Can customer service save social housing?

Can customer service save social housing?  That was the question I posed at our Annual Omfax Conference held on 7TH June, and was a question we explored through a variety of presentations and discussions throughout the day.


What follows is taken from my opening presentation, further elaborated from thoughts from the day.


To answer the question ‘Can customer service save social housing?’ we have to address three key questions:

  1. Does it need saving?
  2. Is it worth saving?
  3. Who can save it?


First – does it need saving?

I think all commentators would agree that this country is facing a housing crisis – too few homes, the ones we have are often poor quality or too expensive for most – and are seen by others, here and abroad, as investments rather than shelter.


When people are asked to name the issues most affecting the country (outside the current cacophony of issues raised by the EU referendum), in recent times immigration and health/the NHS have tended to be cited as the two most important.  Just below them however, there is one issue – housing – that continues to rise in significance; more important than education, employment and cuts in public service.


Tragically, as part of this crisis, social housing is at risk.  It is under threat from government policies, the current funding climate and from forces within.   Chartered Institute of Housing estimates that there will be a net loss of over 400,000  social rent homes by 2020. This is a staggering figure given the increasing demand, yet too many are allowing this to happen.


We all know about the cuts in welfare and the impact this has on benefits and, therefore, on those dependent on social housing – epitomised by the bedroom tax – and we can see the effect of RTB, pay to stay, and of course, the 1% cut in rents.  The rumblings and antipathy to social housing in the corridors of Westminster is fuelled by MPs’ post bags containing complaints against social landlords.  This is further exacerbated by the view that the combination of large surpluses, some high senior salaries and the number of houses actually being built, just do not correlate.


Added to this, as organisations diversify, as they merge to create new ‘mega associations’ and as they become more commercial, there is a real danger that they could lose their social purpose and connection with their customers.


To quote one of my favorite bloggers, Tom Murtha, who retired as CEO at Midland Heart, is Chair of the HCT and is on the Board of Plus Dane HA, he said: “I began working in housing to provide a decent rented home for those on low or no incomes. If I had wanted to devote my energies to selling homes to those who can afford to buy or providing homes that many can’t afford to rent, I would have become an estate agent or a property developer”.


In a recent Observer poll, when asked; ‘From a number of options, which option do you think would help tackle Britain’s housing crisis’ – 58% said ‘more social housing’.  I was surprised – pleasantly surprised – that it was as high as this.  So there is underlying support and belief in the role of social housing. BUT recent research by the Fabian Society shows whilst the public may be supportive of the principle of social housing – crucially, they are less likely to see it as something for them. The majority of people see it as a social service for other people, not the answer to their own need for affordable housing or security.

The same research shows real stigma attached to social housing – half of the respondents thought people living in social housing were stigmatised.

And it is that stigma that is fuelling the decline.


Another blogger I was reading recently, Fiona Elsted, encapsulated the problem:

“When I left university, my parents advised me to put my name on the council house waiting list. ‘You’ve got nothing to lose’ they said, and you might need it one day. I wouldn’t need council housing I thought. I’d got a degree. I was going to have a profession. My path was one which wouldn’t take me into but would lead me out of a council estate. I appreciated council houses (I’d been brought up in one after all) but I’d outgrown them. I never did put my name down”.


That response is echoed by Campbell Robb, who writes in the Guardian Housing Network, and notes ‘a positive public responses to the concept of social housing but a concomitant sense that it’s ‘not something for them.’ That inability for many to identify with actually living in social housing might, Robb suggests, “be a contributory factor in its demise. The general public might support the idea of social housing but not enough to be bothered to put up a fight for it”.

So, if it is true that people think social housing is not for them, it’s because they know it is literally is not for them – others take priority so they have to think of homeownership if they don’t want to be in the Private Rented Sector.


The problem is that social housing has this bad image.  The myth is that tenants do not get a good service – despite the many plaudits and awards that we have been given to social housing customer services over recent years.


So I do believe that there is a real threat to the future and especially to the ethos that under-pins social housing – the commitment to social values.


The threat is all to do with ideology:  the provision of services for our general well-being – health, education, housing, especially for the more vulnerable – is this a public service and who should provide it – public bodies or private enterprises?


And I admit, I have strong views about the role and value of public enterprise – organisations that operate with social objective and where money is for the service, not for distribution to a few.


And, underlying all this, is the quality of service provided by social housing. There needs to be a collective commitment to the highest standards of service, provided by all, so that a few are not allowed to tarnish the reputation others are striving to build. Social housing needs to provide and finance an independent regulator to ensure standards are met.


