The future of housing is unclear. Peter Graddon, director of Omfax Systems, providers of dynamic scripting solutions for the social housing sector, talks about how enhanced levels of customer service can help to save social housing.
We are facing a housing crisis with a huge lack of availability of affordable homes. According to The Guardian, since its peak in 2006, home ownership has fallen across every part of the UK. On the other side, the Chartered Institute of Housing has estimated that, due to the imposition on housing providers of the right-to-buy, there will be a net loss of more than 400,000 social rent homes by 2020. This is a staggering figure given the increasing demand, yet too many are allowing this to happen.
Social housing is at a crossroads and the future is unclear. It is under threat from government policies, such as the one per cent rent cut, the impact of government budget cuts and from forces within. Housing providers have been left to plug the gap as other services have been cut. In response, some housing providers are seeking to merge and create new ‘mega providers’ in order to find efficiencies. However, as these mega providers are created, they become more commercial which leads to a danger that housing providers could lose their social purpose and connection with their communities. I believe there is a real threat to the future of social housing, especially the ethos that underpins it – the commitment to upholding strong social values. Added to this mix, customer expectations have never been higher and are becoming more complex, meaning more housing providers are seeing an increase in their overall volume of contacts.
The role of customer service in housing
The reputation of social housing has become tarnished over the years; one side of the argument paints a picture that tenants don’t get a good service, despite the many plaudits and awards given to housing providers’ customer services teams in recent years.
The fact is that good customer service is now expected. It’s not a ‘nice to have’, it’s a minimum and for many people, it’s a clear indication of how an organisation is performing more widely. It’s about assigning the same commitment and importance to measuring your performance on social values as you do to measuring against other business objectives.
With this in mind, tenant engagement and the way housing providers engage with their tenants has never been more important. Most providers have recognised the scale of the housing challenge and present it as an opportunity to be more, not less, customer focused; the ‘human touch’ and having a unique relationship is a part of this. There is now a shift to smarter solutions and new ways of thinking so that effective customer service delivers value for money.
Customer service should be in the DNA of a housing provider and has to be implicit in every interaction with customers, irrespective of the channel being used. In short, it’s about the combination of behaviour, skill, process and technology, but most importantly, it’s about leadership.
The traditional model focuses on telecommunication and face-to-face tenant communication. This now needs to go hand-in-hand with a unified communications approach that incorporates digital technology. Though turning intent into reality in a sector with a business model that doesn’t rely on brand loyalty is no easy task and delivering customer-focused services has to start with the overall leadership culture.
Housing providers need to focus more on the total customer experience. Some are already ahead of the curve, bringing in new skills and looking at how they manage each customer journey face-to-face, by phone and online. Others are still at the starting blocks, looking at technology and behaviour rather than taking a more holistic view. A handful are still looking at siloed access channels.
Housing providers haven’t always been quick to embrace advances in technology. Ofcom research identifies that nearly three quarters of internet users have a social media profile, compared to 22 per cent in 2007 and 66 per cent in 2013 and it’s not just the younger generation who are onboard. Half of those aged 55 to 64 now have at least one social media profile, the most popular being Facebook. While relatively small numbers of tenants have access to the internet in their homes, or live in areas where internet connections are poor, much larger numbers of tenants have smartphones and access to social media. These changes are having a real impact on how housing providers choose to interact with customers and because of the public nature of the interaction, poor service is readily exposed and given a huge audience. When done well, social media offers a great opportunity to improve service efficiency, to position housing providers as trusted and transparent service providers, and to nip emerging issues and complaints in the bud.
The progression of technology clearly shows no sign of slowing down, so providers must adapt their customer service tools in order to communicate with their tenants in new ways that match their needs. It also can give tenants more autonomy through self-service tools. A few organisations I have spoken to about implementing their digital strategy have mentioned their use of social media channels, web chats and apps and have seen the benefits of these. However, all agreed that a digital strategy requires a commitment from the top in order to implement it effectively. The fact is that it really does depend on the customer focus of the housing provider for it to be effective and contribute towards efficiencies within the business.
Tenants themselves need to be front and centre and they need to be integral to the governance of the estates and properties. Every housing provider should have tenants in significant numbers on their boards and involved in tenant committees for operational decisions where possible. Perhaps the sector needs to go further and commit to real tenant democracy, as illustrated by the Danish model; where residents have the majority vote on the housing organisation’s board and every tenant can be a part of the democratic process which runs individual housing estates.
The social housing crisis that the UK faces today isn’t just about the chronic shortage of council and housing association homes. It’s about people. It’s about people worrying about their future, as more and more households are unable to rent or buy without help. Housing associations play a vital customer services role; they have a unique relationship with all customers, founded in their traditional model, which is being advanced as digital innovations make headway.
For me, social housing is worth fighting for; it’s the mark of a civilised country to ensure good housing and supportive services to its people. Personally, I don’t believe that social housing will be saved by housing professionals; public services are only saved when people value what they provide and are prepared to get out and object to any threat to the future of that service. Social housing will only be saved by the opinion formers – the tenants themselves, especially those engaged tenants on the committees or boards of housing associations. Tenants will only fight if they value the service, or in other words, if the customer service is worth fighting for. So yes, customer service can save social housing by building and expanding relationships, and is potentially a powerful force in the fight that should not be underestimated.
Peter Graddon is a director of Omfax Systems.