Customer experience: Are social landlords fit for the future?

Social housing providers of all types are confronted with a range of competing demands; maintenance of existing assets, investment in new supply and their contribution to local communities and sustaining tenancies, all sit alongside increasing customer expectations of service delivery akin to what they are experiencing in wider society. Government policy and expectations exercised through the regulatory relationship also play their part. With increased consumer and building safety regulation on the horizon, boards must make ‘trade-offs’ in what they choose to prioritise for investment amid these competing priorities and finite resources.

At this year’s CIH Housing Conference I took part in a keynote session to discuss the future of customer needs and expectations, and whether the sector is fit to meet these demands. In my job I see a lot of great work being done across the sector, but I also see areas where performance could be improved.

A ‘silver bullet’ doesn’t exist, so how can social housing providers keep their service delivery relevant and meet the expectations that tenants and leaseholders experience as consumers in other parts of their lives?

1. Recognise that social housing customers experience the relationship with their landlord in two ways – as a resident and as a consumer. The emotions vested in both are different; challenge my home or the neighbourhood in which I live, and you challenge me as a person. Most people take pride in where they live; engaging with tenants and leaseholders and creating practical opportunities for them to contribute to the quality of their homes and neighbourhoods engenders trust and helps to identify and address concerns related to stigma. On the other hand, whilst requesting a repair and having it completed satisfactorily is not entirely the same as buying a book from Amazon, the expectations are like other transactions tenants undertake in their personal life. Landlords need to deliver a good consumer experience when providing core transactional services.

2. Get the basics right – the demands on the sector and the operating environment may be more complex but the basics of delivering a good landlord service remain the same as they have ever been. There is plenty of data within the wider sector to show what good looks like. HouseMark data collected over 15+ years shows that no one provider seems to be able to perform consistently well at all services. Which are the most important services for you and your customers, to focus your efforts on?

3. Where does providing a great customer experience sit in relation to your other strategic priorities? What are the characteristics of your customers and do you know what aspects of your service generate the most positive and the most negative feedback? Have you been able to put a cost to service failure? What does success look and feel like? What level of investment is needed to make this happen and who should be involved in the decisions?

4. Learn from others both in and out of the sector who have had demonstrable success in improving customer experience. Landlords of all types are recognising the need to change. Investment in digital service delivery is needed; the housing sector is a long way behind government’s record on digital service delivery, only spending just over 2% of turnover on IT and digital compared with 8% by the government and 9% by the finance sector in 2017. In many other services we are channelled into the digital / online option, with telephone being less easy and face-to-face disappearing in many areas. The housing sector continues to be challenged with determining the right ‘channel’ through which to deliver services to different types and ages of tenants. Omni-channel service delivery may be the holy grail but is not easy to achieve. Learning from out of sector successes are recognised as one way to accelerate change in the sector.

5. Robust and reliable measures of success which also provide landlords of all types with like-for-like comparisons. Many landlords are now collecting transactional satisfaction data, which gives them the ability to track results over time and tackle emerging problems promptly. In the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy, landlords have already made several changes to the collection and analysis of asset and health and safety data for vulnerable buildings and the people who live in them; and have consequently adjusted their investment priorities and management practices. HouseMark analysis shows that while transactional satisfaction surveys have great potential to drive service improvement, results tend to come in on average ten percentage points higher than perception survey results like STAR. The redesign of our STAR customer satisfaction methodology with over 240 providers taking part, will also include the use of out of sector experience. This approach will enable access to the latest practice in customer satisfaction measurement and secure consistency to reporting customer satisfaction across the sector.

Customer centricity, investing in customer relationships, transparent performance metrics, channel shift in favour of digital service and balancing a complex range of investment priorities and risks that need mitigating – these are business considerations which the sector has been managing and talking about for some time now.   However, our environment has never been so polarised, from a policy, political and consumer perspective we must step up and deliver. It is very clear we have the pieces in play, it’s now time to accelerate making the moves.

By Laurice Ponting

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