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.



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


Far from the Maddening Crowd

It’s time to stop with the Excel Spreadsheet fetish, it’s pretty bad for you, but it’s worse for your business. Step away from the grid-lines, now!

Time to go Cold-Turkey

One of things that has always surprised, and frankly occasionally unnerved me, is the lack of basic digital skills in the sector. Now I’m not talking about being a Black Belt in Python (until 6 months ago I thought that was just a type of snake) or a Pokemon master at Q-Basic here. I’m simply talking about a broader depth of knowledge beyond the Housing Management system people use (or more’s the point, the narrow part of it related to their role) and Microsoft Word. But it is not just at an individual level that the sector has a bit of an issue. If you were to take a look around your business I guarantee your mortgage (I can’t afford one so I rent #millennialproblems) that a significant proportion of your staff are using off-system solutions to carry out day-to-day work. Why? Because your current software solutions doesn’t meet their need.

Square Pegs, Round Holes: Failure to Develop = Failure

People fall back onto Excel and Access-based solutions when there is no obviously better way to interrogate data. Their over-use is symptomatic of a business crying out for a more suitable solution but without the foggiest idea of what it needs or where it can be acquired from. It is also a result of failure to update and refresh the software solutions the business has as its disposal.  It’s no good thinking your billy big balls with your Morris Minor when everyone else is cruising around in their Audi R8. Also, considering the sector seems fine to throw a dollar or two around when it comes to Chief Executive pay maybe they can cough up and pump some money into the machinery that keeps the organisation ticking over. Just a thought.

FYI good reads come from Jules Birch and Kevin Williams on Chief Executive pay and the wider debate/ramifications related to them. Funnily enough Kevin’s Blog is from last year’s nicker twisting championships on the same subject. But it’s worth re-reading if only for the fact the name comes from my favourite Biggy Smalls song.

Sorry, got side-tracked 

The problem is for a lot of staff Excel is actually pretty crap when trying to communicate performance and data trends. Surprise, surprise, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed the near meltdowns I’ve seen when merely mentioning the name Excel is highly amusing. It’s like dropping the Voldemort-bomb at a Harry Potter LARPing event. Additionally spreadsheets are not always easily understood and it’s too easy to miss important information in them. And I can guarantee you unless you lock that baby down someone is going to delete an essential bit of formula quicker than Liam Fox can insult the entire country’s business community.

More worryingly for the sector they’re actually not great when being used for managing essential business processes (good heavens, no!). So if you’re using them to monitor performance for say Planned Works or Estates Services, or god forbid Repairs. Please stop. Now. Because the amount of things that could go tits up relying on spreadsheets for such business critical processes frankly gives me nightmares.

What to do

Go back to basics. Look at what you want to report, who you want to report it, why you need to report it and then how. Because believe me there are a million and one better pieces of kit out there to monitor, report on and interrogate data than Excel. 

Excel is fine for basic bits and pieces, but it should be a useful extra, not the go to for essential business processes. It’s like using an abacus when you have calculator available. Cute for none users to admire your handiwork, but you’ll be buggered if you believe everyone else can use it. Worse over-reliance on it will leave you over-exposed to one muppet and the delete button. Be brave, make the change.

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

*Updated 13/09/16


The Japanese Juxtaposition

As a sector getting creative in how we approach our traditional pitfalls of technology and digital transformation in a challenging environment is key if we are to meet the risks, opportunities and threats of the next decade.

DilbertProbably my favourite Tweet of all time came from Paul Taylor, it highlighted an article that showed there are people, living and breathing among us, who still believe that a fax machine is essential to their business. Not just a small number, 30% of those surveyed. What the actual fuck. This isn’t just something out in America, these are British workers. As someone brought up and raised on computers, who uses their smart phone to pick up news stories, who will Skype his brother half-way across the world and has a Gran who smashes it at WhatsApp this is baffling. But actually is it?

