Can I Borrow A Cup Of Wi-Fi?

2013-01-09 10.58.38 I’m on holiday. I’m flicking through Twitter and sipping a beer in a village bar. Outside, some Thai kids are playing a game on the smartphone they’ve borrowed from their Mum. Locals pop in every so often to sit down , catch up on gossip and read their emails.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Here I am – on a small island that’s nearly 50% rainforest. The roads are awful and it’s only accessible by a boat. It has no 3G. And it has better publicly available wi-fi than parts of Birmingham or Manchester. Pretty much every residence , every bar , every business. Kids with no access at home sit on the steps of neighbours to use their phones. At any one time you can pick up 2 or 3 networks – without any painful email registration.

Why doesn’t it work like this back home?

Of the last three places I visited in the UK one had no wi-fi at all, one had a pay system (criminally – £15 for 24 hours) and one offered a “30 Minutes free” service. The latter, Manchester Airport, then provide a registration procedure so user-unfriendly that you could spend 26 of your free minutes negotiating it.

If the internet is the fourth utility – why are we making it so difficult for people to get online? IMG_0395 Last week saw another report that mentioned the high number of Social Housing residents excluded from the internet. (As an aside –  I reckon every Housing Association tenant must have filled in at least 3 Digital Inclusion questionnaires in the last two years. We could have solved this ages ago if we’d used all the money for the surveys to buy people a smartphone each instead.)

Seriously – one part of the solution to exclusion is to make freely available wi-fi ubiquitous. And really easy to log on.  That is important. My Mother, and others like her who are not confident online,  will never use any service that requires registration. 

It’s time that all service providers , not just Housing Associations , realise they have a role to play in improving mobile connectivity.

Do most businesses really think of the Internet as the “fourth utility”? As important as water?

If you walked into a business and they asked you to register your email account and set up a password just so you use their tap water you would be surprised , yes? But that’s what many businesses expect us to do to get online.  And some still have no access at all. It’s becoming unacceptable.

Barclays have just announced a roll-out to all their branches.  Many of our larger supermarkets have turned their cafe area’s into Wi-Fi Zones – which can then double up as vital community hubs. But not all have embraced this – Sainsburys recently announced they were dropping their plans. Some have said this is because businesses can’t work out how they can properly monetise internet provision. But why do we feel the need to monetise access to the internet any differently to other utilities?

A new study entitled – Can I Borrow A Cup Of Wi-Fi? – looks at the emergence of a very different mobile customer. It reveals 40% percent of mobile device owners are “community” users—people who use their device in a friend’s home on regular basis. Like borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbour – connectivity is now shareable. If a friend came to yours for dinner and asked for your Wi-Fi , you surely wouldn’t ask them for a couple of quid as contribution?

Businesses should take note before we start turning away.

In that small village in Thailand they had solved the problem of digital exclusion. It was achieved not by commissioning a report about it , but by engaging businesses , sharing resources and working together to get a solution for the community.

Sometimes it just doesn’t need to be complicated.

The Connected Homeless

homeless2“It’s amazing how nice their Smartphones are. Some would actually go without food rather than lose their Smartphone.”

This quote is from a manager of a homelessness hostel.  Someone who has observed up close that, for the Connected Generation , staying in touch with their networks isn’t a luxury- it’s a necessity.

This isn’t something particularly new. Many reports have established that homeless people are making use of online networks to find shelter, food , and to keep in touch with relatives. And there are examples of the homeless starting online support groups as a very practical means of staying in touch with each other.

This week I helped out on a project to develop a digital hub and social network for the homeless. Mobile and social technology give us unprecedented opportunities to reach out to the most marginalised in society.

The research has identified that under 25 year old homeless are “highly proficient” in the use of social networks to maintain contact with relatives and friends. Additionally smartphone ownership amongst the single homeless is becoming pervasive “regardless of circumstance”.

But it also identifies that existing service provision often isn’t equipped to engage online.

