Customer service counts

The recent Your Call event in Scotland was a great opportunity to catch up with colleagues north of the border and to think about the current state of customer service in housing.

One thing that we agreed on, was that while the aspiration to deliver great customer service was apparent in many organisation – actually delivering it is somewhat less simple.

We are all customers, so we all know what great customer service looks and feels like to us –  the friendly face at the local shop, a well informed and courteous voice at the end of the phone, or a highly usable online process.  We also know what it isn’t – a messy, disorganised face to face environment, rude or unknowledgeable staff, the need to queue while waiting to get through to someone or online processes that aren’t intuitive.  Poor customer service in whatever form is a missed opportunity – and over time erodes customer confidence in and loyalty to the overall brand.

And ‘brand housing’ has had a tough time.  The government has had social housing firmly in its sights over the past 12 months and while some will welcome noises about housing organisations becoming more independent of the state, there has clearly been some ‘meddling’ with the 1% rent cut, changes to the grant regime and the various new policy announcements that have come as part of the Housing Bill that is currently making its way into law.

There also appears to be a view that the combination of large surpluses, some high senior salaries and the number of houses actually being built just do not correlate.  Maybe this is unfair given the regulatory constraints that housing works within – it’s fair to say that the HCA doesn’t reward associations for taking risks.  But is it right to challenge the sector in this way?  I have contact with registered providers on a day to day basis – and while some are agile, forward thinking and customer focused, many others are not, and can take too long to make decisions and implement change when those decisions are no-brainers.

There are too many examples of senior managers getting together to design customer processes that actually are not customer focused – irrespective of the fact that this would also make savings.  It is silo working at its worst – and an example of why putting customers first should be a business and organisation priority, particularly in the current climate.

Maybe we all need to do more to demonstrate better value for money – and to showcase the great work that social housing providers are capable of  once the shackles are off.

So can customer service make a difference to some of the negative perceptions of housing that currently exist?   Of course it can!.

On the one hand, credibility is definitely built when organisations are able to reflect their values through a combination of consistent behaviour, service delivery and effective communication – and effective customer service is central to this.

On the other, according to the recent Observer poll about Issues facing Britain, whilst immigration and NHS are cited as the two most important, housing continues to rise in significance –  more important than education, employment and cuts to public services.  58% stated that more social housing was a key option to tackling Britain’s housing crisis.  Changing perceptions of social housing without having the public (and media) making it a priority is a tough call but there is no doubt that many people still believe  that social housing is a vital part of our society.  Reflecting this aspiration in the quality of service offered is essential to gain public support .

As with anything it will be actions that matter over time and while perceptions of the housing sector won’t be changed by customer service alone, delivering poor service can only have a negative impact and further undermine the overall brand.

The fact is that good customer service is now expected – it’s not a ‘nice to have’, it’s a minimum that is expected – and for many people is likely to be an indication of how the organisation is performing more widely.

As organisations change, merge, form partnerships and look at new ways of working there is a significant opportunity to genuinely prioritise the customer experience and to simultaneously increase satisfaction and to reduce costs.  If increasing the likelihood of brand advocacy (or simply reducing the number of negative headlines) is a by-product of this, wouldn’t that be a positive step forward for housing overall?

Peter

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