The interesting thing on technology and tech users is that people get so caught up in stereo-types that they miss the bigger picture. Old people are assumed to be rubbish, young people natural whizzes. Yet one of the most interesting articles I’ve that ‘s popped up on the BBC website shows that appearances and stereotypes can be highly deceptive. The piece in question looked at the use of technology in Japan. And how, despite appearances, many business were heavily reliant on tech that probably belonged in a museum rather than a work place.  With some estimates putting Japanese businesses 5 – 10 yrs behind their counterparts internationally in terms of adopting modern IT practices. This from a country with the bullet train and some of the best known high tech firms in the world.

Why so serious(ly slow)?

The answer is quite simple, out of the estimated 4.2million business in Japan 99.7% of them are Small or Medium Enterprises (SME) and they are tight AF when it comes to investing in IT infrastructure. And incredibly risk averse. For the fax lovers of the UK then, there is good news as they are apparently still en en vogue. Best get going then, off you go. Jokes aside this Luddite approach to technology is having a serious impact on productivity and is a part of the reason why Japan’s economy is in horrific shape. So what does this have to do with housing? Well, organisations slow to adopt new IT practices, slow to change their ways in operating, using old technology. Is this ringing any bells?

The HCA may have ruffled some feathers with its analysis of social landlord costs. But that’s only because it is in part right. We haven’t evolved because we haven’t needed to, and just as we aren’t as efficient as we could be because we could get away with it we haven’t upgraded our tech readily enough because there was no pressure to. However, in terms of the tech we use at least, that is changing sharpish. But as Peter Hall notes the traditional ways of meeting external drivers of change in terms of reducing costs may not cut it. A new digital solution or strategy does not guarantee costs savings or a more efficient way of working. Consequently re-evaluating our approaches to thinking about change maybe necessary.

The Future is Bright(ish)

If you haven’t read it already I would recommend  Paul Taylor‘s blog on the rhetoric of digital transformation. Aside from noting the depressing fact that often digital transformation A) Isn’t that transformative and B) hasn’t really happened. Paul references two chaps it is worth having a look at: Carl Haggerty and Frank Diana. Indeed if you want to collect some useful quotes/bullshit bingo Frank has some zingers.

  • In times of change the greatest danger is to act with yesterday’s logic (Quote from Peter Drucker…I don’t know him either)
  • Wait and see means wait and die (bit melodramatic, but still)
  • Leaders must shift from a focus on what is, to a focus on what could be (so on what to be or not to be…?)

Tying these into how HAs think about changing the way their business operates is key. As is moving from past success and failures and onto what might be in the future is needed, because the current methodology isn’t working. The future is going to be challenging, it’s time to get creative in how we meet it.

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


Stick or Twist

Housing Associations need to look beyond their Housing Management Systems if they are to fully realise the potential of the data at their fingertips.

Housing Management Systems (HMS) are the ‘precious’ of the social housing sector. Simultaneously one of the most fretted about and under appreciated bits of tech a social landlord uses. They come in various shapes, sizes and cost anything from an arm and a leg, to the whole body. They are essential in providing the day to day information that an organisation needs to survive. From logging customer contact to repairs, arrears, lettings, new tenancies, customer contact information; you name it, you probably store it on your HMS.

But despite their many uses Housing Management Systems are increasingly only part of the picture when it comes to data insight. The static reports that come as part of, or more likely bodged onto, the procured package often provide reams of figures but not always something that is valuable to the business beyond fixed point reporting. Indeed when it comes to data insight HMS’s are often more of a hindrance than a help.

Origins and Evolution

Some might argue it is a bit unfair to expect what is essentially a highly complex excel/access database to be able to provide a malleable, easy to use data insight functionality. After all aren’t they merely posh data repositories? Well yes, to a point, but why store a load of data if you are not going to use it? If you are having to push out data into excel or access databases to then format it into something usable, then something has gone very wrong indeed.

Frankly is doesn’t help that more often than not the software looks like a throwback to Windows 95. Seriously find somebody who is good at developing software that doesn’t look like the digital version of 1960’s brutalist architecture. It might get hipsters and historians all weak at the knees, but it is god awful for the rest of us. And that’s before you get to the actual functionality.

