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.

 

The Dark Side of The Moon

Recent pilots in Sweden on changes to the working week have come to an end, raising interesting debates on the different ways in which organisations structure work. The Housing Sector should take note, and take on board the lessons learned. Particularly as a work-life balance is increasingly important for current and future workers and at a time when productivity is stagnating, why not reinvent the wheel?

Who’s a Good, Productive Little Worker?  Not us Apparently 

In the UK we have a serious issue in relation to productivity growth. In that it’s not really happening. At least not at the rate needed and/or hoped for. We fair particularly poor when compared to the G7. Sitting 18 points (whatever that means) behind that rich block of countries, if one excludes the UK from the count. Germany, quite typical given the subject matter, was top. 

The reasons for stagnating productivity (as with many things in life tend to be) are complex. But part of the picture will inevitably be the working environment for staff, expectations around how they operate and investment in tools for them to do their job. And that is where this blog is largely focused on, conveniently.

Health Warning – the above is based on one particular measure. Full Fact does a good job of explaining the pitfalls here. For more in-depth stuff check out Ha-Joon Chang’s introduction to economics – Economics: The User’s Guide. Or, if you’re a masochist, full on Economics text books, with maths and everything. You monster.

Ain’t it funny how the factory doors close? ‘Round the time the school doors close?

One of the things I’ve found odd for many years is the way in which both the school week, and the working week are constructed. Mostly because they are rooted in such arcane ways of working. Both stem from working patterns introduced as part of the industrial revolution. When it was realised that child workers and stupidly long hours weren’t great ideas in the long run.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that our productivity woes will all stem from failure to work 6 hour weeks in places that have ball-pits, free food and a full body massage as part of the working schedule. However, considering the industrial revolution was 200 years ago, should we not revisit how we organise the working day? In so many other ways we have improved ways of working and related inefficiencies. The email has made the fax redundant. The mobile phone and associated tablets have largely made the office irrelevant for many. Video purportedly killed the radio star. Yet we cling on to modes of working that were thought up when King George IV was the monarch, when Germany had barely unified and the height of male fashion had only recently abandoned wigs and make up. More’s the pity.

Sounds Good to Me

One of the most convincing arguments to changing how we work is the fact we’re simply not built for it. People tend to work best in compressed periods of activity followed by rest (mental/physical) and then repeating the process ad nauseam. But not everyone works best the same way and to say it is not an exact science would be an understatement. But it is something that simply isn’t challenged enough. In terms of value, and productivity the best quote I’ve googled quickly seen on the subject is the one below. As an aside I would strongly suggest reading the whole article from which the quote comes it’s by Tony Schwartz and is called For Real Productivity, Less is Truly More. The article is much better than the title suggests, I promise.

The value of those you manage isn’t generated by the number of hours they work, but rather by how much value they produce during the hours we are working.

Making It Relevant, but a note of caution

Many in the sector are talking about channel shift, moving away from cost and labour heavy interactions such as call centres and open offices/receptions. Whether customers want it or not. Yet very few organisations are looking at shifting their work patterns to change when we are available to customers outside the 9-5 or to drive a more flexible approach to patters of work.

There has been some begrudging acceptance of using social media (comms people, I feel your pain here). Certainly, I’ve lost count of the amount of “Hi, my name is [insert instantly forgettable name here] and I’m here until [probably about 6pm, maybe 8pm] to help” that I’ve seen both within and outside the sector. Yet particularly for our back office functions why have such rigid working hours? Who does it help?

Whilst many of the headlines focused on the ‘success’ of the pilots in Sweden only a few bothered to delve deeper and show the many layers of the story. Working 6 hour days does not fit all people and all circumstances and it ain’t cheap. Furthermore a number of other businesses in Sweden who started similar pilots have backed out over negative impacts reported by staff. Interestingly enough a number of employees felt constrained by the condensed working hours and felt they couldn’t deliver what was needed.

Yet at least they gave it a go in Sweden. Something that cannot be said for the many other businesses/Countries, Housing Associations included. What have you got to lose?

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

Photo Credit – Natesh Ramasamy (2011)- Victorian Houses, Nottingham