04 January 2019

How to improve services and save money

Dealing daily with vulnerable people with real problems means calls must be dealt with sensitively and efficiently. Imposed spending cuts make that task more difficult, but they also open the door to innovation.

Sean Nolan and Ian McCrickard were on the team that revolutionised the way the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) deals with its customers. Concentrating customer service advisors into fewer specialist centres, and using the BT Inbound Contact platform has twinned increased productivity with improved customer service.

Along the way Sean and Ian have been able to move a million calls off the public network, which has saved a considerable amount of money as well as making the organisation more resilient.

The NIHE is one of the largest public housing authorities in Europe. It looks after people living in socially rented, privately rented, and owner-occupied accommodation. Landlord to over 90,000 dwellings, the organisation has a vital role in ensuring its residents enjoy decent living standards.

In 2005, NIHE entered into a 10-year technology partnership with BT, which saw a new IT infrastructure implemented with on-going support from the BT Belfast office. The programme included the transition of all existing systems to a fully BT-managed service, along with the replacement of a number of core business applications including grants and housing management.

However, with spending cuts of between 3% and 5% per annum looming over the next four years NIHE is facing a torrid time. Maintaining customer services was the primary concern.


NIHE had 40 public offices, each with its own telephone number and switchboard. Not only was this confusing for customers, but also it was not possible to transfer callers to people in other offices better qualified to handle their queries.

Monitoring call handling quality across so many sites was rudimentary, performance was inconsistent, and deployment of staff insufficient. ‘Technology was vital to addressing that fragmentation,’ says Ian McCrickard, Modernisation Programme Manager at NIHE.

Working with BT, specialist customer service units took over call handling for both repairs and housing benefit services from the district office network, while 40 telephone numbers were rationalised to three – one each for repairs, housing benefits enquiries and general enquiries.

Existing voice switches were enhanced to run voice over IP, and linked together using a BT IP Metro VPN network. Forming a virtual BT Inbound Contact platform this means calls can be distributed and transferred to any location as necessary. In conjunction with calling line identity (which identifies where a person is phoning from) 50 percent of calls are routed direct to dedicated agents assigned to specific geographic catchments.

Moving to specialist customer service units with far fewer incoming telephone numbers has enabled NIHE to optimise resources and reduce switchboard staff from 45 to 18. The volume of incoming calls has halved to 1.2 million, as interoffice traffic has moved off the public network and onto the converged NIHE infrastructure, saving considerable sums of money.

Making these changes has enabled the NIHE to reduce staff costs while improving the quality of service. Call abandonment has been reduced from 12 per cent to five percent; at least 80 percent of calls are answered within ten seconds; and 90 per cent of queries are resolved at first point of contact. Together the changes have resulted in the achievement of customer satisfaction ratings of up to 97 per cent.

Sean Nolan, IT Manager at NIHE, says: ‘We needed to find ways to use technology to reduce expenditure without impacting frontline services.’ In January 2011 the UK faced its coldest winter in 30 years; the people of Northern Ireland endured snow and sub-zero temperatures for weeks on end. Burst pipes and flooding took their toll. Call volumes to NIHE out-of-hours services increased by a factor of 20, while vital agents were unable to reach their places of work.

The soft configuration function inherent in the BT Inbound Contact platform allowed BT to rapidly re-route calls not only to agents at remote locations but also to other NIHE start acting as virtual agents.

A regional response can be implemented within minutes through the use of soft phones, with priority routing for calls to emergency services and community workers placed at the top of the telephony queue.

‘We were able to cope by using those best placed to react quickly to local conditions,’ adds Sean Nolan. ‘That amazing flexibility meant we weathered the storm, and emerged fitter and better equipped for the next time.’ In fact, NIHE business continuity plans have taken on board the lessons learned.

Ian McCrickard concludes: ‘By working closely with stakeholders and using innovative technology we’ve improved people’s everyday lives while driving up productivity. We now have a platform that can cope with virtually any demand even in the most difficult of circumstances.’

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