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.