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 it is a clear indication of how an organisation is performing more widely.  It’s about giving the same commitment and importance to measuring your performance on social values, as you do to measuring performance on our other business objectives.



Is social housing worth saving?


You can answer that – the fact that you are all here and all work in social housing is a testimony to the fact that you think it is worth saving.


For me, of course it is – it is a mark of a civilised country to ensure good housing and supportive services to its people. More than that, I firmly believe it is worth expanding – both with new building and with broader customer and community services – meeting the needs of the wider community and not just the most ‘in need’.



But who is going to save it?


Personally, I do not believe that social housing will be saved by the professionals, the bloggers – they are important but public services are only ‘saved’ when people value what they provide and are prepared to get out and object to any threat to the future of the service. The NHS, hospitals, schools, libraries, are all defended because the people value them – people who use these services now and people who want it there when they might need it; people who are prepared to shout about it.


To quote Campbell Robb again, “while there is public support for social housing, it simply isn’t strong enough to make any real demands of the government”.


So tenants themselves need to be front and centre and they need to be integral to the governance of the estates and properties. Every social housing organisation should have tenants in significant numbers on their board and involved through tenant committees in operational decisions. Maybe we need to go further and commit to real tenant democracy, as illustrated by the Danish model; where residents have the majority on the housing organisations board and every tenant can be part of the democratic process which runs individual housing estates.


I believe social housing will only be saved if the users – existing tenants and those who desperately want to be tenants – are prepared to shout about it.


And I believe that tenants, customers, will only fight if they value the service – in other words if the customer service is worth fighting for. So yes, customer service can save social housing – and is potentially a powerful force in the fight, that should not be underestimated.


Peter Graddon

Director, Omfax Systems Ltd



Artificial Intelligence in Customer Service

I read with interest, various articles earlier this year about the use of Artificial Intelligence in customer services.

In March RBS announced that a trial of advanced ‘human’ artificial intelligence has been successful and it is to be rolled out more widely to support employees.

Piloted among 1,200 staff who manage relationships with small businesses, the AI, known as ‘Luvo’, is able to understand questions and then search through large amounts of information before responding with an answer. If Luvo is unable to find the answer, it passes the query on to a member of staff. The aim is to support staff to help them answer customer queries more quickly and easily.

Luvo answers questions with staff through web chat and deals with queries such as:

* My customer has lost their card – what steps do they need to take now?

* My customer has locked their PIN – how do they unlock it?

* How do I order a card-reader for my customer?

Like humans, Luvo has to be trained when dealing with new subject matter and its answers become more accurate over time.

In the months to come, RBS plans to explore if Luvo could be used to answer questions direct from customers.  The aim is to reduce the need for people to wait for a human advisor to be free to answer a simple question and at the same time free up time for staff to answer more complex problems.

Then in June the London Borough of Enfield announced that they were introducing an artificial intelligence robot named Amelia to answer some customer queries.

Amelia will be included on the council website to help guide people quickly to correct information on self-certification for planning, and applications for permits and licenses.  If Amelia cannot answer a question, it calls in a human colleague and ‘learns’ from them.

Currently, waiting times on council call lines average between five and 10 minutes, and it is hoped Amelia will help to reduce this.  Amelia-powered services should start going live in the autumn and will be available 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

Frank Lansink, CEO EU at IPsoft, who developed Amelia, enthused: “With the rise of powerful cognitive platforms such as Amelia, government organisations have an opportunity to completely reimagine how frontline public services are delivered. Organisations can not only unlock significant cost efficiencies as routine, high-volume tasks are automated, but, more excitingly, can unlock the full creative potential of their people.”

Excuse me if I am not so enthused; social housing customer services have been moving in this direction of developing the full potential of their people for some time.  But the real point is the way technology is developing and being used in the workplace.

For a while now I have been talking to anyone who will listen about the impact that technology will have on the future operations of social housing.  Technological developments have had  enormous impact on other industries- banking and finance, travel and holiday bookings, newspapers and book publishing, retail and groceries, employment and recruitment, welfare benefits and other government services.  Other areas such as health services are beginning to explore the potentials.  There has been a virtual revolution.

My forecast is that social housing will see a similar revolution in the way its services are delivered.  We have seen it in many ways already with the development of contact centres, web sites, on-line payments, the use of emails and the rise in the use of text messaging and now of social media. As a consequence, over recent years we have seen the loss of rent collectors, repairs inspectors, local offices and resident wardens.  More recently, there has been the growth of on-line self-service.  Although this still in poorly developed, there can be no doubt that this will have the most dramatic impact on services over the next five year and more.  That’s why the development and introduction of AI in customer services is significant. It moves things forward, providing a system to empower residents to deal with their own queries or service requests (orders!).

