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.

 

Ways and Means

Going digital doesn’t mean weakening your customer service offer, they are not mutually exclusive. But don’t think that by having a new website/online portal you’ve solved all your woes when it comes to facilitating interaction with those who pay your wages. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Well sit right down my wicked son, and let me tell you a story

After switching energy supplier it became obvious that I was paying far too little per month via Direct Debit. Popping onto my online account to change it proved a dead-end. Turns out I can make one-off payments, I can phone the call centre or I can wait for the 6 monthly review of my bill. Now here’s the thing, I spend all day talking to people, the last thing I want to do is get on the blower in my spare time and pretend to be nice to someone else. So I ended up sending my energy provider a borderline grumpy message about why I was not going to be calling up and could they pretty please pull their finger out regarding their customer offer.

To my surprise the next day, the auto response stated 5 working days – that pissed me off just as much as not being able to amend my Direct Debit online – I got a very apologetic email. Not only did the reply state how much I owed, how much my direct debit could be switched to ensure I had a zero balance by July but it also told me that a complaint had been raised on my behalf due to my displeasure with their service. What impressed most about the reply was the fact it matched the way I contacted the organisation, answered all my queries and apologised. This happens so rarely that it was a genuine pleasure to be on the receiving end. It also raises the question why they hell none of that was available via their online offer.

The Circle of Life

If the above sounds familiar to those of you working in housing, it should. Because if there’s one thing we are good at it, it is boxing people into ways of doing things they don’t like. Case in point – shifting in-bound contacts. Often this is couched in the language of ‘nudge’ theory, where one gently moves people down a preferred path of action with some subtle encouragement/positive reinforcement. Preferably from costly call centres to one’s new, if debatably performing, website/online account offer.

Well that’s the theory. The problem is we don’t operate ‘nudge’ theory in housing, we operate ‘shove’ theory. This involves shutting down other options to force people down particular routes, even when the organisation’s preferred one is a steaming pile of the proverbial.  And then wondering why people are getting pissed off at the service being provided.

Send Me On My Way

Too often it is easy to forget that at the heart of customer service is the need to tailor the way an organisation interacts with their customers to meet their preferences. This is not a cost saving exercise per se, although it may well be a welcome side effect, a tailored communications offer is about dragging your business away from its Soviet Era bureaucrat approach. It is about giving people a genuine choice in how to interact. And just as importantly via the means they’re most comfortable with and in a way that answers their query.

Why write a letter to someone when they’ve been contacting you via Twitter? Why phone when they’ve emailed? Yes, in some cases it might be a necessity but tweak your comms. channels to match their needs. Not the other way round. As a freebie, if you want to see how social media interaction with customers is good for both them and your business check out Amy Nettleton and her team at Aster. It ain’t perfect, but it’s a pretty darn good example of how to do customer service right. It is also the very opposite of what most of the sector is doing, i.e. having a social media account with a personality. Heaven forfend.

This is the end, my only friend, the end

Today is International Happiness Day, whatever the hell that is, so I guess I should end on a chirpy note. We are slowly moving towards offering a more diverse set of means by which to communicate with our customers. Occasionally in line with their preferences. It’s not quite there yet, far from it, but it could be so much worse (I tried).

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

Photo Credit

Neil Howard (2014) Telephone Booth, Longstock, Hampshire

Song List

Rusted Root – Send Me on My Way

The Doors – The End

The Pixies – The Holiday Song

The Lion King – The Circle of Life

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

 

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

 

The Estate We’re In

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London at Night (Churchill Gardens) by Scott Wylle

For many Estate Services is the weird and wonderful offshoot of the more glamorous Responsive Repairs and Planned Maintenance aspects of a landlord service provision. Perennially unpopular with a vocal minority because it is often paid/charged for in addition to rent, if you get this badboy right you are doing very well indeed.

A bit like our sector, part of the issue is the incredibly diverse nature of the beast. Internal cleaning of communal areas, litter picking, grounds maintenance (communal gardening to you and me), in some cases waste collection and disposal plus a host of other bits and pieces fall into ‘estates’. Also, as a rule we don’t always help ourselves. Larger organisations can potentially have distinct variations in what should in effect be the same service provision. From internal to external teams, differing service level agreements (SLAs) depending on location. Estates split between different providers, estates overseen by caretakers as opposed to ground maintenance teams. Think of all the different ways of managing an estate and a Housing Association over 10,000 units spread out across more than 2 counties will no doubt use each and every last one of them.

What can be Done?