The Great Leap Forward

More and more the sector is moving away from its over-reliance on HMS products, largely as a result of software developments elsewhere. Business Insight tools are a key part of this evolution that is gradually dragging the sector into the century of the Anchovy 21st Century. With GIS mapping software, data mining and data visualisation tools such as Tableau or Microsoft’s Power BI all having a part to play in weaning the sector of its dependency on technology that isn’t providing the solutions needed.

Caution is required to ensure the lure of shiny new things doesn’t distract from what is a good addition to your current digital arsenal and merely being sucked into the latest fad. But expecting your HMS to magically be able to stretch beyond its core functionality and neatly fit into the next-gen of data analysis, insight and visualisation is a bit of a pipe dream. As is expecting a new bit of software to solve all your problems. Alongside getting out the credit card it is worth asking the following questions:

  • How long has your HMS been used at your organisation? Why did you get it?
  • When did you last check whether it was fit for purpose?
  • When did you last look at what the data needs of the organisation are?

Dust off your digital, IT and data strategies (admit it, you still haven’t put these into one coherent strategy), look at needs (both present and future) of the business, look at the options available and use the sound base your HMS provides to feed into what is out there. Otherwise you will be stuck with Excel spreadsheets and Access databases wasting time whilst your staff manually do what can be done by a bit of software in a tenth of the time.

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


There’s a Map for That

Blue Sky GIS – What I Do (2012)

Often one of the most over looked aspects of a housing organisation is the map guy/gal. Having been used for years by Local Authorities it is something the sector is still getting to grips with. I’m lucky enough to sit next to one of the two GIS specialists in our organisation and get a front row view of their work. Whilst we often jokingly refer to them as ‘colourers in chief’ their impact cannot be under-estimated. Depending on your size, geographical spread and ability to use data you have to hand, those what dabble in a bit of cartography can also be a gem for you and your kin.

GIS, what does that entail exactly

G.I.S. itself stands for Geographical Information System (don’t worry, I googled that too). It’s a means by which to use, manipulate, visualise and otherwise demonstrate data. In short a GIS Officer/Analyst/Necromancer is someone au fait with all things Maps and data. They can help identify areas of land to sell off, reduce costs relating to boundary searches/disputes and liaise with Land Registry (not for the faint hearted, you may need a live sacrifice). In addition, they can work with your estates team(s) to more accurately identify and cost areas of work for internal teams and external contractors. Ultimately, they can save you a lot of money.

That’s cool, show me the money

You’re not going to be making it rain à la Floyd Mayweather in a strip club, but you will need to drop a dollar or two. GIS specialists don’t grow on trees, but they are available. Though it depends on your organisation’s size, structure and what you want to achieve as to how much you need to spend. It’s worth noting that having just one person who is a specialist, at least at the start, is not a wise move. At the initial phase you will need to smash through a lot of set up work. Like clearing out your old eccentric uncle’s garage when he dies there will be a lot of crap to sort in the beginning.

So what do I get out of it?

So you’ve taken the plunge and gone in on GIS for your organisation. Easy part done, time to justify your shopping spree. First port of call – visualising information en masse. Let’s face it data is boring. Whilst some of us can see the patterns a bit like Neo in the Matrix, for the average Joe/Joetta having some way of displaying lots of factual tit bits is better than loads of figures on a spreadsheet. Mapping that stuff (where appropriate) can help. Showing stock/population density is a good start (nothing says stock rationalisation like seeing one property miles from any other stock), highlighting areas where arrears are above average, locations/concentrations of ASB cases are all things that can be plonked on a map. Mrs Jones threatening legal action over encroachment on her property? No worries, use boundary information and a bit of software that is accurate to within 3 inches to show she is chatting bollocks/right [delete whichever is appropriate]. Got to map and locate all trees you are liable for (yes, this is a thing check it out here if you don’t believe me, sexy stuff eh?). No worries. Go out, survey the sods, get it logged, map it. Viola! All your botanically based public liabilities neatly mapped.

The possibilities aren’t endless, but there’s a lot of them. You can also get to a stage where most staff members can use a watered down version of GIS to self-serve, freeing up your specialists for the more complex stuff. Of course that largely depends on your data being up to scratch, but I’ll leave that potential horror story well alone for today.

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.