The world of social housing is changing. The cost-of-living crisis, shortage of affordable housing, worsening mental health and overstretched public services have all contributed to a shift in the role of housing providers’ customer service teams.
With one in five people in the UK in poverty, according to the Government’s 2021/2022 ‘Households below average income’ report, and a disconnect between how fast the cost of properties is going up versus wage increases, people are struggling to afford their own homes. The costs of the private rental sector have also risen and many landlords are pulling out of the rental market, leaving a significant shortage of affordable homes, with many turning to social housing as their best option.
The Commons Library Research Briefing on mental health statistics in England reported in March 2023 that depression has increased to 27 per cent among people who are renting, and that rates of depression were particularly high among those with lower incomes. These are the people who comprise our client base and we are trying to help every day.
All these factors have resulted in a noticeable increase in the number of calls to our customer services team from customers who are very distressed and sometimes suicidal – this is something that until recently we’ve never had to deal with before. On average, we now might have three or four calls per month where one of our advisors needs to ‘talk down’ a customer before we can alert the emergency services.
It would be unthinkable for someone to ring their private landlord to discuss a mental health crisis, but in social housing it is becoming more common for a customer service team to become like a fourth emergency service.
One of our call handlers recently spoke to a customer who explained he was in financial difficulty and struggling to make ends meet. He communicated feelings of hopelessness, extreme anxiety and not having anyone to turn to for help and support and said his only option was to ‘make it all go away’. While on the call, he informed our call handler that he’d been saving up his medication and was going to take an overdose while on the phone. Thankfully, our customer advisor handled the call exceptionally well and the police and ambulance service responded in time to help him at his property.
Some police forces will respond in these situations but others won’t, even with the same given criteria. One of the biggest challenges our team is facing is trying to help these desperate people in need who call our customer services line.
Addressing new challenges
These new challenges have led us to put certain measures in place to protect and support our staff when dealing with these difficult calls. These involve:
- Accurately recording the right information about a case;
- Working with the police to understand their thresholds and criteria so that questions can be planned in advance;
- Ensuring safeguarding referrals are prompted to specialists;
- Continuing to foster cross-organisational partnerships and shared good practice with other housing providers;
- Listening and supporting our team with a duty-of-care process.
Team duty of care
Understandably, the pandemic had a negative effect on the types of interactions that the customer services team dealt with, as they became more serious and emotional, with customers losing their jobs, being furloughed or isolated in their homes. We implemented duty-of-care measures for our staff to ensure their wellbeing is looked after when dealing with more complex and emotional cases. These include having a debrief immediately after a difficult call, mandatory breaks, a routine ‘touch base’ two or three days later and access to a well-being service officer.
We also introduced a social media management platform (from Orlo) that helps us respond faster to common enquiries and FAQs, taking some of the call volume away from our call handlers, who then have more time to deal with more complex and/or sensitive enquiries. We’ve also found that many of our customers like communicating with us on social media because it lets them contact us out of work hours or on the go. It gives our customers flexibility in communicating with us and provides our team members with a break from dealing with the ‘emotionally heavy’ calls in the day by splitting their time between call-handling and answering live-chat enquiries in a digi-comms role.
Our customer services team has a huge role to play in helping people with their housing enquiries and coping with today’s pressures. We are still learning how we can help fill the gaps left by other public services, but with the right procedures and technology, we can support our customers’ lives better and the well-being of our team.
Gavin Short is the customer experience manager at United Welsh.