It’s all about Customer Service – lessons learnt from 30 years of Omfax

Thirty years ago, social housing didn’t have customers! Social housing then was dominated by Councils, many retaining old paternalistic attitudes. Grenfell has dramatically shown what happens when customers (tenants) are not the priority – before the disaster and after.

The key lesson we have learnt after 30 years of working alongside social landlords, is that a successful housing business is all about customer service. There are no short cuts. The key is the culture of the whole organisation and the commitment of the leadership, putting customer service front and centre.

To ensure the customer is the focus, the landlord’s commitment to residents must be backed by an equally important commitment to staff. The Customer Service Advisor is the key person, with direct contact with residents and their role has to be given the status it deserves and requires – it is not a junior position and must be valued. Social landlords need to ensure the right people are recruited with personal empathetic skills and then retained, with a commitment to on-going training and personal support. Effective support systems have to be in place, but systems are not the panacea to cover other underlying problems.

Homelessness remains a burning issue because social housing is not currently valued as it was in our society, a society which is seemingly obsessed with status. Sixty years ago, to get a Council house was a real joy to families. Space and build standards were high, but long-term maintenance of assets was largely ignored and dealing with day-to-day repairs requests from tenants was regarded as low service priority. Trust was lost and is now difficult to restore.

Over the last 30 years, perceptions have gradually changed, with some housing associations indeed placing the customer front and centre within their own organisations. Some Resident Boards, Scrutiny Committees or Panels, oversee repairs and maintenance budgets of millions of pounds and are truly an integral part of the organisation’s success. Clearly this makes sense, as who is better placed to suggest priorities and efficiencies than the residents themselves who are at the sharp end. But still, some landlords continue to pay lip-service to resident involvement, not valuing the insights which residents can bring.

Only now do we see the idea of the tenants as customers being treated with respect and being able, for instance, to order their own repairs without having to seek prior ‘approval’. This is where Keyfax has assisted thousands of residents over the years using call-flow intelligence to transform conversations and online self-serve to diagnose solutions. This has promoted the same high levels of customer service being delivered to residents both in the contact centre and online, providing first call resolutions to repairs and maintenance issues.

Over the coming years, we will see the domination of AI, with machine learning responding to ever more complicated customer needs. There will be the proliferation of new technologies providing solutions to problems that we haven’t even imagined yet. Self-serve will be taken to further levels, and such things as ‘intelligent’ homes, driverless cars and ‘ether net’ conferencing will be a norm.

Customer-facing roles in shops, administration and warehouses, as well, no doubt, as social housing, will soon be taken up by automated robots, according to a recent report from the Centre for Cities. The report suggests that the rise of AI could take more than a quarter of jobs in the North and Midlands by 2030.

Much the same as humans learn and adapt, Jo Causon, CEO of The Institute of Customer Service, said recently: “Technology is becoming ever more intuitive, anticipating what we may need or be interested in based on our previous behaviour. This is service as it should be – making relevant suggestions and giving us prompts that smooth the way in our time-pressured lives.”

Causon is clear on one aspect however: “Don’t confuse intuitive technology with an understanding of human behaviour and emotions: there is a limit to what the technology can do.” Although many of us now stream our news via digital or social media channels, there continues to be a need to read a physical copy of a newspaper. The same can be said for books, with many using Kindles, whilst enjoying the familiar look and feel of paperbacks when on holiday. And for customer services, whilst data sets can be refined to answer a plethora of enquiries, there continues to be times when there is a basic human need to speak with an advisor to resolve your inquiry. Keyfax provides those advisors with a record of contact between the resident and landlord, so there is a history of conversations, building on the familiarity and trust between landlord and resident. In this way, the need for customer services and for an overarching Customer Service Advisor, may never die. For now, it is my hope that Omfax has assisted to enable residents to find consistent solutions to issues when they have needed them, on a 24/7 basis.