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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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

 

Chasing Pavements

Taking the leap of faith from focusing on numbers to Customer Feedback is a big step forward in understanding the underlying performance issues in your organisation. It’s time you stopped chasing pavements and actually instigated meaningful change and improvements to the services you provide, based on what your customers are telling you.

It Was only Supposed to Be a Simple Job

When you think about it Housing Associations have a pretty simple job. You charge rent to the customer/tenant/resident/who the fuck cares, in return you agree to do certain repairs. Additionally you agree to cyclically upgrade the main facilities to mitigate against stock depreciation and general wear and tear. If neighbours can’t get along you try to keep the peace. Depending on the culture of your organisation you will also provide a wealth of auxiliary services designed to help keep customers/tenants/residents/who the fuck cares in their homes/sort their shit out.

Simple, right? Well, no. We have a way of making things wonderfully complicated. Key of which is the repairs question. Not least of which because we can’t decide to keep our repairs services in-house or out of house. Akin to Planned Maintenance works, this cycle is utterly predictable. Like the hokey-cokey, but a bloody expensive version. The thing is, the measures you use to monitor the performance of either contractors or in-house staff are largely the same. You’ll still have the same issues, missed appointments, incorrectly stocked vans, wrong trades turning up etc, et-bloody-cetera. However, unless you put the voice of the customer, and their customer journey (puts 50p in bullshit bingo swear pot) front and centre you won’t see the problems at hand through all the figures.

Seeing the Wood Through The Proverbial

You’d be forgiven for believing that we are entering into a ‘post-facts’ age. With both sides of Brexit campaigns using rumour, misinformation and gossip over substantiated fact. And with Donald Trump being, well, Donald Trump. But actually we’re using data, figures and performance measures more than ever before. Simply watch some old school footage of George Best in his heyday and compare it to the stuff you get bombarded with during a game these days. Failing that, look at what you can bet on. It’s ridiculous.

The same can be said for Housing Associations. Via housing management systems and tied-in external pieces of software, there is so much performance data you can quite easily get paralysis by analysis (puts another 50p into bullshit bingo swear pot). You can also get drawn in by the sweet Siren’s song of numbers, glorious numbers. Be careful here weary traveller, endless debates over the minutia will take away from the bigger picture.

Tying it all Together

It might sound like stating the blooming obvious but if there are regular, repeated trends in Customer Feedback you might want to look into it. I know we’re British and like a good grumble, but people don’t tend to moan without good cause. If your customers in one area or with one contractor are always moaning about missed appointments check your hard data. If there is a hard data spike on the same topic, have some ‘awkward conversations’* with staff/contractors until the pattern in negative feedback stops. What you mustn’t do is simply try to bump up the figure in satisfaction by tweaking measurements/definitions of satisfaction. This helps no-one, sort out the Customer Service issue and the number will look after itself. Fail to do that and history will be doomed to repeat itself.

Consequently the key to ultimately improving performance and Customer Satisfaction is to tie-in Service/Business Improvement processes to both your hard and soft data. This is often more of a challenge than identifying the root issues. Because, as noted previously, organisational culture is not something you can change overnight. If you’ve always chased pavements, you will continue to do so until forced otherwise. But by pro-actively using your various datasets to identify Customer Service problems AND THEN insitigate meaningful change, based on what customers are telling you, in addition to hard data metrics, you can’t go wrong. Well, unless your Customer Feedback methodlogy and reporting mechanisms are utter bollocks, but that’s a completely different kettle of fish. Regardess, those are the basic principles to stick by.

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

*These can be akin to “What the fuck is going on here, chap/chapess?”

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.

 

Are you being served?

Left Hand Right hand

In an attempt to get over the horror show that was the 2015 General Election me and my ladyfriend went to watch the mighty Worcester Warriors take on London Scottish. For the uninitiated/dead inside this clash of titans was for the 2nd leg of the Championship Play Off Semi-Final. As is customary on our pilgrimage to Lourdes Sixways we stopped off to have some grub and a drink. Hardy Warriors fans will know drinks are a necessity to get you through the game.

