Social housing sector must boost customer engagement

07 August 2023 Consultancy.uk 11 min. read
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The social housing sector finds itself in a rare period of rapid change, as the repercussions of the pandemic continue to catalyse its adoption of technology. Organisations in the sector need to do more than simply digitise if they are to stay relevant to the needs of service users, though, with a new report suggesting social housing groups need to change how they engage with customers.

The social housing sector has traditionally been slow to accept and integrate innovative technology platforms, but over the past two years a small cohort of early adopters has begun to make use of some of these to transform how they deliver services. Even so, new research from Campbell Tickell and the Disruptive Innovators Network suggests that many social housing providers are failing to take advantage of new innovation in one of their most important areas of service provision: customer engagement.

Tenant and resident expectations are increasing at a pace which social housing landlords are struggling to keep up with following a number of notable scandals in social housing. In a digital age, the technology exists to help meet these expectations – and better understand them.

Social housing sector must boost customer engagement

“Hearing customer voices is a crucial issue for the housing sector,” explained Catherine Little and Jon Slade – two director at Campbell Tickell. “Grenfell and Rochdale are high profile examples of truly tragic service outcomes, both with a narrative of residents being unheard. A renewed regulatory emphasis on the quality of homes, services and customer experience has underscored the importance of active engagement with residents. Put this together with the pressing need to address challenges such as net zero and building safety, the case for high quality, diverse and meaningful resident engagement has never been stronger.”

Having sought input from leaders, experts, landlords and tenants, the researchers defined seven key ways in which social housing providers might revisit more traditional ways of ‘listening’ to what ‘customers’ want from their landlords.

Honesty

Speaking to Naomi Sweeting, director of customer experience at Grand Union Housing Group, the researchers determined that the housing sector needs to be “more honest with itself” when judging how it is serving its customers. Sweeting, who began working in the sector six years ago having previously worked in the commercial sector, thinks that service failure is in part a result of housing associations not operating in a truly competitive market, noting social housing customers “don’t have a choice,” meaning “there’s been no consequence when we’ve got it wrong.”

To get past this, Sweeting added organisations need to re-evaluate who their customers are and how to ensure the silent voices are included – translating this into how a landlord designs its services. But landlords need to start designing feedback with usability in mind to achieve this. For example, Sweeting pointed to customer access non-compliance to illustrate her point, noting landlords “write to customers about everything in quite long and verbose language and we get lots of what we consider service failure, but we blame the customers for it. [But] why aren’t they responding? Well maybe it’s because our services don’t actually meet their needs.”

Explaining how Grand Union is trying to move away from simply trying to top feedback score tables, and genuinely improve services, Sweeting recalled a survey undertaken in 2021. She had a suspicion that a higher-than-average proportion of housing association tenants may be experiencing challenges from undiagnosed physical, mental or cognitive condition. The tailored research of 50 statements and questions eventually which found that 72% of Grand Union customers experienced at least one condition that affects them daily – which the provider was then able to adapt its services to help accommodate better.

Need to start fresh

Even with the introduction of new innovations in other areas, social housing’s customer engagement services are still largely running on legacy systems and technologies. According to Shaun Holdcroft, operations director at Legal & General Affordable Homes, many organisations are thinking of how to graft improvements onto those old ways of working, when they would be better starting from scratch.

While “what would you do to start from scratch is a theoretical question, Holdcroft faced it as a practical problem when he helped launch L&G Affordable Homes in 2019. Having worked in the sector previously, Holdcroft was familiar with the way more established providers have not always lived up to the promise when it comes to engagement – in spite of the best intentions. While they have a desire to engage with customers and be responsive to feedback, “the imperative to do something about that sufficiently to drive change in the way the organisation is operating or the design is structured is relatively limited.”

According to Holdcroft, L&G “basically built a platform that you can run a whole housing association on – that’s very easy to do when you haven’t got the legacy systems and all of the data migration to worry about that comes with an existing landlord.” While this might be easier when you come to it with the relative blank slate, he believes other organisations in the sector can learn from his experience. In particular, looking at problem-solving as iterative can be very helpful – with most organisations looking at the totality of the problem and think it’s going to take forever to fix and billions of pounds to solve it, “rather than break it down to a set of bitesize problems and build within their confidence and capabilities.”

Demonstrate caring

Seeking an outside perspective on how disruptive attitudes could improve customer engagement in the social housing sector, the researchers spoke to Oke Eleazu, chief executive of pet insurance specialist Many Pets. Eleazu has helped Many Pets to grow to become the trusted insurer for more than half a million pets in only six years, in part by using data to truly understand who their customers are and what they want – something he believes is the social housing sector falls well short of doing.

“Part of the problem is that sometimes housing associations don’t think of customers as customers, they think of them as tenants; sometimes customers don’t think of themselves as customers,” Eleazu explained. “They say they want to be number one in customer experience, but they don’t even think of customers in the right way. They all say they’re on a journey of transformation but it’s not for the customer; it’s so they can be leaner and cheaper. I’ve seen that story 100 times. But at the end of the day, it’s fairly easy to show – not tell – a customer that you care.”

