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.

 

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Arguing With Thermometers

Fact, fiction or managing the narrative? Housing has long had an image problem, one that has been embedded by failure to counter powerful narratives to pervade public discourse and, to a large extent, public policy initiatives. Is it time for the sector to get down and dirty?

The Beat that My Heart Skipped

A recent train of thought I’ve come across is the (statistically backed) claim that we need to stop pretending that everyone is a couple of paychecks away from homelessness. This is largely because there are real and significant differences in the chances of someone becoming homeless. These heavily (but not exclusively) depend on one’s age, ethnicity and socio-economic background. My only problem with above argument is that despite being technically correct, such approaches miss the point.

The dominant narrative around homelessness has been that individual pathology i.e. our own choices and behaviours are by far and away the main driver for one’s housing situation. This message has been picked up and rammed home to such an extent that it largely goes unchallenged. This has problematic consequences for housing policy because it impedes the ability of people to back ‘progressive’ policy changes i.e. it makes our job a lot harder than it should be. Something Campbell Robb nailed in this post whilst still at Shelter.

Hypocrite

Simply stating technical arguments isn’t going to reverse this wet dream of the centre right. Because it assumes that evidence based arguments have got us to where we are. Quite bluntly they haven’t. Emotive, ideologically driven bullshit has. We’re not really living in a post facts age. People have just refined ways of finding what they perceive to be evidence based support for the way they view the world. However, what has been interesting about the gradual change in the tide of public opinion in housing (both here and over in the US) is that it’s become less of an ethereal problem that effects others. Everyone has family, colleagues, and friends who have been affected or know someone affected by housing affordability problems. It brings home a policy issue that previously been on one’s periphery. This offers a way in for those looking to influence public opinion.

Homelessness is more of a tricky beast. Those working in the sector have long been alarmed at the rising rates of homelessness. But this doesn’t engage with the public. Don’t believe me, casually observe people’s behaviour when they see street homeless. Better still, observe your own. There is a real detachment here, from empathy and acknowledgement of the problem at hand.

Whilst people don’t care about technical arguments, they do care about what affects them, their friends, their families. They also like to believe negative life events happen to other people, preferably due to their own poor choices rather than an ingrained unjust system in which they play a part. It’s more of a convenience to blame other individuals rather than structural problems associated with our drug like dependency on the housing market. Whilst many of us have friends struggling with their housing situation. Few know a homeless person.

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

I’ve long argued for the UKHousing sector to own the narrative, to control the image relating to it. It has routinely failed to do so. But more recently progress has been made as better lobbying and a different Government, with its head at least partially out of the clouds, providing a tweak in housing policy. The Homelessness Reduction Bill has also shown signs of change. Albeit one that will be utterly insignificant if we do not build more social housing. Honestly kids, that part of the housing crisis is the easy bit.

As ever it’s the PR and Marketing side of things that has let both the housing and homelessness sectors down on occasion. Too much facts, not enough empathy. Particularly at a time where one can easily twist publicly available information to meet their own desired view of the world. Our message needs to be clearer, simpler and more accessible. That doesn’t mean diluting the truth, but it does mean refining the message.

A massive thanks to Beth Watts for both initial discussions and some very useful reading material. Also to Burcu Borysik for tweets from #CrisisConf which helped to frame this blog. As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit – Birgit Kulbe (2012) Homeless

Music References

Arguing With Thermometers – Enter Shikari (2012)

The Beat That My Heart Skipped – Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip (2007)

Hypocrite – Midasuno (2002)

It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do it) – Bananarama (1982)

 

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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