Warm Smiles Don’t Make You Welcome Here

Housing Associations are increasingly trapped by their own ambitions and whilst Mr Hilditch is right to highlight mission creep, the sector’s problems go deeper than simply chasing dollar signs. It still does not understand how to deliver good customer service based on the needs of its end users. Continued failure to address this issue will further erode credibility in the sector and ultimately the very values it claims to uphold.

Customer Service

For those blissfully detached from the internet over the last couple of weeks the power of failing in the very basics of customer service was beautifully highlighted by United Airlines. A fee paying passenger was physically, and very forcefully removed, (getting injured in the process) on a flight that was overbooked. Whilst initially unrepentant and largely unapologetic. Sharp drops in the company’s share prices, alongside a massive social media backlash forced the CEO Oscar Munoz to apologise. It is an extreme case, but highlights that get customer service wrong in the private sector and you will, literally, pay the price. And that’s before the inevitable lawsuit.

For me this is where a large number of the problems with the sector lie. The main focus of a business, social or otherwise, should be to ensure that the customer gets a good service. That comes from a culture that accepts and embraces customer service as a necessity. Something that social housing orgs, without the type of competition seen in the private sector, have struggled to come to terms with.

The Power of the Market, but Beware of the Dark Side

Some of the most popular apps have been developed out of a perceived need. I can order an Uber, book a table, hunt for houses to rent all on my smart phone (another need based development). Yet when it comes to social housing how progressive have we been in our service offer? As Tim Pinder has noted, only a modest number of social housing organisations offer customers the rather simple ability to book a repairs appointment online. I think he was being polite regarding his nod to the fact that in reality most of these were actually ‘fancy emails’ with a scheduler still required to actually sort the appointment. Not only does this save time and effort for customers, as Tim notes it can also deliver savings for the organisation. The two factors are not mutually exclusive.

Elsewhere opening hours continue be highly restrictive and inflexible. Opening 9am-5pm is next to useless for most people who work. So too is being open Mon – Fri. Letting agents in the private rented and home ownership sectors are open on a Saturday. This is because they recognise the need to be available at times that suit potential customers. So why aren’t social landlords who own and manage tens of thousands of units doing the same? Even banks have changed their opening times to be more customer friendly (admittedly dragging their heels the whole way). Again, why aren’t we looking at this seriously? Flexible hours of working should not just be for the benefit of staff. 

I’m not for a moment suggesting a marketisation (is that a word? It is now) of social housing, anyone who’s witnessed the basket-case of New Labour quasi-markets in the NHS will know the perils of trying to create a state-led market out of thin air†. Certainly not all organisations act in the best interests of their customers, or even the long term viability of the business. However, the lack of a need for invention combined with the nature of many of the organisations that provide social housing has inevitably left the UKHousing sector wanting in a number of ways.

Talk is Cheap

We’ve often talked about embracing the better elements of the private sector. But in reality these have largely been confined to pursuing activities that make more money (not a bad thing in and of itself). But not on the relentless, necessary drive for developing and improving products/services* or the need for good, responsive customer care. Or the requirement to design services around the needs of the customer, not around the business, or worse still – what the business thinks the needs of the end user are.

I will let others rally around the Big is Bad, Developer is bad arguments. There are truths and falsehoods there. As this documentary by Adam Curtis has noted the problems highlighted by John Harris and by Steven Hilditch on build quality and customer service are nothing new in the development of properties for the social housing sector. As with housing policy more generally these issues have a depressingly predictable tendency to come round full circle.

As ever, it depends on the organisation, the culture and the desire to improve as a business, and yes – the profit motive if you wish to improve the services you provide. Key to this is putting the customer at the forefront of what you do, otherwise it’s just lip service. A stance that ultimately will erode your service offer, trust in you as an organisation and the very values you should be standing up for. The choice is simple one, but it’s yours to make.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Picture Credit – Wojtek Gurak – Bouça Social Housing

†That and , you know, pretty much every single ‘communist’ country, ever.

*There are obviously some caveats here, I’ve lost count of the number of tech firms I’ve come across directly and indirectly that are flogging a bit of kit that last saw major investment when Tony Blair was still PM. But you get the gist.

 

Walking Into The Sunset

tommurtha

As I approach my 65th Birthday I have been thinking about the next stage of my life.

Walking Into The Sunset.

It is London Marathon time again and my Twitter lifeline is full of brave women and men who will be running it for the first time. I wish them well. I ran my first London Marathon in 1983, the year our son Kieran was born. I dedicated the race to him. I ran regularly for the next 15 years until my body could take no more. A combination of a trapped sciatic nerve and knee problems forced me to stop. So I began walking instead.

