The growing number of housing mergers has caused concern about their impact on tenants but Northgate Public Services’ housing director, Roger Birkinshaw, believes bigger can be better for tenants.
Continued pressures on the housing sector to be more efficient mean we can expect to see more mergers in the future. However, it’s my belief that following a merger, housing officers can still deliver a reliable and personal service. Here’s how.
One of the main fears cited about the increasing number of mergers is that they will end local governance and the focus on local communities will disappear.
It’s often the case that smaller housing providers will have close relationships with their tenants so there’s always the worry that these relationships will be lost following a merger with a larger organisation. Housing officers working with a smaller number of tenants may have been previously able to keep detailed information in their heads about their tenants, but with more tenants to support this is no longer a viable option.
When two organisations come together, one of the biggest challenges is streamlining different cultures, communication methods and IT systems, while supporting more tenants.
However, it’s possible to keep tenants at the heart of your business. Let’s examine the IT elements in detail as this is the area I have the most experience in. Both housing provider’s IT systems will be reviewed to see which solution will meet the new organisation’s needs going forward. The temptation during a merger is to implement a temporary solution that will join up systems as quickly as possible.
It’s worth considering whether this is the best option in the long term. Think about both organisation’s future strategy and examine whether a work-around will simply mean you are constantly sticking plasters on systems that should really be updated.
Before any system is chosen, it’s imperative too that the tenant, and just as importantly, the staff experience is evaluated. Getting the technology right from the start is key to keeping tenants happy. By not using IT to drive the change can result in inefficiency and loss of corporate compliance.
I know you’ve heard it before, but training should be high on the agenda following a merger. Too often, I’ve seen staff having to navigate new systems without proper guidance; this leads to unnecessary frustrations. Putting in the time to train your staff is prioritising customer experience and is essential for better engagement with your tenants.
The next priority for achieving customer satisfaction is to ensure a better flow of information between departments. Employees need instant access to data that they can trust to enable them to make quick decisions that benefit tenants. Working with more customers, it’s essential that the intelligence available is reliable and current; to ensure your housing officers are fully on board, they need to be completely confident in the information available to them.
Having better data to hand about an individual’s current situation, as well as their past situation, will enable staff to influence better outcomes for tenants. Having a single view of a tenant gives staff the ability to have a deep understanding of properties and customers. One of the most common challenges facing housing providers is that they have data duplicated across many different systems, and as a result are wasting time re-keying information. By integrating all the data, employees are able to respond to change faster, reduce costs and provide improved support for tenants. It’s a win-win situation for all, as employees will spend less time dealing with complaints and more time helping tenants.
The holy grail following a merger is to be able to resolve more queries at the first point of contact and offer an enhanced service for customers at a lower cost. For example, a sophisticated CRM system will support employees to recognise and manage the diversity of a customer’s needs and will help them to build better relationships with tenants.
What about the tenants who don’t contact you? It’s critical that these tenants don’t fall through the net. ‘Push’ technology is key here. For those tenants that may need help but don’t make contact, it is possible to target communications to groups of customers defined by a range of variables, such as where they live, their arrears status, their type of property and so on. These harder to reach tenants can receive communications relevant to their situation and then by tracking the response, better support can be given. For example, personalised information pushed to the tenant might include information on a holiday play-scheme to a working mother or budgeting advice when data highlights potential rent arrears.
By doing this, you can see the level of response you receive and then can gain a better understanding of how to shape your future communications. A large amount of time is often wasted on employees having to chase responses, so to improve on efficiency it’s vital that systems are automated to be able to quickly prioritise the tasks that need to be focused on.
Many of us shop, save and socialise online so it makes sense to make the most of digital communications. Enabling tenants to choose how they communicate with you, whether by SMS or Facebook is key. By adopting this approach, it will help to reduce help desk and face-to-face contact, which in turn, frees up time for employees to be able to help more customers and support those who are not currently online.
There’s no doubt that there are benefits to be had from a merger and with the right tools and approach, bigger doesn’t have to mean a less personal service.
Roger Birkinshaw is housing director for Northgate Public Services.