Friday, 31 October 2014

Every little helps

Landlords keen to improve customer satisfaction or recruit better staff are increasingly turning to private commerce for inspiration, says Ben Cook

Bill Gates reckons ‘your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning’. Richard Branson says, ‘companies that look after their people are the companies that do really well’. And the late Henry Ford called failure ‘the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently’. Platitudes, or pearls of wisdom?

However you categorise the collective ruminations of these captains of global industry, social housing executives seeking to run their organisations better could do worse than cast an eye towards the private sector. The world of commerce has much to teach councils and housing associations, particularly when it comes to improving customer satisfaction and recruiting better staff. And, as Mr Ford well knew, the private sector can also offer valuable lessons about how not to conduct your business - as the recent fortunes of major house builders demonstrates. Here’s some of what’s on offer.

Loyalty

Cash may be king, but customers are close contenders for the crown. Kate Franklin, customer service director at 40,000-home Hyde Group, argues the social housing sector can benefit from adopting private sector strategies to foster customer loyalty, which in turn creates a more efficient organisation.

‘It’s important to keep your customers loyal, because recruiting new customers is more expensive than retaining customers,’ says Ms Franklin, who has worked for retailers including Debenhams and Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group. ‘But keeping people loyal is about the way you deliver your service - if we capture loyalty, we become more efficient.’

For social landlords, explains Ms Franklin, this means asking new tenants what their needs and aspirations are. ‘We want customers to feel that their landlord cares, because then you build an empathy with the customer,’ she says. ‘Consequently, when things don’t go so well, they will feel their landlord is responsive and won’t start a formal complaints process.’ Ms Franklin adds that this cuts landlords’ costs because every interaction with a customer - particularly complaints procedures - costs money.

Ms Franklin also advocates ‘customer journey mapping’, which means assessing how a landlord interacts with its customers, then improving those processes. ‘We look at what the touchpoints are and what experience we want the customer to have. We think about what will make them satisfied, so we’re designing out potential irritations. If we get real customer focus, we become more efficient,’ she says.

Circle Anglia boss Mark Rogers manages more than 51,000 homes and has 187,000 care and support customers across the UK. He has also looked to private enterprise to improve customer focus. ‘We run real time customer satisfaction testing. People are called about repairs by a separate customer contact centre, so you get an objective view,’ he says. ‘This gives you instant trends and information - the more you make customer satisfaction the be all and end all, the less likely you are to waste money on services people don’t want.’

Sean Kent, executive director of resources at Freebridge Community Housing, which uses customer profiling techniques similar to those used by supermarket giant Tesco (see ‘What’s in your trolley?’), says his organisation’s constant search for outside learning isn’t confined to the multinationals. ‘One member of our staff had booked their car in for a service at the local garage. The day before, they got a text from the garage reminding them about it, and they thought, why aren’t we doing this to remind residents about repairs?’

The private sector also does a good line in cautionary tales, particularly in tough economic times. Terry Fuller, regional director for the east of England at the Homes and Communities Agency, says social landlords have watched carefully the experience of private sector house builders, including his former employer Taylor Wimpey, which recession has forced to shed staff and refinance. He says that for house building to succeed, it is important that organisations work together to pool resources and make housing developments more sustainable over the longer term.

He explains that his agency’s recent single conversation approach to development recognises that traditional private sector housing delivery - developers buying plots of land, building homes on them and then selling them for profit - is no longer viable.

Mr Fuller argues instead for models such as the HCA’s method of delivering housing in Norwich. There the quango has signed a single conversation contract with the city council, requiring the HCA to invest capital, the council to contribute land and all profits being channeled back into the city.

‘The traditional house building model - I’m a house builder and that’s all I do - doesn’t work,’ he says. ‘The most important term now is “total capital”. As an example, if the HCA has £1, social services has £1, and the local authority has £1, to get the best out of your resources you need to put that money together and pool resources, we need to stop working in silos.’

Expert advice

For those seeking more positive messages from corporate Britain and beyond, there are plenty of information sources to start you off. ‘We joined the Institute of Customer Service, which provides us with a benchmarking tool and offers networking opportunities - we also used consultants to help with customer journey mapping,’ Ms Franklin says. ICS membership starts at £2,500.

Others, including Bromford Group (see case study, left) have joined a networking group, the Customer Service Network. Rates there range from £95 to £2,995, and put you within brain picking distance of firms including Starbucks and eye care company CIBA vision. ‘If you have a query such as how to run customer surveys, you can get answers back from other members of the network via meetings or online,’ says Helena Moore, group director of organisational development at Bromford Group.

‘You have to build it into your culture that it’s important to network externally. You have to invest time, there may not always be something in it for you, and you might have to give before you can take, but then one day you could get another organisation contacting you to share ideas,’ she says.

Play your cards right and who knows - one day it might be Richard Branson on the other end of the line.

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