What does it mean to empower tenants today? This is one of the key questions raised by industry reports such as the Hackitt report and the Social Housing Green Paper. Those reports highlight how tenants have little power around the quality and safety of their own homes; their voices aren’t heard when it comes to issues such as maintenance work or choosing the housing management services which they receive.
Involving tenants in the conversation
The Green Paper is explicit that social housing tenants “do not have the same level of choice” on their housing management services as consumers in other markets. Discussions with residents revealed the difficulty experienced by many in being involved with ongoing maintenance and improvements decisions, with some being denied the option to cancel paid-for services such as cleaning.
In addition, Oneserve’s survey of customer experience in social housing found that over 50 per cent of the tenants surveyed had received bad customer service from their provider. Undeniably, this poor customer experience shouldn’t continue.
The housing sector is beginning to recognise the problem and is looking at ways to engage residents, but true change has yet to take effect. For social housing as a whole to transform and empower residents with greater choice, it must look inwardly and ask, why are tenants being left out of the conversation? Consideration of the obstacles preventing tenants’ involvement must be the first step before looking at ways to improve engagement and this will allow for a paradigm shift in engagement with tenants.
This root change is a challenge because many housing providers believe they are listening to tenants and have their best interests at heart. While some are successfully seeking customer feedback and responding accordingly, many are not truly listening or aren’t transferring their findings into active changes.
Internal benchmarking is preventing change
This tendency to ignore the tenant’s voice is rarely intentional; certainly, most housing providers want to improve their engagement with customers and thereby provide better services. Rather, the issue of tenant empowerment is rooted in a deeper problem within the sector and a lack of recognition that residents, that is to say ‘consumers’, have fundamentally changed.
Putting the residents’ needs first has been problematic partly because until now, housing providers have only compared their standards and services with those of fellow providers. When they benchmark against their peers, whose tenant experiences are much the same as theirs, how can the sector perceive when tenants are denied a choice? How can long-lasting changes be made which allow residents to be heard?
Today, many organisations base their entire operations around their consumers and the service they provide. Customer-centricity is key and it seems that housing has fallen behind this trend. Perhaps now is the time for the housing sector to reference their services against customer-orientated brands from other markets to establish best practices for their residents?
Harnessing customer insights
Amazon’s success is the result of its deep-rooted focus on customer experience and continued analysis of customer feedback and behaviours. This data insight creates richer knowledge of their customers’ buying habits which Amazon then uses to make better products and experiences.
Every business needs to gather insight from their customers to understand and surpass their expectations; the same is true for housing providers.
Giving tenants a voice is only possible if providers have the frameworks in place which enable customers to easily share their views/issues and the right customer-centric frame of reference. There are various ways to engage customer feedback, from regular surveys to audits and discussion groups, via traditional or digital channels. Ensuring that engagement opportunities are accessible for all tenants and viewing information through the lens of a resident is crucial.
If a resident says that maintenance work is too slow or that an operative’s customer service is lacking, then organisations must respond to and act on such feedback; putting them and their satisfaction at the centre of the task and building out from there. For true tenant empowerment, providers should harness the views of their customers to ensure their needs become integral to the running and management of their own homes.
Putting the residents’ interests first
Making customer-led changes will ensure that social housing not only improves but it will also demonstrate to tenants that their opinions are valued. If residents can see the outcomes of their involvement, it will encourage more individuals to share their views.
Recently the Regulator of Social Housing launched a consultation on rents which aims to ensure fairer prices for “protecting the interests of social housing tenants”. Such a step indicates the sector’s awareness that its services must be better aligned with the needs of tenants, but that alignment is only possible once the whole sector begins listening to and involving tenants in the conversation around change.
Industry-wide reassessment of customer experience
Empowering residents doesn’t need to be complicated, indeed their expectations are simple; they want safe and comfortable homes which offer value for money. Providers should give residents the confidence and comfort of knowing that the operatives carrying out jobs in their homes are qualified and competent.
Simple changes such as giving operatives a mobile tool which enables them to carry out on-the-job surveys, complete forms and share necessary information with tenants will greatly improve their customer experience while making time efficiencies for operatives. This empowers field workers to easily share job updates and tenant responses in real-time with their back-office teams who can then use the data to make improvements.
Tenant empowerment for today and tomorrow
Once housing providers start to look inwards and then compare their practices with service providers outside housing, considerations around tenants’ needs and expectations can become ingrained. It is time for organisations to start benchmarking their customer experience against other sectors to understand how they can harness tenant feedback and make customer-centric changes.
Chris Proctor is the CEO of Oneserve.