retail, have been answering questions in real time via multiple communications channels for years. But the better our digital engagement gets, and the smarter we get with the tools available to us, the greater the strides we can make in the future.

Naturally, there is a fear that people unfamiliar with digital communication could be left behind, but I like to challenge that way of thinking. If we don’t embrace, use and innovate with new technology, then we’re actually leaving a much larger section of society behind – the current and future generations who now engage in a totally different way. We’ll never remove face-to-face engagement opportunities, but let’s reframe that conversation and not put the brakes on the future when we’re just getting started.