 “Why can’t I be on Facebook? I have as much right to that as anyone else. Just because I am homeless does not mean that I don’t care about this stuff, you know? My family is on Facebook. My friends are on Facebook. People who care about me are on Facebook.”

Some of us will find the concept of homeless people spending time on social networks and possessing smartphones as puzzling.  Have they got their priorities right?

It’s because we can’t truly imagine the trauma of becoming homeless and the things we would hold onto when we have lost pretty much everything else.  For many people – the phone is no longer a phone. It’s a small computer containing address details of friends and family, photographs of loved ones , and diary notes describing important memories. It’s a very personal item.

Additionally many of us have a false perception of the cost of smartphones.  We often still think of it as expensive technology.  But you could be paying as little as £10 per month for a decent phone and data plan. That’s less than the price of a Costa Coffee each week. If you were homeless , which would you choose?

Many public service organisations don’t realise that they are missing out on huge opportunities to engage with groups that would have previously been classified “hard to reach”.  That’s not just the homeless , but ex-offenders, young people not in education or employment , people with multiple health needs. The list could go on.

But whilst it’s revealed that many of the homeless have access to the latest digital resources , the organisations and professionals they have to deal with sometimes do not. There is still a lack of access to Social Media.  As one person I spoke to commented, “How can I tailor services to the homeless on Facebook when Facebook is still seen as a time waster by my manager?”

Then there are repeated stories of internet access to “sensitive” sites being blocked. One IT Manager was quoted as saying the company firewall is “doing it’s job well ” by preventing access to a site on HIV prevention.

But even more common is the story of front line practitioners without the tools to do the job. Using basic phones that can’t text properly never mind access the web.

John Popham has written about this in his blog – correctly asserting that organisations who don’t equip staff are “sending people out to do their jobs with both hands tied behind their back.”

There is a huge irony here – the “hard to engage” are no longer the customers and service users.  It’s us. The service providers.

In 2012 – a Smartphone ceased to be a luxury. It’s not a gadget – it’s a completely new interface for staff and service users to engage , collaborate and design better services.

If the homeless get that , why don’t we?

10 Myths From The Year We Went Social

2012 was the year in which the Housing Association sector went social. It’s very positive that so many of us have recognised the clear customer service and business benefits that social and digital engagement can bring.

This was year we went social. And these are 10 things we have learned not to be true:

1: Social Media Is Simple

It’s easy to set up an account, but it’s not easy to make it work. Having worked in customer engagement for over 10 years I feel it is harder to effectively engage online than it is offline. In real life you can look into a customers eyes and read their reaction. In the social stream – you can’t. And our customers are becoming increasingly fragmented and harder to find. To engage with customers we used to knock doors.  In the virtual world they could be anywhere, anytime. It’s hard work.

2: Our Customers Are Not Online

I knew this to be false when a Customer Board Member emailed me to say they didn’t have internet access. People are online,  but they often choose not to tell their landlord. And sometimes they don’t even realise they are online. A customer recently told me they didn’t need broadband as they only ever used Facebook. Although I don’t deny that exclusion exists – the emerging issue is digital literacy and confidence rather than lack of access.

3: Social Media is Free

It is at first. And then you realise you need content. And content takes time to find, and longer to create. Too many organisations are making the mistake of thinking social media equals no printing and no advertising  – so it will be cheaper. But you are going to have to invest in new skills and new technology. It’s an investment in a completely different customer relationship.

4: Policy Can Protect Your Brand.

Whether you have a one page social media policy or hundreds of pages , your success or failure will be defined by just two things: leadership and common sense. In my experience the shorter the policy and the more visible the leadership , the greater the common sense.

5: We Are Ready For Generation Z.

Generally we are not. My challenge? Offer up your web and online services up to any 15 year old used to managing an account with Xbox Live or Playstation Network. Then ask them what they think. Most of our organisations are in the dark ages when it comes to intuitive online user experiences. It should be a concern that many of the people we involve in implementing new services have never heard of , let alone used , Xbox Live or Playstation Network.