One interesting thought – I believe one of the inhibitors to change has been our continuing commitment to the use of the keyboard – even with the introduction of SMS and web chat.  But how antiquated is that!!  We have SIRI, Skype, Miriam, as well as FaceTime.  I don’t think it will be long before voice recognition and communication becomes the norm.  Add AI to that mix and ………….  will we soon be speaking with a virtual person in customer services?

So what about AI?  Are we seeing the beginning of the end of human domination?  It was forecast that by 2025, the computer would be able to out-perform a human.  That now looks like being well overtaken.  Recently a computer using AI beat the world champion at the incredibly complex game of Go.  What was significant, and possibly worrying, was that the computer made unpredictable moves that ‘surprised’ its developers.  This betrays a lack of control inherent in the design, which may be OK with a game like Go, but raises important ethical and governance issues.

I don’t pretend to understand how it works, how computers ‘learn’, other than by tracking our enquiries, searches, decision pathways and landing pages – as  Google and others follow our internet journey and ‘learn’ by this what our ‘favourites’ are, to then direct ads and offers to us.  The examples of RBS and Enfield talk about learning from experts – so some expert has to initially give the system the knowledge and design the flow pathways.

Interestingly, that is exactly how Keyfax works – scripts are developed to initially reflect the known and repetitive pathways for a range of enquiries.  They are then refined and extended based on feedback.  Experts are called in to help with their knowledge and understanding, to help design the scripts pathways.

So maybe Keyfax isn’t Artificial Intelligence – it’s Human Intelligence.


Is digital the answer?

The recent Your Call event in Manchester – the seventh event to examine challenges and opportunities facing the social housing sector – was a great opportunity to reconnect with colleagues from a variety of housing providers, including Contour Homes who hosted the event.

The day focused on the current state of customer service in housing. One thing that was agreed, on is the need to implement a digital strategy. Whilst most organisations discussed they are fairly advanced in terms of technology, many found actually delivering it was less easy, due to internal setbacks.

With the implication of the 1% rent cut, and now Brexit, the repercussions of these has caused housing associations to not only change with the times but cut back on costs whilst doing so. Customer expectations have never been higher and customer needs are becoming more complex, in turn, placing increased pressure on front-line teams. The advancement of digital and technology, in my opinion, is there to overwrite disjointed IT systems that don’t allow a single view of the customer and operating structures. Turning to digital as a tool, can help to achieve a more efficient customer service.

Advancement in technology has excelled over the years and as a result, social housing providers have had to embrace technology. The progression of technology clearly shows no sign of slowing down, so providers must adapt in order to communicate with their tenants in new ways that match their needs.

It was a resounding ‘yes’ that paper documents can use up a lot of internal resource and I believe the future of social housing is about increased and improved tenant engagement. I posed the question: would tenant engagement improve if rent statements where available online or if rent could be paid via an app?

A few organisations spoke about implementing their digital strategy with the use of social media channels, web chats and apps, and have seen the benefits of these. However, although all did agree that digital does require commitment to implement effectively, it really does depend on the customer base of the housing provider for it to be effective and contribute towards efficiencies within the business.

Contour Homes explained its recent culture change over the past 12 months and how they re-examined everything around the future demands of our customers, with the creation of specialist teams in its contact centre. So, is digital the answer? In most cases it is part of the answer but in all cases, the answer to responding to challenges faced by the sector is up to the housing provider and how best they can efficiently improve customer service – and this will only be learnt by trialling new technologies over the next few years. In the meantime, Your Call provides the opportunity for housing providers to come together to share best practice.

To keep up to date on the next Your Call event follow @OmfaxSystems or visit


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When it comes to communication – we’ve never had it so good

Paul Taylor
Paul Taylor, Innovation Coach, Bromford

The explosion over the past 10 years of free to use social networking, instant messaging, and live chat means we are in a very different place to any generation before us.

On paper this should have meant the housing sector would be building new relationships, and deepening conversations with customers.

In reality the digital era has exposed a decline in trust in organisations – not just housing – as we collectively fail to step up the mark of truly transparent communications.

In reality only a fraction of the sector is genuinely experimenting with new forms of digital engagement. I haven’t the time or inclination to count how many housing CEOs maintain an active social media presence. But I’m taking a considered guesstimate it’s around 15%.

