Are you being served?

Left Hand Right hand

In an attempt to get over the horror show that was the 2015 General Election me and my ladyfriend went to watch the mighty Worcester Warriors take on London Scottish. For the uninitiated/dead inside this clash of titans was for the 2nd leg of the Championship Play Off Semi-Final. As is customary on our pilgrimage to Lourdes Sixways we stopped off to have some grub and a drink. Hardy Warriors fans will know drinks are a necessity to get you through the game.

At the public house in question all was dandy until the food service kicked in. You had about 4 staff doing different jobs (but not really talking to each other). I can see the attraction of this approach. Each member of staff nails their respective areas. But such modes of work need to run smoothly with communication being paramount, otherwise you end up looking (and acting) like headless chickens.

One particular Faulty Towers-esk moment involved staff member #1 coming over, dumping our drinks and leaving. In the process of doing so he didn’t bat an eyelid whilst completely stopping me and staff member #2 from sorting out the food order.  Random staff member #3 came to check if food was OK. It is a skill but they always ask me mid mouthful so hand signals usually have to suffice at this point. After we had finished staff member #4 cleared our plates. Not stopping to check if we wanted either the bill or dessert (FYI I always want dessert).

Why the rant? Well, swap the pub for a Housing Association the food service for the services we provide and a similar pattern emerges. Very often the different aspects don’t properly interact with each other.  Often from our end the focus is on completing a process, not understanding the needs of the customer. Whilst we may have an SLA which states a 2 week completion time for us.  For the customer that is 2 weeks of hearing nothing whilst the issue at hand builds up. Touch points and process junctures are two different things.

Such approaches as outlined above tend to end up with poor customer service and a pissed off tenant. Worse it can end up costing your organisation a lot of money.  This is especially relevant given the increasingly complex structure we operate under. With the boys and girls in blue winning the General Election I can only see a further move to more mergers and group structures as organisations seek to secure their long-term future.  The fact that the first ‘new’ generation of housing folk (post 1960s) is up for retirement soon may also be a factor.  But that could just be me being mischievous…

My all time favourite story on poor communication involves windows (the see through things, not the operating system). It was recognised that a scheme with rather shabby windows was getting a lot of call outs. So the repairs team went out stripped off the paint and sanded back the wood and repaint said items. The hope being that this would reduce repeat/consistent repairs and ultimately save money. It looked lovely, until the planned maintenance contractors came out a month later, ripped the windows out and put new PVC ones in. What a mess.

But there is also a more urgent need to ensure different parts of the organisation know what each other is doing. Every organisation has ‘names’, customers that through acute vulnerabilities, bloody-mindedness, or with nothing better to do, cause havoc. This is often containable and manageable with frontline staff. But such individuals are persistent and will call every number they can find. Well intentioned back office staff (like myself) may end up kicking a hornets nest by accident. Fundamentally not only are such occurrences time-consuming, they are also costly. Your CRM processes should enable you to pick up a quick back story before calling. This will enable a coherent riposte and avoid re-opening grievances. Failure to do so risks unravelling months of work at a stroke.

Probably just as effective is ensuring that you facilitate cross team communication.  A simple but effective method is getting your housing officer (or equivalent), income officer (or equivalent) and repairs team member responsible for an area to meet regularly.  This can be tricky if repairs are held externally but by enabling the 3 main threads of a tenancy to intertwine you can share valuable knowledge and experience.  And keep everyone on message.  If you have a mixed housing/income officer set where low arrears are handled by housing officers, stop, now.  You are about 5 years behind the curve.  For some interesting facts and figures on this changing side of housing check Pawson et al.’s now slighted dated work for the TSA.

Moral of the story? Well, as Bob Hoskins used to say (ironically enough in an advert for a company known for its crap customer service) “It’s good to talk”. As organisation get ever larger and more complex (I’ve not even touched on the role contractors play in this) ensuring clear communication channels is paramount. It is also good to make the most of your CRM. Drill home its importance and invest in its use. Oh and always make sure your repairs and maintenance teams keep in touch.

Feeling depressed? Don’t worry, all is not lost and in particular from my pub experience there is happy ending. Warriors smashed it to reach the Play Off finals and we went home and made our own dessert #winning.

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