I have always looked for new challenges in my life. Five years ago on 13th April I gave up my Chief Executive’s role at Midland Heart, to make way for the next generation. At the time I wondered how I would adapt to my…

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Don’t worry our values will save us.

tommurtha

Profit for purpose, social business, business head social heart, value driven, social enterprise. I am sure you will recognise these terms. They are all used to describe housing associations in the new era. They are intended to show that even though housing associations are diversifying, entering new markets and becoming more commercial they are doing it to continue to deliver social values.

When I speak or write about the risks of diversification I am often told that there is nothing to worry about as the sector is still committed to strong social values and that its leaders will ensure that this continues to be the case. I have argued elsewhere that history shows that organisations who have gone down this route, even though they begin by making this claim, often end up by being driven by their financial imperatives and not their values. The reply to this is that I…

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Ways and Means

Going digital doesn’t mean weakening your customer service offer, they are not mutually exclusive. But don’t think that by having a new website/online portal you’ve solved all your woes when it comes to facilitating interaction with those who pay your wages. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Well sit right down my wicked son, and let me tell you a story

After switching energy supplier it became obvious that I was paying far too little per month via Direct Debit. Popping onto my online account to change it proved a dead-end. Turns out I can make one-off payments, I can phone the call centre or I can wait for the 6 monthly review of my bill. Now here’s the thing, I spend all day talking to people, the last thing I want to do is get on the blower in my spare time and pretend to be nice to someone else. So I ended up sending my energy provider a borderline grumpy message about why I was not going to be calling up and could they pretty please pull their finger out regarding their customer offer.

To my surprise the next day, the auto response stated 5 working days – that pissed me off just as much as not being able to amend my Direct Debit online – I got a very apologetic email. Not only did the reply state how much I owed, how much my direct debit could be switched to ensure I had a zero balance by July but it also told me that a complaint had been raised on my behalf due to my displeasure with their service. What impressed most about the reply was the fact it matched the way I contacted the organisation, answered all my queries and apologised. This happens so rarely that it was a genuine pleasure to be on the receiving end. It also raises the question why they hell none of that was available via their online offer.

The Circle of Life

If the above sounds familiar to those of you working in housing, it should. Because if there’s one thing we are good at it, it is boxing people into ways of doing things they don’t like. Case in point – shifting in-bound contacts. Often this is couched in the language of ‘nudge’ theory, where one gently moves people down a preferred path of action with some subtle encouragement/positive reinforcement. Preferably from costly call centres to one’s new, if debatably performing, website/online account offer.

Well that’s the theory. The problem is we don’t operate ‘nudge’ theory in housing, we operate ‘shove’ theory. This involves shutting down other options to force people down particular routes, even when the organisation’s preferred one is a steaming pile of the proverbial.  And then wondering why people are getting pissed off at the service being provided.

Send Me On My Way

Too often it is easy to forget that at the heart of customer service is the need to tailor the way an organisation interacts with their customers to meet their preferences. This is not a cost saving exercise per se, although it may well be a welcome side effect, a tailored communications offer is about dragging your business away from its Soviet Era bureaucrat approach. It is about giving people a genuine choice in how to interact. And just as importantly via the means they’re most comfortable with and in a way that answers their query.

Why write a letter to someone when they’ve been contacting you via Twitter? Why phone when they’ve emailed? Yes, in some cases it might be a necessity but tweak your comms. channels to match their needs. Not the other way round. As a freebie, if you want to see how social media interaction with customers is good for both them and your business check out Amy Nettleton and her team at Aster. It ain’t perfect, but it’s a pretty darn good example of how to do customer service right. It is also the very opposite of what most of the sector is doing, i.e. having a social media account with a personality. Heaven forfend.

This is the end, my only friend, the end

Today is International Happiness Day, whatever the hell that is, so I guess I should end on a chirpy note. We are slowly moving towards offering a more diverse set of means by which to communicate with our customers. Occasionally in line with their preferences. It’s not quite there yet, far from it, but it could be so much worse (I tried).

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit

Neil Howard (2014) Telephone Booth, Longstock, Hampshire

Song List

Rusted Root – Send Me on My Way

The Doors – The End

The Pixies – The Holiday Song

The Lion King – The Circle of Life

Right To Bye

The Welsh Government has begun the process to scrap the Right to Buy in Wales. For the social housing sector this will be an important victory if it makes it through the Welsh Assembly. It highlights the fascinating splintering of approaches to housing across the UK, and whilst not universally popular, it is a decision that (it is hoped) will help with the shortage of social housing in Wales. Along with similar measures already put through in Scotland case studies of scrapping the Right to Buy are abound for those in England to mull over.

