Council tenants text for better homes

Case study: Ashford saves by automating letting requests

Case study: Ashford saves by automating letting requests

Council house tenants are sending text messages to their local authority to request better housing.

But this is not in protest - Ashford Borough Council has especially built a system to receive SMS messages when residents wish to move house.

The council's housing services department has had a choice-based letting (CBL) scheme for years. Once a month, the service enables people to see which properties have become available and contact the council to say they would like to live there.

Managers said before the council introduced the text service, two employees in the housing agency were bogged down with phone messages, which took three days to transcribe onto computer. Although the answer phone service still exists, the council says the SMS service has reduced the workload.

Rob Neil, head of ICT at Ashford, said: "[CBL] is normally a very popular service - we get 80 to 90 people a week. There's a big push for councils to offer CBL. It's made us streamline the process. The number of people registering for the service has gone up."

The text messages are converted to email and answered by a call centre agent. The agent then sends back an email, which is again converted into a text and sent to the customer's mobile phone.

The council paid around £1,000 for an SMS gateway from Mitel. This enables the texts to be routed directly to contact centre agents, or into a database if they contain a specified code word.

"We want to automate as many processes as possible so people can do things a little more interesting and important. With this we free up two days a week. That's an equivalent of £8,000 or £9,000 a year," Neil said.

The council also paid £4,000 for the Mitel Multimedia Contact Centre. Neil said using this, people will soon be able use text messages for other services, such as reporting abandoned vehicles, broken streetlights, or request details of council services.

"I think that the housing implementation has attracted a fair bit of attention. Housing is just one application - we've got 150 applications and we're starting to roll out text messaging to those services. People can check council tax balance, or authorise credit card payments. It's really a key to reach people who are hard to communicate with."

The texts cost four pence each, which Neil said seemed cheap: "It's very cost effective when you consider the cost of putting an agent in a call centre."