In the digital age we are getting ever more astute in spotting spin, marketing and reading from scripts. The most credible sources of information are not your comms team or your CEO – but a regular employee – “a person like myself”.

However the staple roles of the sector, housing officer, maintenance operative, support worker are – by and large – missing in action and failing to embrace golden opportunities to connect with communities. Board members are pretty much invisible although there are some very notable exceptions.

Organisations that livestream or share from board meetings?

CEOs doing Facebook chats or hangouts?

You could count them on one hand.

Additionally most organisations still have the dial firmly set to Promote rather than Converse.

Do a check on any housing brand account. Check how many of their last 10 posts directly link back to their own website. There’s a prize if you can name ten that don’t reference themselves 90% of the time.

Here’s a shot of realism: UK housing is about 10-15% operational on social media. At best.

This speaks of a lack of curiosity. A lack of adventure.

Of course this isn’t true everywhere: some are setting an astonishing pace. There are a raft of organisations and people who are connecting with others and reaching beyond sector boundaries.

However , endlessly broadcasting a housing “message” just isn’t going to work.

This is a world built on relationships and connections. It involves you listening to others, generously sharing and doing more than just following everyone else in your sector.

A ‘person like yourself’ builds trust – so we need to promote the voices of those engaged in frontline services, not the hierarchy. We need to hear from more tenants and users of our services – they are the best people to promote us and secure the future.

The trust-building opportunity lies squarely in the area of integrity and engagement. For organisations that means adopting behaviours of extreme transparency, honesty and sharing learning from failure.

Rather than gatekeepers our Comms and IT teams must become enablers. The more of our colleagues and customers we hear from, the more honesty we share, the more trust we build.

We’ve never had it so good – so let’s take the opportunity that lies before us.

Scripting – worth another look?

Scripting in contact centres has had a mixed reputation – most people love it or hate it, often based on perceptions of the inflexible scripting tools of the 80s and early 90s. 

Thankfully things have changed a lot since then, with new, dynamic scripting technology.  Whilst scripting won’t be the right solution for all call types, in our experience more and more housing associations are using it to achieve consistency in service delivery, to improve data capture and to achieve cost reductions through reduced handling times and savings made on training.  At a time when greater efficiency is needed without negatively impacting customer satisfaction, scripting is definitely worth another look.

Unlike the static scripting of days gone by, dynamic scripting is flexible, can be configured to multiple scenarios and respond to individual circumstances. Rather than restricting frontline staff, it actively empowers and enables them  to deliver better quality of service by providing them with the right information at the right time during every step of the process and accurately diagnosing the service response.

Here are just a few of the benefits of a dynamically scripted approach:

It enables consistent data capture – which in turn supports effective end to end delivery

It’s all about the data! Good data input is a requirement of good service.  If you enable quality data input at the front end of a process, the end to end fulfilment is more likely to be successful, in turn improving ‘right first time’ delivery and reducing avoidable contact.  Imagine for example that you are raising a repair.  Without a diagnostic tool you might have multiple options to choose from, and each with the potential for inaccuracy, particularly for new staff.  Dynamic scripting can improve accuracy every step of the way, from enabling diagnosis by using pictures rather than written descriptions,  interrogating other data sources for information relevant to the enquiry, property or customer, through to auto populating SOR codes and linking through to raise the repair appointment. 

It standardises the customer experience – but allows for personalisation

Today’s customers want things to be easy and service to be consistent, irrespective of the channel used.  Dynamic scripting tools can be integrated with existing systems to offer a unified customer experience online (online services are essentially scripting for customers), or in the contact centre, pulling relevant data through automatically, depending on who the caller is and what they want.  At the end of the contact, data is written back to systems in real time.

It saves time and money

By standardising processes and automating data input as far as possible, not only is the margin of error significantly reduced, it also speeds up the time taken for the whole customer interaction – be that online, or over the phone.  In contact centres, the introduction of dynamic scripting can lead to improved first contact resolution , resulting in a reduction in end to end enquiry handling times, and freeing up capacity that can be utilised in other ways, or to deliver cashable savings.

It reduces agent training time

Attrition is always an issue in service environments – and the cost of training new staff can be high, particularly for complex services.  Because dynamic scripting is designed to be intuitive and to drive up accuracy, less initial training is needed, in turn releasing capacity and saving time and money.

Effective scripting delivers all of these benefits and more.  Essentially scripts are just a way of making processes simple for customers and staff to understand.  Done well, they can improve accuracy, improve first time fix, reduce avoidable contact provide a personalised service and have a positive impact on costs – surely worth another look?



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.




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.