It’s a Numbers Game

There is a stat I have regularly used to put things in perspective regarding Right to Buy, and it’s one that is worth repeating. In 1980 UK had just over 7 million permanent dwellings rented from LA or Housing Associations*, by 2014 that figure was under 5 million (DCLG Live Table 101). In 1980 the number of social housing units started and completed by HAs* or Councils was 109,930. In 2014 it was just 30,090 (DCLG Live Table 211). In broadly the same period (1980/81 to 2013/14) 1.8 million properties were bought under Right To Buy. Put simply we’ve lost too much and replaced too little social housing (see the chart below).

If the Government was willing to ensure Councils got the full market value of the property and all the receipts, or even facilitated the tenants buying a house elsewhere at an equivalent discount, and crucially guarantee a 1:1, like for like replacement I’d be all for it. But historically that simply hasn’t happened, and improved noises from Barwell et al aside, I don’t see this changing any time soon. And therefore neither will my opposition to Right to Buy.

More’s the point research has consistently shown that 1) Right to Buy has had an adverse impact on the housing benefit bill, diverting resources to (higher cost) private renting than would have been the case 2) crucially through the loss of social housing Right to Buy has intensified problems of housing affordability. In London the problem has been particularly acute.

Dwellings by Sector new
Source -DCLG Live Table 101 [Dwellings] by Tenure (UK) Historical Series
As a side note, the IFS did some interesting modelling work on Right to Buy prior to the Voluntary Version coming into play. It’s worth a read.

It Ain’t What You Do, It’s the Way that You Do It

Subtle changes have been occurring with the current UK Government’s approach to housing. Gavin Barwell has admitted, at least in part, that replacements for RTB have not always been secured fast enough and has sought to increase capital funding for non-market rent properties. And it seems the urgency for the roll out of VRTB has been somewhat tempered.

Elsewhere the passing of Bob Blackman’s Homelessness Reduction Bill has been heartening, as has the interest being shown by Sajid Javid in the Housing First approach to treating vulnerable homeless individuals. 18 months ago this was frankly unthinkable. They show a more mature approach to tackling the various housing crises in this country than has previously been the case since 2010. Albeit with continuing issues on Welfare provision, which is an intrinsic part of the picture.

Conclusions

Ultimately the scrapping of Right to Buy in Scotland, and now potentially in Wales are unlikely to influence the current Government. But they will provide the opportunity to test how to end a policy that has, for the most part, benefited the individual at the cost of the wider community, and by extension society. If we are to have a more balanced, long-term approach to housing in the UK it needs to go. Whether there is the political will to do that remains to be seen. Either way it’s a fascinating, if endlessly frustrating, time to be a housing policy geek.

 *What the DCLG wraps up under the umbrella of a Housing Association.

Eyes Wide Shut

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” (Dalai Lama, Ages Ago)

The words above are one of the most insightful quotes I’ve had the pleasure of reading. It is also a quote I have to work very hard at acting on. Putting my personality flaws aside it is a quote that also needs to be taken on board by the housing sector when looking at their Customer Feedback programmes. Because quite often listening isn’t the end game. It’s figure chasing.

If You Book Them, They Will Come

At one and the same time being a landlord is actually very simple and incredibly difficult. You collect rent, you carry out repairs, put in place planned works to upgrade old/defective kitchens/boilers etc and you ensure tenancy conditions are kept. The only thing(s) in the way are people, processes and the organising of the two. As a result, whilst on the surface being a landlord is simple, doing the above on time, in budget and in a manner that provides excellent customer service is actually damned difficult. Worse still, get it wrong and your customers will let you know in no uncertain terms.

One of the mistakes people make with customer satisfaction is the fixation on improving the score. This might seem odd, particularly as KPIs, Performance Reviews and even parts of Contractor Performance Payments can be reliant on these measures. But often such a focus results in measures being tweaked, targets being dropped, time periods of performance reviewed. None of which solve the underlying issues impacting on performance i.e poor quality service/dysfunctional service delivery/expectation management failure. Resolve the problems impacting on service delivery and the satisfaction score will look after itself. Not the other way round.

Knowing Me, Knowing You (Aha)

The problem with putting the voice of the customer front and centre, is that it goes against the ingrained nature of many housing associations. Attitudes regarding the relationship between the customer (tenant etc) and the organisation get stuck in a paternalistic prism. At best they’re put up with, at worst they are marginalised. We expect to be able to provide the answer and give it to our customers. Whether they like it or not, or whether it solves the problem or not.

But as Paul Taylor quite rightly notes – individuals and organisations can be pretty crap at identifying and solving the real issues affecting us and our customers. Such a scenario is a complete waste of everyone’s time. But if we treat customers as the grown up, informed individuals (and their families) that they are and marry that up with ‘hard measures’/metrics of performance.  Our chances of identifying, and then solving, the right problems (thus improving customer satisfaction) will be greatly improved.

