A new breed of customer-focused housing officers is giving tenants a lot more satisfaction. Emily Rogers meets one of them
Brenda Eustace loves her Victorian flat in Earl’s Court, west London, where she has lived for 25 years. But three years ago, things got rather unpleasant for Ms Eustace, a widow who suffers from osteoporosis, when a neighbour’s toilet started overflowing into her bedroom.
Ms Eustace struggled to get her landlord, Notting Hill Housing, to take action. ‘I was advised to go to Citizens’ Advice. As soon as I said that, they repaired the damage,’ recalls the 69-year-old. ‘They stopped the leak, but it’s only within the past year, since Doug [her new housing officer] took over, that they repaired the wall in my bedroom. Before we had Doug, we had housing officers, but they were like ghosts. We hardly ever saw them.’
Doug is no ordinary housing officer. He is one of 131 multi-tasking Mr and Mrs Fix-its who have become the familiar friendly face of an otherwise intimidatingly large housing association over the past 18 months.
Each of them looks after 125 Notting Hill tenants like Ms Eustace, who now have their own housing officer’s mobile number in place of the call centre - which has been axed along with most other central functions such as repairs, allocations, lettings and complaints. In their place, this network of new housing officers juggle all these activities like one-man housing associations, controlling their own budget, which is allocated on a per-home basis and is there to tackle everything from repairs and plumbing to pest control.
Ms Eustace describes the change as ‘unbelievable’. ‘There’s no comparison to how it was,’ she says. ‘There was almost disinterest before. But with Doug, I don’t know where he gets his energy from. He’s on it right away. The consensus is that since we’ve had Doug, we’re all really, really pleased.’
The personal touch
Housing officer Doug Sargeant echoes his tenant’s enthusiasm with the new arrangement, although he admits he’s never worked harder in his life.
The 27-year-old started his new role in August 2009, initially as one of a pilot team of four. Previously, he’d spent a year talking into a headset in the organisation’s customer services team. ‘I never left the office, so sometimes it was quite difficult if somebody was trying to explain a repair to me over the phone,’ he recalls. ‘I had to try to imagine it and put it into a job and send it to the right contractor.
‘Now, I just come out and look at it, so it’s a million times more simple, because it’s not lost in translation. Problems can often be difficult to explain, so it helps a lot to see them.’
Mr Sargeant landed the role after being one of 140 Notting Hill staff to go through a day-long assessment process. It included exercises like roleplaying to assess skills such as working autonomously, dealing with angry customers and prioritising tasks from a loaded in-tray. The assessments followed a series of controversial redundancies at the housing associations.
Since then, Mr Sargeant says he has had ongoing training and support from 14,500-home Notting Hill in areas including the legal aspects of tenancies and budget management.
He started his role by spending around an hour with each of the 125 households on his patch in Earls Court. something he describes as key to building a relationship with them. As well as dealing with a backlog of maintenance issues, he has made things happen, such as redeveloping a garden for a block of flats and helping a tenant into paid work.
He describes the biggest challenges as keeping on top of his budget and managing tenants’ expectations. But he insists that his love of the job is widespread. ‘Everybody’s working their socks off and that’s not because managers are on their backs, because we’re fairly autonomous,’ he says. ‘It’s because the motivation comes from the tenants. It’s knowing that I’m going to let that person down if I don’t get things done.’
The revamp giving birth to Mr Sargeant’s new role started in July 2009. Linda Wallace, Notting Hill’s managing director, says it was the result of ‘remarkably consistent’ feedback from tenants explaining why their satisfaction rate was languishing at a miserable 58 per cent.
‘They said: “I don’t really think you know who I am, I don’t know who I’m talking to a lot of the time, I don’t feel informed about what’s going on if I have a repair or transfer request and don’t know where I am in your system”. They also said: “I don’t get called back regularly. Things take a long time and get passed around”.’
She recalls housing officers, meanwhile, saying: ‘We feel really frustrated, because quite often, we’re the people who are the interface for the customer, but we don’t feel able to control things and we’re not able to make decisions.’
Ms Wallace and her colleagues realised that the solution lay in housing officers building up personal relationships with their tenants. And to do this, they would need to shrink their patches to a fraction of the size they were.
The housing officer ‘map’, which covered 22 London boroughs, and saw staff working alongside specialised teams such as repairs and allocations in a ratio of around one officer to 600 homes, was carved up into patches less than a quarter of the size. Each one was allocated a dedicated housing officer meeting tenants’ every need.
Although Notting Hill says it’s too early to say how much this radical re-drawing cost in financial terms, it clearly came at a price. It resulted in 42 redundancies out of the 140 staff who were assessed for the new role. A total of 55 staff were recruited into the new role from outside the organisation. Notting Hill now employs nearly four times the number of housing officers it used to. They are paid salaries of between £22,850 and £30,500 per year.
The transition was complete by April. To date, around 12,000 tenants have have been signed up to this new relationship with their new housing officers through the process of introductory interviews.
The move was unsettling for staff. But the customer satisfaction figures so far suggest that tenants believe the revamp, called Altogether Better, has been aptly named. Out of 200 who had experienced the new system for at least three months, 78 per cent express satisfaction with their services, compared with 65 per cent still experiencing the previous system.
Notting Hill expects to make savings of around 6 per cent a year from this new arrangement, paying back the cost of the change within four years.
Altogether Better really does seem to do what it says on the tin.