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



Customer Feedback – Dos and Don’ts

As social landlords get savvier with their approaches to customer feedback it is essential that they focus on what to do with the information after it is collected, rather than just hoarding data.

In many ways gathering customer feedback is the most straightforward part of the process. You complete a repair/install a new bathroom, close off an ASB case, you then ask your customer what they thought of how you/your contractors did. It is using that feedback in a meaningful way that tends to be more problematic.

Typically there are three parallel needs relating to customer feedback. The first is to inform the organisation of the ‘health’ of a service that they are providing. The second ties into contract management (if the service is provided by an external company) and the third is to give voice to customer and links back to service improvement.

If your organisation simply wants a percentage figure then they can very easily get one, hell I’ll give it to you now, it’s 42. The issue is often that organisations fixate on improving the numbers rather than the service it relates to. A bit like having a Chancellor of the Exchequer who puts all efforts into reducing the deficit by cutting spending/selling off bits & pieces, instead of shoring up/diversifying the economy (which will have the same effect). Or a Prime Minister who believes that cutting off social housing and focusing just on home ownership will sort out our housing crisis. Short term this may lead to some success, if only marginally; adjusting what is measured, when or how can improve scores, but doesn’t address the underlying issues in service provision. To do this you need to put the voice of the customer in-front.

Lag to lead indicators

Often one of the main drawbacks in customer feedback programmes is the gap in the time between the service interaction and the surveying of that occurrence. This tends to stem from use of paper based surveys (stop them now!) or cold call telephone surveys. Whilst not invalid methodologies, these approaches mean that in terms of service improvement you’re chasing your tail somewhat. Issues with your services are picked up, but significantly after the fact. Whilst those at the coalface will feel the heat, you are firefighting rather than putting in place solutions that will resolve the issues at hand. What you need is feedback that flags up issues as and when they occur. This will allow you nip things in the bud instead of festering and developing weird and wonderful personalities. And as a consequence, improve the service you provide.

The ties that bind

So you have your data, it is nice, up to date and fresh, what do you do with it? Simple, be proactive and speak with (not talk to) your customers (both internal and external). You would be amazed at how responsive customers can be when you are proactive with the issues they have raised. Additionally by involving other parts of the business you facilate the engagement, and ultimately the buy-in, that will drive your customer feedback programme forward. Whilst it’s easy preaching to the converted, getting out there and getting the rest of your organisation on board showing is crucial. Your average bod won’t care about the ins and puts. Just how it can make their life easier and improve the service they provide. Show them how it does that and you’ve won half the battle.

Another obvious area to consider is working with your contractors (if you have them). No-one sets out to deliberately do a bad job, have a grown up conversation about what is wrong. Your ‘fresh’ lead time data can pull out trends. A sharp dip in satisfaction relating to a particular service area can be drawn out, tied to operational data/Performance Indicators (PIs) and an improvement plan put in place. Though whatever you do make sure not only the rest of the organisation knows what is going on, but also your customers. As ultimately changes to services will affect them more than anyone else, and it will help counter the ‘no one never tells me nothing’ troop (though there’s no helping some people).

So there you have it, better get cracking then.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

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.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.


The Future is Here, and it isn’t Garlic Bread

It is something of a cliché to say that social housing and technology do not always go hand in hand.  We either end up spending a lot of money trying to fit square pegs in round holes. only to forget about integrating the ‘next big thing’ when a new fad hits, or we go foetal and hope the server huggers in IT will sort things out.

We also don’t really get the whole innovation thing others have sufficiently ruined the use of the term but it should be re-stated that as a sector we use the ‘I’ word far too often.  It is not innovative if you suddenly start doing something that has been common place in other business sectors for years.  In case you were wondering about some examples (I know you were) please see below:

  • Your website – Just because it no longer looks like it was built when Windows 98 was king doesn’t mean it is innovative. What is its functionality like?
  • Your app – You probably overpaid for this bad boy and it probably doesn’t do what you want it to do.  What it can do is push a lot of emails out instead of linking with your back office systems. Still you’ve an app, you’re cool…right?
  • Your housing management system – When did you last look at this behemoth? At a time when you might have been merging doesn’t count.
  • The way you undertake satisfaction surveys – No, moving from paper based surveys isn’t super kawaii. It is about 5 (maybe more) years too late.

Now that I have your attention…

The above shouldn’t really be news to you, if it is and you are senior/well paid can I have your job?  But as a sector we are often happy to be seen as ‘close followers’ (a better term would be belated followers) rather than ‘early adapters’ or ‘true innovators’ (sorry, I promise to buy a thesaurus soon…).  Those who tend to think/promote different approaches get set upon in something akin to the villagers and Frankenstein in erm…Frankenstein.  People who spring to mind are Nick Aitkin at Halton, Peter Marsh, Peter Hall and anything from the Bromford Lab.  This is odd as our business model has for decades been one of the safest out there.  Which in theory should have enabled us to step out into some big balls R and D.  Alas not.

Like most social landlords Orbit, the organisation that very kindly keeps me out of mischief, carries out satisfaction surveys on the services it provides.  Typically this is done via phone, a costly approach that provides rich but limited data.  As part of a drive to improve the services we provide and I do sincerely apologise for the bullshit bingo here.  We are currently in the midst of trialling a real-time multi-channel feedback approach.

Sounds great, but what does that entail exactly?

Instead of having a time lag between service interaction, surveying and results, something that is useful for long-term trend analysis but not great for service improvement.  All of the above is now condensed into a 24-48hr period (mostly, we’re still working out the kinks and for some services this won’t be possible).  Gone are the 21 questions, a simple 1 – 5 scale prod and a ‘how was it for you bae‘ type question are all that remain. Method of contact is linked to either A) the way in which customer got in touch or B) their stated preferred choice. This enables us to get the customer’s viewpoint in their own words in the manner that they’re most comfortable with.  Even if it is just to say that we’re shit (I feel contractually obliged here to say that we really aren’t that bad!).

Here comes the geeky bit…

The real exciting thing about this project is the thinking that has gone behind the software.  Algorithms Black magic sort out meaning and context from the feedback we receive and will attach sentiment scores accordingly.  For example feedback like “Nice workman, but the job was not finished” will have a positive score for person/staff and a negative for job/repair/work. You then take these bits and define where they sit under thus enabling the quick identification of areas for improvement. The results are instantaneous, quantifiable and easy to interpret.  Quite simply it is chuffing brilliant.

Crucially instead of being locked away in the dark dungeons of the Performance Management/Business Excellence/Improvement Teams it is easily accessible to all and sundry. Check it out here.  I must give major props to the guys and gals over at Rant and Rave our partner for the pilot and the developer of the software we are using.  It is a thing of simplistic beauty.

To be clear, what we are doing is not innovative, this tech has been around for a while. This is about using what works, no re-inventing the wheel.  Regardless if early results are anything to go we will have significantly improved our understanding of our customers, the way we work and the services we provide.

If you feel so inclined you can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.