6: Digital Will Lead To Better Customer Service.

You can make your service worse if you are just present without having presence. When people used to leave the phone ringing the only person who knew about it was the customer on the other end of the line. I just looked at an account by a large organisation. Last tweet 12th October. Last Facebook post 15th November. Website last updated in July. It’s there for the whole world to see.

7: Digital Is Slowing Down.

Marc Prensky has said slowdown in the digital age is a “myth,” as innovation will only press forward “faster… And faster and faster.” I love his quote: “We are not going through a transition to another phase of stability. People will always be behind now and that will be a stress they have to cope with.” Our companies , our people , our websites – always behind. Get used to it.

8: People Will Follow You And Like Your Page

Only if you are Justin Bieber or One Direction. Otherwise you are going to have to make it worth peoples time. You must post interesting content that is relevant to your audience and engage them in conversations around it. If you are looking at the slides you will see I referenced Bagpuss. It’s a reminder to Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers that we have a different medium but the rules are essentially the same. Every episode of Bagpuss was about the telling of a story and the engagement and contribution of the community to the telling of it. Nobody remembers how the ship got in that bottle. But everyone remembers how the story was told.

9: We Are Moving Our Customers To The Website

You can’t. We don’t have any way of commanding our customers attention anymore. Customers ARE your new website. One of the most significant shifts this year is the amount of time people are spending within social networks. I know people who have arranged their holidays, had their homes re-decorated , bought a car – purely through Facebook. I no longer read Inside Housing (our trade publication) – as its’ content is curated for me by people like Lara Oyedele , Philip Lyons and Jules Birch. I trust them and they are my network. Why would anyone come to the website of a Housing Association when they can get what they want from their network?  The only question is  – do you know who is curating and sharing your content?

10: Social Media Is Great For Broadcasting News

People engage with people not press releases. If there is one thing we all have to embrace next year it is putting the social into social media. The most popular post I have written this year was about the way housing has a tendency to talk about itself rather than create a compelling narrative around the difference it makes to peoples lives. I think we have improved. But we could do so much more in 2013.

These are my myths. I’d love to hear yours.

(The content of this post was originally presented at the Chartered Institute of Housing Social Media and Digital Engagement Conference)

Digital Myths

How confident are you using the internet? On a scale of 1 to 10. And how confident would you say the average user of social housing is?

Last week , I posted about the myth of social housing residents and digital inclusion.

How 99% of our new customers said they had the ability to access the internet either at home or in the community.

And 35% had used a mobile to access online services.

The thrust of my argument was that the real challenge wasn’t access , but digital literacy and confidence. But some new research being done by my colleague Vicky Green challenges the extent to which social tenants feel that their online skills are a barrier.

Of the last 300 customers to join Bromford – over 60% rated their digital confidence at 8 out of 10 or above.

35% said they were a perfect 10. 

That’s an astonishing untapped resource. Like finding out that our communities are built on an oil reservoir.

Let’s get the back of a fag packet out….

Statisticians turn away now…
  • Suppose there are 250,000 new social tenants each year.
  • And suppose the stat’s are grounded in reality – that would make 150,000 highly internet confident tenants moving in every 12 months.
  • And nearly 90,000 of them would rate themselves as a perfect 10.
  • And every year , the numbers would increase.

Now imagine we could make a deal with those people. A customer deal – that you agree to when you access our homes.

We give you access to the huge resources available across UK Housing. You share your skills with the wider community. Together we destroy the myth of social housing customers as digital illiterates.

In return for your help we do everything we can to encourage access to the range of jobs and opportunities that are dependent on IT skills.  And , with a UK Internet economy worth over £200billion by 2016 – that will be quite a lot.

Is that a fantasy? Any more so than saying the “vast majority of social residents have no access to the internet?”

We need to stop re-enforcing the myths and start talking up the opportunities.

