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.