Closing the Loop

One of the things that genuinely pisses me off is that often organisations allude to customer engagement. But fail to understand the nature of the beast. Most are content with sticky buns and coffee on a wet Wednesday afternoon. That’s fine, it’s a part of the puzzle. But if someone has bothered to provide you with feedback on a service, that is engagement. The very least you can do is take on-board the problems they’ve identified, check if it forms a part of a wider set of issues and do something about it. Otherwise what is the point of having a Customer Feedback programme if you’re not going to use the information it provides?

Wrapping it up – Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Customers don’t whinge for the sake of it (for the most part). They are on the receiving of the services you provide. Anger, distress and upset are symptoms of service failure. Identify the root causes and nullify them. But you can only do that if you’re willing to take on-board what is being said and tie it to your service improvement activities. What we think are the issues might not actually be the case. Be humble, open your ears and learn something new. Otherwise you will just carry on making the same mistakes.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit – Lisa @ Sierra Tierra (2012) Customer Comments Chalkboard

 

I am the Walrus

One of the more amusing anecdotes I’ve come across recently involves The Beatles, more specifically John Lennon. Apparently, after receiving a bit of fan mail which noted that an English teacher was getting his students to study and analyse Beatles songs, Mr Lennon decided to deliberately obfuscate future attempts. The result was I am the Walrus. If this video is anything to go by, it’s safe to say he succeeded.

Sadly it is not just long dead musicians who can baffle and befuddle those looking beyond the face value meaning of things. At play right now are a couple of pieces of policy, and legislation, that are not quite as comprehensible as they could be when the broader picture is brought into view.

The Good

There is much to be commended regarding the Homeless Reduction Bill (HRB). It has, by and large, been brought forward for the right reasons. Homelessness is increasing in pretty much every measure. Aside from the personal tragedies and traumas that play out on an individual level (the impact of which is not to be underplayed), the cost to Government (and by default you and I) is considerable. Thus both morally and financially speaking it makes sense to try to reduce homelessness by prevention as much as ‘cure’.

By extending the threshold of those threatened with homelessness from 28, to 56 days and making greater provisions to help single homeless individuals the HRB will help to plug significant gaps in LA requirements to help those at risk of homelessness. These are good, welcome measures that can hopefully be of significant benefit.

The Bad

The problem I have with the Homeless Reduction Bill is that unless significant changes to policy elsewhere are made, it is going to struggle to have any real, sustained impact. Aside from shifting blame from Central to Local Government. Dawn Foster has done a good job of noting a number of the qualms regarding the HRB here, as ever, so has Shelter. Between them they’ve highlighted that:

  • More responsibilities for LAs without long-term secure funding it not a good idea
  • Homelessness needs to be taken more serious as an issue in its own right
  • Operating in isolation the HRB will not be effective, more cross departmental working is needed

But there are further concerns that need attention here. The single largest reason for councils accepting an individual (or household) as unintentionally homeless is the ending of an assured tenancy. A part of that picture is evictions after complaints/repairs have been logged by tenants. Whilst a welcome step, as highlighted by the BBC last week there are still many issues with the Revenge Eviction legislation* and its enforcement that need ironing out.

Elsewhere, a fit for habitation clause was conspicuous by its absence in the Housing White Paper (HWP). And despite renting, and in particular Private Renting, getting a larger mention in the HWP, very little in terms of greater security or protection for those in the PRS was forthcoming.

At the same time measures set in motion under Cameron et al. will start to have an impact, notably:

All of these measures will directly and indirectly impact on the ability of individuals, charities and the state (both local and central) to counter the rising levels of homelessness. And run counter the very aims of the HRB, which seeks to reduce those without a secure home.

The Ugly

Without labouring the point it appears that a significant part of this Government’s rhetoric on helping those just about managing is just that, rhetoric. The link between housing, the welfare state, security of tenure and homelessness are not being explicitly acknowledged or acted upon. This Government seems to think it can continue to erode support via the welfare state, yet by making moderate tweaks in legislation it will solve a whole host of ills. That, quite simply, is utter bollocks.

Whilst more money has been made available for additional ‘affordable’ housing, and changes to expectations on Starter Homes put in place. The level of ambivalence to outright social housing (despite a thawing in relations between the sector and new housing minister) means a significant weapon in reducing homelessness is being left in the armoury. Don’t believe me, ask Finland.

Fundamentally homelessness, housing provision and support go hand in hand. You either pay upfront via capital grant for more housing and preventative support services for greater levels of assistance; or you pay time and time again via acute/emergency housing relief for an increasing number of people. It is that simple. Failure to recognise that fact means for all its good intentions the Homeless Reduction Bill is on dodgy foundations before it even starts. Something that, given wider issues with our housing system, we can ill afford.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit – Nico Hogg (2008) Innis House, East Street

*Last year the Government, heels dragging, eventually did support a Revenge Eviction Bill. No thanks to Philip Davies and Christopher Chope. Muppets.