Customer first?

If I had a pound for every time an organisation told me that it wants to ‘put customers at the heart of the business’ I would be a very rich man. While I have no doubt that those making such statements do so with the best of intentions, as we all know, the road to hell is paved with them!

Over the years, I have worked with hundreds of housing organisations, big and small, and have seen customer service in all of its guises – the good, the bad and the ugly  (thankfully there are very few examples of the latter).

The fact is that the key to putting customers first isn’t the easy stuff like delivering the odd community initiative, or the way that advisers answer the phone – these things are just the icing on the cake.  True customer focused service is rooted in the DNA of the business and has to be implicit in every interaction with customers, irrespective of the channel being used.  In short, it’s about the combination of behaviour, skill, process and technology, but most importantly, it’s about leadership.

Turning intent into reality in a sector whose business model doesn’t rely on brand loyalty is no easy task and delivering customer focused services has to start with the overall leadership culture.  Whereas the aim of commercial businesses is to maximise profit and they know that they can only do that when customers are satisfied with the level of the service they are receiving and are prepared to buy, the objectives of housing associations are rooted in delivering homes and social value.  The reality is that surpluses are only in part reliant on retaining satisfied customers and the regulator is interested in governance and viability rather than performance overall.

I recently talked to a colleague who had been working with a national housing provider on an organisational design project.  She described her frustration in working with senior managers  and directors who just didn’t ‘get it’.  Each of them said that they wanted to deliver a better customer experience, but they were each also wedded to some of their existing ways of working despite acknowledging that there may be better ways to do things.  My colleague described it as ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’ syndrome – clear evidence of personal priorities coming before the customer and a tough nut to crack from the bottom up.  Hearteningly, once front line staff became involved in the design process, they too started to challenge existing ways of working, proving that those closest to the customer often have greater insight into what customers want than the hierarchy above.

Whilst I am not an advocate of single tenure housing policy, one of the positives that a greater focus on home ownership will bring is a necessity to be more customer focused.  Rightly or wrongly, paying customers have more choice, which in turn means housing associations will have to focus more on the customer experience than has been the case to date.  Some are already ahead of the curve, bringing in new skills and looking closely at how they manage each ‘customer journey’ face to face, by phone and online.  Others are still at the starting blocks, looking at technology and/or behaviour rather than taking a more holistic view.  A handful are still looking at access channels in silos.

In the past 12 months, housing has gone through a seismic shift.  We are now at the point where organisations are re-grouping and starting to focus on the future.  For a number, this will mean merger, but for most it will mean finding new ways to do things and as they do so, this gives a real opportunity for efficient re-design with the customer truly front and centre. 

Customer service leaders, now is the time to step up and be counted.

Peter

 

 

Different relationships

Barry Landscape (2)
Barry Marlow, CIHCM

Radical incrementalism is the answer.

My professional social housing career began in the 1970s as a door to door rent collector. I shared the council estate marketplace with other tradespeople from Pearl insurance to Vernon’s’ Pools to the Corona man.

Council tenants planned their entire day around the time of my call. On a council estate of 600 homes, about 3 had a telephone. For many, I was the only representative of the landlord they ever met.

Along with my money-bag, I had a leather folder containing the carbonated Gilbert sheets that secured the receipt of rent payment. But opposite that was something even more important. My walking sheets.

These sheets contained vital information. Every property was listed. Notes were made against them of crucial detail such as whether there was a dog. Whether to knock and walk in. Whether to raise my voice. If the rent was in a tin on the cistern in the outside toilet. And in one case, to unlock the house with the key under the flowerpot, walk in, take the rent and lock up after myself.

After about three or four months I had memorised this information. But essentially, I had supplemented it with my own observations.

By meeting people every fortnight, sharing their lives, standing in their homes, noticing how some couldn’t cope I was continually learning. I had learned about the hard of hearing and the hard of paying. I realised that my own council house upbringing was rich in comparison to many.

If I was a London cabbie, this would be called ‘The Knowledge’.

I knew how to listen and not speak. I knew what to say, how to say it. I knew how to ask questions and enquire about difficult things. I met women who, two weeks later, were widows.

I was a good rent collector. Even people with little money offered me tips at Christmas. This was a marketplace after all. Not money, I might add. I had tips of garden produce and homemade jam. What I had wasn’t a procedure or a process. I had a relationship. Like any popular market trader looking to sell a product my job (although no-one told me) was to sustain tenancies and promote responsibility.

Just stop and think of the knowledge that was built up. A thousand or so tenants, their homes, families and environments. Their financial status, ambitions and aspirations. Eight months into my career the government introduced mandatory rent rebates – later to become Housing Benefit – and those that qualified for this means-tested benefit always asked me to call on them to pretend that they were still paying. They didn’t want their neighbours to know that they might be poor.

In today’s marketplace this could be called several things. It was certainly customer service. Certainly customer care. Qualifies for customer centric and customer focused. It was also about financial inclusion, selling and importantly about the profiling of people.

Social housing came late to customer profiling but in recent years has made rapid strides. For the best of reasons. Why wouldn’t big business know their customers and had a handle on their behaviours?

But in social housing the emphasis on customer behaviour was a strange one. The customers the landlord knew best and those that consumed the majority of resources were customers who mis-behaved, breached the tenancy agreement and were being chased by a new breed of rent-man called debt collector.

In today’s marketplace this profiling information and knowledge can be called ‘insight’. Here is my favourite definition of insight:

Knowledge about customers which meets the requirements of an organisational strength i.e. it is valuable, rare, difficult to imitate and which the organisation is aligned to make use.

 You see, as a young rent collector I learned that to make a difference to a customer you didn’t have to work overly hard. Knowledge became insight when you learned to use that knowledge to benefit both the customer and the business.

In today’s marketplace, customer insight is essential – but what creates the USP is the way social landlords use it. And it doesn’t have to be complicated.

My work is now deeply involved with behavioural insight. Studying and measuring change in the way we do things. Small changes – not huge strategic changes that worry people. Just the sort of changes that impact on the customer and the business that are relevant, appropriate and make a significant difference. Some call this ‘radical’. To your customer, this incremental approach of small, bite-sized shift could be the difference they need. With welfare reforms, this kind of shift could mean social landlords are better equipped to collect £millions of universal credit.

So, the question might be ‘how on earth do we get diverse customers to engage in this rapidly shifting, competitive marketplace?’

You already have the answer.

 

Barry Marlow CIHCM

Speaking at the Omfax event on 7th June.