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?”


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


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.

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

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

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

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

Now that I have your attention…

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

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

Sounds great, but what does that entail exactly?

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

Here comes the geeky bit…

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

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

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

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

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours…

Pic borrowed from the lovely people at ITPro

Big Data maybe the buzzword of the day, but it is in the small data where real nuggets of gold can be found.  Working in a team that heavily uses data, figures, numbers and spreadsheets you often get flashbacks to school days.  Where the pretty girl would only speak to you when she needed help with algebra (don’t worry the joke was on her, I sucked at algebra).  It’s not so much that data/performance figures are forgotten about, you can bet your bottom dollar the whole world and its pet gofer will be chasing you up at quarter and year-end.  But most see it as someone else’s business/job, an add-on to theirs, nothing more.

Part of my current role is to get people to use data, not just more often but more effectively.  I luckily avoid most of the negotiations with operationally focused managers looking to hit targets by ‘trimming the fat’.  What I tend to delve into is providing support on bespoke requests.  These can range from the disturbingly detailed “I need to know the locations of all ASB cases committed by left-handed tenants with a distinct love of the writings of Nietzsche”.  To more simple pieces like “I want to see changes in customer satisfaction in relation to repairs over a period of x years”.

OK I made up the first one but it neatly highlights the occasionally left-field requests that you get.  And the general lack of understanding of the data that an organisation holds.  Indeed the most often used phrase the team I operate in is Why?  Not to be deliberately pernickety or condescending but because a lot of the time the requests that come in are continuously evolving ones.  Someone has had a spark of something, somewhere and we need help to draw out what is required.  Sometimes it is just to say, no you don’t need that information on a sodding map.

Of course ensuring the data we use/keep is up to date and correct is a whole industry in itself, something I have lamented long and hard about before.  But as a provider of social housing we have at our disposal a fair whack of information.  Good job we’re not on the side of evil then…

Typically the data held by a housing association can be split into 3 parts.  The household, the property and the tenancy. Crucially this is information either held by an organisation in perpetuity as it relates to their assets (x number of bedrooms in x number of properties), is data given to us by the customer (date of birth, email etc – FYI you still need to be able to justify why you have this info, otherwise the Information Commissioner will be so far up your booty they will be able to tickle your tonsils) or tenancy management data (Mrs Jones has been mooning next door again).

The key facet to these data sets is trust.  The rest of the organisation needs to trust that the data you are providing is sound (and that is before you get to the tenants themselves!) and that it can aid them in the day-to-day roles they undertake.  Simple things like mapping out arrears cases or ASB issues can help prioritise workloads/staffing levels.  Looking at the areas with the most possession orders against levels of deprivation and customer segmentation data (if you have it) can also help.  But mostly it is about drawing out the data so that it is something useful.  Because let’s face it, figures on their own are dull, dull, dull.  And that is coming from a guy who sits and uses spreadsheets for 90% of his day*.

Big data projects for housing are on the horizon, but as this is social housing that horizon is a long way in the distance.  In the meantime, if you aren’t already, look at the small data and use it a bit more wisely.

*The other 10% of the time is spent being awesome and doing other work related things.

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

Eat, sleep, collect data, repeat

Report from Sheffield Hallam University highlights the sector still has work to do around data and their approaches to Universal Credit.

So first off here’s the caveats, whilst researched and published by Sheffield Hallam the report was commissioned by Housing Partners.  Given that their primary business is heavily tied into providing IT solutions to the social housing sector a pinch of salt is needed here.  That being said SHU has a long history of research, particularly in the social housing sector.  Hell they even had the pleasure of my company for a year whilst I bumbled my way through a Masters Degree there.  Forgiving the deepest of sins (I did my undergrad degree at the University of Sheffield) #UniTilliDie and fundamentally both the report, and Housing Partners’ associated trumpeting of it, carry some weight.

Given the monumental delays, recriminations, borderline lies and fluster coming from Iain ‘never knowingly gives sound statistics’ Duncan Smith and the DWP you would be forgiven for forgetting that we are midway through the roll out of Universal Credit.  And whilst there are undoubtedly many more rocky steps to take, piss poor project management aside, it is here to stay.  It is therefore somewhat surprising to see that a number of social landlords are still in a bit of a muddle around their customer’s data.  The greatest advantage we have as a sector is that there is no element of surprise, rumblings around UC started in 2010, so we don’t really have an excuse.  But the findings from the guys and gals t’up north show the same issues that we had a couple of years ago are still around.  It does make you wonder what the fudge have we been doing?

I appreciate the monumental task at hand, particularly for the larger social landlords.  People move in and out of our properties, have kids, get married, get divorced, get married again (on a number of occasions to the person they divorced) etc etc.  Mobile phone numbers are as concrete as a chocolate tea-pot and no-one and I mean no-one takes ownership of the bloody data.  But it is not just the day to day grind around data that we appear to have a problem with.  As usual there appears to be a disconnect between the IT systems we have, and the systems we need to use.  I say this from something of an odd position because the organisations I have worked with have had pretty solid, if unspectacular IT systems. Their data collection, protection and insight processes, whilst not perfect, are pretty advanced and are being used in the correct way i.e. to inform the business and improve customer satisfaction.

The most interesting thing about the Bedroom Tax, Universal Credit and now the report from SHU and Housing Partners (from a purely data point of view, not the suffering and utter shiteness of the policies themselves) is that they have illustrated how little we know about our customers.  Or in some cases our own stock. It does make you wonder what the situation would have been like without such external stimuli.  Would we as a sector remained largely oblivious to how bad our data was?

Many organisations when the Bedroom Tax came out probably looked at undertaking a census.  No doubt many who responded to SHU’s survey are thinking of doing the same again.  These bad boys are great at providing a big bang effect.  It will indicate areas where you have been lacking data (typically you will see a sudden spike in certain demographics sets) but they are only part of the solution.  It is in the day to day interactions that you will gather the majority of your information. To truly keep your data fresh you need identify how and when you and your customers interact and make the most of those opportunities.  You also need to make sure you properly store the data you already have.

I find it deeply alarming that some 42% of the 167 or so organisations surveyed admitted to using paper based systems (i.e. paper) to store some data on its tenants.  This is utterly horrendous and frankly unforgiveable.  Storing data on off-system spreadsheets is bad enough, but paper?  How the hell do you ensure any consistency, any accountability and any basic audit trail if part of your data is on paper!?  If your IT system can’t store the data you need there are plenty of options out there.  Side note, if you are procuring make sure the business and not the IT bod is the customer and the lead on the project.  IT facilitate, they don’t lead on business focused IT procurement. Though quite often no-one tells them that.

By and large data is a simple beast. Work out what you need, why you need it, how you are going to store it, how are you going to keep it fresh but most importantly how are you going to use it.  That my friends is basically it.  Everything else is just mere details.

If you feel so inclined (I wouldn’t advise it, you will be disappointed) you can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the Twitter handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.