Discretion is one of those ‘new frontiers” of customer experience for housing. This sounds like some awful marketing hype but it isn’t. Case study after case study shows that good decisions cost much less than bad decisions and produce more direct measurable benefits.
If you think about it for a moment, that’s just common sense. When a ‘standard process’ has to adapt to something unexpected, the sooner a discretionary decision is made the better. The longer it takes to sort out a problem, the more emotionally charged that problem becomes for those who are involved. Fix it once and it costs less, involves fewer resources, and makes the relationship stronger. A good outcome is the goal when human intervention is required. The same maths that applies to ‘first-call resolution’ or ‘once and done’ applies here. This is staff empowerment ‘taken to the max’ and become the driving force of the operation.
Discretion is the human ability to use understanding to deliver a good outcome when a standard process hasn’t solved the problem. Discretion allows you to identify the appropriate response to a situation by applying the standards of both fairness and common sense that no process model software can deliver.
So it follows that you will reduce the cost and increase the value of the relationships you manage if you can deliver discretionary decisions at the point of contact and in the fastest way using the knowledge of those who handle the situation on a regular basis, supported through systems and training.
Discretion also has an important role in the delivery of fairness into difficult relationship decisions. Housing providers are frequently involved in highly-emotional situations and therefore are often faced with those difficult decisions. With fair treatment at the heart of the principles-based governance, it creates a real execution challenge for IT professionals. Allowing staff to apply discretion and common sense to the decisions they make is a big change. But the second you start to think about the compliance issues, you realise what a massive change is involved and reach for the headache pills.
It appears to demand a whole new way of thinking in terms of systems design. You cannot easily build in discretion without appropriate system design, good training and leadership from the highest level. The cost-saving benefits are not necessarily easy to identify at first but once you know where to look then the evidence is tangible.
Until 20-25 years ago, discretion denoted your status in the organisation and was marked by the level of discretionary power you had. As a consumer, your customer relationship was in the hands of the person you spoke to or dealt with. It was your local bank manager who decided about your available credit. The local policeman decided if it was a clip around the ear or a night in the cells. Our fate was in the hands of people who decided where and when to apply the rules. This was not a perfect system and left too much opportunity for the abuse of power. By the 1980s the issue of consistency and fairness was so high on the agenda that IT professionals were asked for a solution. Everyone agreed that there was a need for change. Organisations began investing in centrally-owned, decision-making processes.
“…what we have gained in consistency we have lost in fairness and common sense”
It seems today that there are few discretionary decisions made by front-line staff in any type of company. Decision making is more automated and centrally controlled through software platforms in the response to the need for improved consistency and fair treatment. However what we have gained in consistency, we have lost in fairness and common sense. The net outcome of this is that when things go wrong in relationships, they are much harder to fix quickly. To some extent we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
This has a dramatic impact on the outcomes that do go wrong. The emotional impact of negative outcomes and the cost of resolution are much higher. For social housing the reputational damage is also significant; it undermines the trust with tenants and creates adversarial relationships which cost more to manage.
Other tangible costs are associated with a lack of discretionary power at the front line, such as staff churn and attrition. Bad decisions affect the staff that manage them and manifest in sick day costs, temp staff costs and the costs associated with staff churn. Staff become disengaged and unhappy in situations where the application of a bit of common sense would save everybody time, effort and money. It may be that this little old lady who has no idea how to fill in this form should be treated differently to a young mum who can quote from the regulations and frequently does. That a service intervention which is mandated may not be suitable because of its impact on the progress of the vulnerable person involved.
These challenges are just the day-to-day landscape faced by front-line staff. It doesn’t matter if they work in benefits or as wardens, they are making difficult judgements. One of the common sense observations must be that if staff had the right tools, training and guidance they could be more effective in making these decisions.
For most front line staff it is a question of use the system or not.
For most front-line staff, it is a question of use the system or not. Systems do not have the ability to capture the use of discretionary judgement. Staff find ways to work around the technology and processes because the systems are built to regulate actions rather than effectively capture and analyse them.
Making systems more responsive to change and allowing discretionary thinking is not a major technology challenge. A few extra fields here and there and some standard process loops could provide everything needed to allow staff to deliver more discretionary decisions and allow housing providers to manage their contact situations better. It would help to focus more on information capture rather than process control.
Organisations need to recognise is that today staff are using discretion. The choice they face is, “do I use the system or do I go around it, and if I get caught, will I get in trouble?” The business challenge is how to get common sense out into the open rather than something that is done behind closed doors.
Professor Morris Pentel is chairman of the Customer Experience Foundation.