At the public house in question all was dandy until the food service kicked in. You had about 4 staff doing different jobs (but not really talking to each other). I can see the attraction of this approach. Each member of staff nails their respective areas. But such modes of work need to run smoothly with communication being paramount, otherwise you end up looking (and acting) like headless chickens.

One particular Faulty Towers-esk moment involved staff member #1 coming over, dumping our drinks and leaving. In the process of doing so he didn’t bat an eyelid whilst completely stopping me and staff member #2 from sorting out the food order.  Random staff member #3 came to check if food was OK. It is a skill but they always ask me mid mouthful so hand signals usually have to suffice at this point. After we had finished staff member #4 cleared our plates. Not stopping to check if we wanted either the bill or dessert (FYI I always want dessert).

Why the rant? Well, swap the pub for a Housing Association the food service for the services we provide and a similar pattern emerges. Very often the different aspects don’t properly interact with each other.  Often from our end the focus is on completing a process, not understanding the needs of the customer. Whilst we may have an SLA which states a 2 week completion time for us.  For the customer that is 2 weeks of hearing nothing whilst the issue at hand builds up. Touch points and process junctures are two different things.

Such approaches as outlined above tend to end up with poor customer service and a pissed off tenant. Worse it can end up costing your organisation a lot of money.  This is especially relevant given the increasingly complex structure we operate under. With the boys and girls in blue winning the General Election I can only see a further move to more mergers and group structures as organisations seek to secure their long-term future.  The fact that the first ‘new’ generation of housing folk (post 1960s) is up for retirement soon may also be a factor.  But that could just be me being mischievous…

My all time favourite story on poor communication involves windows (the see through things, not the operating system). It was recognised that a scheme with rather shabby windows was getting a lot of call outs. So the repairs team went out stripped off the paint and sanded back the wood and repaint said items. The hope being that this would reduce repeat/consistent repairs and ultimately save money. It looked lovely, until the planned maintenance contractors came out a month later, ripped the windows out and put new PVC ones in. What a mess.

But there is also a more urgent need to ensure different parts of the organisation know what each other is doing. Every organisation has ‘names’, customers that through acute vulnerabilities, bloody-mindedness, or with nothing better to do, cause havoc. This is often containable and manageable with frontline staff. But such individuals are persistent and will call every number they can find. Well intentioned back office staff (like myself) may end up kicking a hornets nest by accident. Fundamentally not only are such occurrences time-consuming, they are also costly. Your CRM processes should enable you to pick up a quick back story before calling. This will enable a coherent riposte and avoid re-opening grievances. Failure to do so risks unravelling months of work at a stroke.

Probably just as effective is ensuring that you facilitate cross team communication.  A simple but effective method is getting your housing officer (or equivalent), income officer (or equivalent) and repairs team member responsible for an area to meet regularly.  This can be tricky if repairs are held externally but by enabling the 3 main threads of a tenancy to intertwine you can share valuable knowledge and experience.  And keep everyone on message.  If you have a mixed housing/income officer set where low arrears are handled by housing officers, stop, now.  You are about 5 years behind the curve.  For some interesting facts and figures on this changing side of housing check Pawson et al.’s now slighted dated work for the TSA.

Moral of the story? Well, as Bob Hoskins used to say (ironically enough in an advert for a company known for its crap customer service) “It’s good to talk”. As organisation get ever larger and more complex (I’ve not even touched on the role contractors play in this) ensuring clear communication channels is paramount. It is also good to make the most of your CRM. Drill home its importance and invest in its use. Oh and always make sure your repairs and maintenance teams keep in touch.

Feeling depressed? Don’t worry, all is not lost and in particular from my pub experience there is happy ending. Warriors smashed it to reach the Play Off finals and we went home and made our own dessert #winning.

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