Citing his experience with Many Pets, Eleazu noted that when it comes to developing a true understanding of customers, it’s not a question of just accruing more and more data, but making sure it’s the right data. For Many Pets, this meant initially collecting less data than its peers, while making sure that customers were sufficiently engaged to continue to share and add to that data, in what he calls “progressive disclosure”. By gradually building a relationship with customers, housing associations can show they care beyond assuming customers are just “grateful to have a roof over their head”, where they trust housing associations to share more data with them, and which the associations can in turn use to boost services.

Service by design

“Designing is not an option,” insists Clive Grinyer, head of service design at the Royal College of Art. “People are always making decisions about how they service their customers or how they want to change things. They are designing it – they’re just usually doing it unconsciously.”

Grinyer believes that making organisations more conscious of the role of design in developing their services can have a transformative impact on the quality of those services. And he doesn’t just talk the talk: along with groups of Masters students, Grinyer has worked with several housing providers on real world projects to change the design of their services and improve their customers’ experiences.

“Let’s understand the customer, let’s live through a day in their life, let’s live through the kind of process you want them to go through and then you’ll see and you’ll realise yourself how you have to do it differently. And then we can work together to have lots of ideas and construct a new process that will hopefully be a lot more successful. That’s the essence of service design: we’re using design methods that we might use to design a product, but we’re using it to design these kinds of experiences.”

Data management

Mike Joslin is senior digital and marketing officer for campaigns at the National Education Union (NEU). In this role, he has helped it become the only education union to meet the ballot threshold for strike action during recent disputes over teachers’ pay. Joslin sees the connection between strategy and good data as fundamental for any organisation that wants to improve engagement to achieve its goals – as strategic objectives can only be realised with the right data flow.

Working with the NEU, Joslin and colleagues engaged in what they termed “Moneyball activism”, using data to directly target 80,000 people who he thought could be convinced to vote for strike action, given the right messaging – with success among targeted members of “90 to 95%”. He asserted that similar means could be used to boost engagement within a housing association – as long as the right systems are deployed.

Joslin elaborated, “For housing associations it’s about everything being joined up – every touch point needs to link to each other, and housing associations are dreadfully poor at this. There are lots of different computer systems doing lots of different things, and people who are talking to people are not talking to each other. You need to make sure everyone is on the same system; you need a central source of truth so you can understand and create a customer journey.”

Engagement groups

While the trend among housing associations that take a more sophisticated and modern approach to customer engagement has been to largely sideline tenant and customer boards, there is still a role for them according to Ellie Southwood, chair of Habinteg, a board member at Paradigm and former cabinet member for housing at Brent Council, Southwood.

Empowering tenants to find a voice via collective bodies may also help build engagement. But they are only valuable according to her, if they are designed in a strategic way and are used as just one of a wider set of tools that help landlords understand the people who live in their homes. There is always a risk of “setting up committees with two or three tenants or customers and thinking that they are representative,” but in a committee “where some voices have become very dominant”, this can drive away engagement.

Habinteg has got around this, by supplementing a Joint Strategic Influencing Group (JSIG), featuring board members and tenants, by other means for tenants to get involved outside of more formal governance structures. These include regional ‘listening forums’ where tenants meet neighbourhood managers and, on occasion, contractors, and at which board members are present in a listening-only capacity. In addition, Habinteg encourages board members and executives to visit people in their own homes to hear their concerns on the doorstep.

Repairing relations

Customers are not going to take any means of engagement seriously if they never see action from their landlords, though. As head of digital products at Riverside, one of the UK’s largest social landlords, Graham Weaver  acknowledges that repairs are “one of the key elements” of the service that a landlord provides, and is something Riverside is also working to improve. Getting it wrong can mean tenants being visited multiple times over a single issue without that issue being resolved, or it can mean unscheduled or inconvenient visits.

“We’re trying to look at the end-to-end repairs journey,” Weaver commented. “First-time fix is always a challenge, but we’re trying to be more proactive with customers. So, traditionally, they would have had to ring us to either book a repair themselves or see the status of a repair. Now, we’ve got those services online for customers so they can self-serve; they can log on and look at the status of a repair and log queries with us.”

This approach could help more social housing providers meet demands from customers to be more proactive, having become accustomed for many years to other services like Amazon or John Lewis as the examples from other sectors which take proactive steps to listen to customers. Weaver aims to implement improved technology options across the organisation to help facilitate better and more consistent customer service and increase customer satisfaction. This change would also help to manage an end-to-end complaints process so that it meets customer needs and follows industry regulations that can be monitored to successful completion and satisfaction for everyone involved.

The study ‘Customer engagement – Fresh Perspectives’ from the Disruptive Innovators Network and Campbell Tickell can be found in full on Campbell Tickell’s website.