The Customer Kerfuffle


It is clear this Government favours a shift to providing homes for home-ownership and not rent. Whilst many have (quite rightly) raised concerns about the future direction of the sector/provision of housing for the most vulnerable. And others have (again, quite rightly said for God’s sake let’s just get on with it). A significant side effect will be the change to both the internal organisation dynamic and the relationship between the business and the ‘customer’.

Sadly Elizabeth Spring was largely ‘on point’ when noting the disjuncture between social rent tenant, their ‘voice’/ability to influence and how others often see them. The majority of social landlords do try to give the customer a voice, but to varying degrees of success. Sometimes it is a cynically superficial process. Often where that is the case it reflects the culture of the organisation and those who work in its upper echelons. Happily this is not the case where I work.

However, as the push towards providing for ownership gathers pace, so too will be the temptation to water down the voice of those who ultimately pay our wages. The current regulator focus is certainly not on the customer experience. I doubt after this Government puts in place whatever is required to clear off our debt from its balance sheet it will suddenly do so either. When home ownership is the new driver who cares about tenant scrutiny? Particularly when the majority of future customers may well own and not rent their property? Certainly not them. Beyond the post purchase defects period there is little need for contact between buyer and seller.

But this needn’t be the case and it was heartening to see Sally Gibson’s piece arguing for how residents can be/and are being included. Regardless, for organisations managing this transition will be key. One of the most frustrating things about social housing is the lack of its ability to move at pace when required. If you haven’t picked up Boris Worrall’s promo piece for the IT in Housing Conference and Exhibition I suggest you do. He wasn’t wrong when noting that external stimuli (in this case the 1% cut in our rents) is often needed to push the sector to do, well anything. Noting that any refocusing/business transformation needs to zone in on a user experience  is probably not a bad shout either. But this moment of ‘existential clarification’ also needs to go further.

As a sector we have always been too paternalistic in our approaches to our relationships with customers (note the deliberate use of the plural form of relationship). They tend to hover somewhere between thinking we know what is best for the customer and treating them like a naughty child. To change this it is absolutely necessary to put that customer voice front and centre. We just need to re-write how we do that.

I am lucky enough to be part of a team that is overseeing a fundamental shift in how my organisation accumulates customer feedback and uses it (that is the key part). It is goddamn light-years ahead of where most of the sector is at. Yet many private organisations have been using it for years. Our core business model hasn’t changed a lot over the years, something that has stifled our creativity somewhat. But the context in which we operate, the hows, the wheres, the whys, these have evolved substantially. Until we accept that political change, digital change and customer influence have moved way beyond where they were many moons ago we will continue to find ourselves out of kilter.

A move towards building more home ownership and shared ownership properties (whether we like it or not), and a hefty cut in the rents we can charge may be the nadir we need as sector to finally re-adjust how we interact with our customer base. Necessity, as they say, is truly the mother of invention. As Terrie Alafat has stated, we need to (yet again) rise to set of tricky challenges. Hopefully we can come out on top, leaner, fitter and better at what we do. Otherwise it will be a very long 5-10 years with this lot in charge.

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