Large housing associations offer a number of ways for tenants to contact them but in practice it’s not always easy to get through, says Lara Oyedele
Is anyone there?
My mother phoned me the other day. She said: ‘You work in housing. I have this letter from my housing association and I am not sure what they’re saying. Tell me what it means.’ So she read it to me and I ‘translated’ the letter to her. I asked if she had contacted her landlord to get an explanation. She proceeded into a lengthy moan about how she did not want to waste her time on the phone, having to press various number options before she gets through to someone, who then tells her the person she needs to speak to is on leave or in a meeting. It was quicker for her to call me.
My mother is a 67-year-old retired nurse, so she is not unintelligent. But she is clearly frustrated with the communications from her landlord and she is not alone. Everyone reading this will have had the experience of phoning one of the big energy suppliers, banks or such like. You get the recorded voice telling you ‘your call is important to us’ and ‘all our operators are busy at the moment’ and then you are forced to listen to whichever jazz or pop music they’ve decided to inflict on you today. Alternatively, you have to press a whole series of numbers which do not offer the option you need and get cut off halfway through. The frustration is painful.
Most people would rather they got straight through to a real-life human being. Despite the perceived domination of websites and the internet, most contact between tenants and their landlords is via telephone calls. So I wonder, if we all profess to be tenant-focused organisations, why so many landlords make their tenants (and other customers too) irritated just trying to get through on the phone.
If you were to call Odu-Dua’s offices, the phone will be answered by a member of staff, virtually immediately. I accept that we are a small organisation and some might say it’s easy to make such a guarantee if you are small. However, I disagree. Small is not always beautiful. It is more about the culture and accepted practice of an organisation rather than the size.
There are small organisations out there that do not answer their phones and are difficult to communicate with. However, there does seem to be some - entirely unscientific and anecdotal - correlation between the size of an organisation and how difficult it is to get through to the person you want to speak to and - in some cases - anyone at all.
I’ve been on the receiving end myself, both with large private companies and social landlords. We are currently in negotiation with a larger social landlord over some property transfer. We’ve been going back and forth for years.
Project managers have come and gone. Documents are in the archive. Head office sends the wrong information to their solicitor. Their solicitor blames our solicitor. The information that was sent is now nowhere to be found. I make a few angry phone calls and send some irate emails. We take another three steps forward and then the project manager leaves and we start all over again. It has been six years and counting. Is this because it is a large organisation? Is it really inherent in the nature of large organisations that things have to be complicated? I think not.
The other day my staff and I were trying to contact someone in another housing association. This is a rather large landlord. Every time we called we went straight to voicemail. We pressed the various number options and were going round in circles. I was so close to throwing the phone against the wall. I have a phone and a desk from which to make such calls and as it is part of my job it isn’t so terrible. If things get really bad I can send an email.
But I wonder if it is a tenant who is trying to get hold of a member of staff how frustrated must they be? They don’t necessarily have the time or the money to keep making calls, nor email access to circumvent the telephone.
It’s not natural
Someone said to me that it is just the nature of large organisations. I disagree. It is also about the leadership in large organisations. If the leader in an organisation behaves in a particular way then their staff will adopt that behaviour eventually. If the established norm is that we answer our phones, then that can happen irrespective of the size of the organisation. I don’t believe that landlords should hide behind their size as an excuse for making phoning them so hard.
So I suggest we ban voicemail and turn off all answering machines and demand that people pick up their phones. And if it means getting more staff in to answer calls, so be it. This way you create employment opportunities as well as less frustrated tenants (and all the other people who’ve been trying to get through for ages).
Next time you are on the phone to a big utility company and feel the frustration building, ask yourself if this is how your tenants feel when they call you.
Lara Oyedele is chief executive of Odu-Dua Housing Association and chair of BME National