The first thing to do is know who is doing what and where. Considering estates don’t move (a lot like stock, but that is a whole different kettle of fish) you would be amazed at the confusion over who EXACTLY does WHAT, WHEN and WHERE. To resolve this issue I would suggest your estates team sits down with your GIS team, stock up on coffee and donuts and no-one leaves until everything is agreed, NO-ONE. If you haven’t already rationalise the ways in which the service is being provided. Variations on a theme, not a box of Celebrations here kids. Variety isn’t always the spice of life, not when you’ve got to manage micro-SLAs at any-rate.

Next communicate with your customers. It is a common, repeated mantra of mine. Treat your customers like adults and they will respond as such. A significant number of customers won’t see the boys and girls out and about as they will be at work so manage expectations. Clearly state the Grounds Maintenance ‘seasons’ i.e. that in Winter the grass won’t be cut as often as in Summer. Point out that no the service will not do your lawn, unless you want to pay for it. Bulky waste clearance is not part of the job description. Arrange on your own to get your old sofa to the tip. Even if it’s a bulk text with a hyper-link to information on your website, that is better than no communication. Or worse still, flyers left in communal hallways.

So far, so basic, what else?

Make more information available online, and to your contact centre. As a sector we have this existential angst over getting people online. Quite often the brutal truth is that people don’t use the online offer of Housing Associations because it is crap. But, allowing someone to put in their post code on your website and have it bring up live, useful info like the below might help resolve that. It sure as hell beats the patronising waffle or PAY YOUR RENT NOW malark that makes up most of the content of the sector’s websites.

  • Who is responsible for the various bits of estates services in their area
  • A breakdown of what the service charge pays for
  • When different ‘seasons’ of ground maintenance start
  • What work is actually undertaken in those seasons
  • A map (copyright permitting) of the areas covered
  • Who is responsible for tree maintenance

So there you have it, a quick look at the ins and outs, and potential solutions to Estate Services. Who said housing isn’t sexy?

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

 

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.

5 Reasons Why Your Data Needs An Overhaul

If this article sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve written about data before. Still, it seems as a sector the message isn’t quite getting through. So, once more unto the breach my friend.

1 Accept Your Data Isn’t That Great

Despite holding a huge array of information Social Landlords remain poor at maintaining it. A bit like a teenage boy encountering his first bra. We fumble around in the dark a bit, tell ourselves other people struggle just as badly and hope we haven’t completely put off the poor lass trying (and failing) to unclip that tricky double clasp.

2 Get Your Data Out of That Silo

No doubt there are a number of people in your organisation who get data. Sadly they tend to fall into 2 groups. 1) The Smeagols, their ‘precious’ is not to be messed with. You can look at the data, but you can’t touch it as you’ll mess things up. God forbid if you want to amend anything. This OCD approach to keeping data ‘perfect’ helps no one. 2) The hardcore geek, frantically trying to keep order but unable to get buy-in from anyone outside their team. Siloed away this potential resource is perennially ignored until it’s end of year reporting time. Getting all parts of your organisation to understand the importance of data, and guide them how to use it is essential. Otherwise you might as well go pee into the proverbial wind.

3 – Your Training Needs a Refresh

Let’s face it, when people start a new job they are bombarded with information. A week to 2 weeks of ramning home compulsory training and corporate indoctrination is not the best environment to induce learning. Alas this is when people tend to get their system/data use training. And frankly you can give people all the training in the world and they will ignore it and just copy the person next to them.

4 – Customer Segmentation is a rule of thumb, not an absolute

Like Tamagotchis, Pokeman and Yoyos odd trends in data come in and out of fashion. Customer segmentation is a perfect example of this. It must be said that CS is a very useful tool. But, and it is a big but. CS is a guide, it is not definitive. In legal speak it is a burden of proof that is on the balance of probabilities, not something that is beyond all reasonable doubt. Remind senior staff this when they start throwing buzzwords around. It is embaressing when you go to external events and hear people chat crap on this topic. Stop it. Stop it now. Ps it wasn’t anyone from my organisation, thank the maker.

5 – Bad Data In, Bad Data Out

Strange as it seems if you pump your housing management system full of crap, it will give you crap. Whilst most data systems have validation rules you can put in place, you’d be amazed at how creative people get when wanting to get round things they find burdensome. It’s not just Investment Banks and expensive lawyers who can find loopholes. This ties into point 3, I would back it up with carrots and big nasty sticks to ensure compliance.

So there you have it. If this is sounding horribly familiar, unlucky. But acceptance is the first part of the grieving process. After which you might start to resolve the issues at hand.

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