Don’t believe the numbers? I’d be the first to admit they won’t be statistically comparable with all landlords. And they do only include those of working age.

But even if the numbers are exaggerated by 50% – we could still miss out on the opportunity to engage a quarter of a million Perfect 10’s accessing social housing over the next 5 years.

And that would be negligence bordering on the criminal.

The Great Divide?

Residents of social housing are , pretty much , excluded from access to the internet. If you believe everything you read.

Grant Shapps MP once said Social Housing tenants live in a “digital apartheid”

Martha Lane Fox has said that “Almost half” of the UK’s adult population who do not use the internet live in social housing.

This week Jake Berry MP  went even further-saying the ‘vast majority’ of people living in social housing have no access.

So what are we to make of this?

Of the last 300 working age customers to join Bromford , 99% said they DO have access.

My conclusion? None of us have any idea what we are talking about. Me included.

Talking about this on Twitter yesterday made me even more certain that these statistics could be leading us up the wrong path:

Boris Worrall shared some of the work Orbit are doing – which indicates that far from being a “vast majority” – about a third of residents remain offline.

This comment from Nick Atkin pretty much goes to the heart of the matter. We are still obsessed on counting fixed access in the home in a world that’s gone mobile.

Kingsley Iball made the great point that there are huge knowledge gaps in some users of smartphones about their capabilities.

Broadband. Mobile. Wifi. 3G. 4G. The problem for UK Housing is many of our customers don’t understand this. People simply aren’t sure whether they have access or not.

And the drive to get everyone online can disguise the real challenge. Digital literacy.

“If you want to work on the core problem, it’s early school literacy.” 

 – James Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape

Both my Mom and Dad have “access”. In the home. Decent broadband. Good kit. But they are a world away from being the 21st Century “Digital Citizen”. Dad can check the Wolves scores and Mom can find Waterloo Road on iPlayer. That is pretty much it.

We need a different dialogue with social housing customers.

It’s why every new Bromford Customer now gets a Skills Assessment – including online capability.  It’s a plan that we will start rolling out to existing customers. And we will use the people best placed to do it – members of the community that have seen the benefits of life online.

There are real barriers against access to the internet , most notably in rural communities and amongst the elderly.

But let us get our facts right and make sure we solve the right problem.

Break Your Own Rules

I had a couple of great little customer service experiences recently that I’d like to share.

On both occasions the employee admitted breaking the rules.  They had done something that I , the customer , thought was great service. But it was against the practices or policies as applied by their own managers.

See what you think.

“I Like To Give My Best Customers Free Drinks”

I’m on holiday in a bar I’ve been to a couple of times. On both occasions we’ve had maybe two drinks and left a very modest tip. On the third occasion the waitress comes over without taking our order.

She remembered it. A large beer, a white wine. Ice on the side.

She says – “This is a free round on the house. My manager doesn’t like me doing it – but I think regular customers deserve it. Please don’t mention it if you see him.”

Two previous visits. To her – we were now regulars. I think we went back to the bar every night for the rest of our holiday. The manager never knew why.

“How could anyone remember something so stupid?”

So I’m staying in a hotel that has free Wi-Fi. Except you have to renew it every few days at reception. And you are given a very complicated password and username that you can’t change, and you have no chance of remembering.

So one day I see someone new on reception and I ask her for a couple of passwords.  She asks – “Can you tell me your room number Sir?”

And she hands over two user names and two passwords – personalised based on our names.

She says – “My manager says its not policy. But people keep saying they forget their passwords and they keep coming to the desk.  I mean , how could anyone remember something so stupid? So I thought we could use their names. Please don’t tell them I do this though.”

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Customer Service isn’t about policies , systems and protocol. It’s about common sense.

Knowing the customers , personalising service, surprising people with the unexpected. Making them remember you.

Management should be about encouraging these unexpected behaviours that don’t follow the script. And building these unexpected acts into everyday service.

My mission for the week?

Tell my teams to break a few rules every day. As long as they encourage customers to tell me about it.

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