Housing associations still have a long way to go to match the levels of customer service offered by other sectors, says Mark Sebba
Online has transformed the way we live our lives. In a remarkably short period of time, large numbers of people have become accustomed to managing their lives online. And it’s not just shopping, but supplying meter readings, transacting with government, or just keeping in touch with family and friends.
Of course anyone aged under 30 – the digital natives – listens with incredulity to stories of a pre-internet existence and even some of us older so-called digital immigrants wonder how we managed in those days. Some may regret the passing of a former age but like it or not, the science is with us. And there have been undeniable benefits. In their bid to be competitive and win over customers, online shopping sites have developed customer service into a fine art.
“Why, in 2017, is nearly an entire sector failing to offer its customers the sort of service levels that they’re accustomed to in every other part of life?”
As customers of online businesses we demand user-friendly and mobile-friendly websites, next (or even same) day delivery at a time of our choosing, an easy returns process, and customer service that is second to none. And if we don’t experience this, we take our business elsewhere.
The idea that we might browse online and then visit a shop which is only open from 9am until 5pm on Monday to Friday, or be placed in a telephone queue before being allowed to part with our hard-earned cash, is ridiculous.
When I was appointed chair of Hyde, I came straight from the online retail sector.
The service delivery model offered by most housing associations couldn’t have been further from what I had spent all my working hours trying to avoid: offices only open between 9am and 5pm on weekdays; restricted hours for customer service phone lines; wait times for telephone calls to be answered that would have been totally unacceptable in retail; and websites that were no more than information pages, with the ‘contact us’ page the most visited.
Why, in 2017, is nearly an entire sector failing to offer its customers the sort of service levels that they’re accustomed to in every other part of life?
I know that around 20% of our residents are unable for one reason or another to access the internet.
So we need to provide them with services in the traditional manner. But for the other 80% who want to use their smartphones or laptops to deal with their landlord, we have to be super responsive. Residents who can’t get to an office or a phone during the working week and want to buy their groceries at 10pm on a Sunday should be able to pay their rent at the same time.
We need all the rent pounds we can get. So why wouldn’t we do everything we can to help our residents pay us?
It is true that, faced with ever-increasing demands on their income, housing associations have been less inclined to invest in IT infrastructures that would enable them to offer online transactional capability.
Legacy systems that can’t talk to each other and the cost of sorting out those problems is definitely a challenge. But more fundamental is that the operating model that many housing associations employ does not easily allow services to be delivered online.
So for many associations, the critical first step is a fundamental review of our operating models to allow us to keep pace with our customers’ expectations.
We need to provide a better service by being clearer about what we can and cannot offer and making it as easy as possible for residents to access those services which we do provide. This means we must first identify those services that are most important to our customers and then ensure they can easily access those services.
The key to success is achieving an effective first tier of customer response, designed to meet the majority of queries, including a continually improving digital channel. This means building on the skills and resources of those who are the customer’s first point of contact but backing them up with specialist teams, expertly resourced to deal with more complex service requests, so that queries can move seamlessly up the chain.
“The critical first step is a fundamental review of our operating models to allow us to keep pace with our customers’ expectations.”
When it comes to local delivery, this should be focused only on essential activities such as tenancy visits, effectively managing schemes and estates and ensuring properties are safe for residents and visitors.
We have to move away from generalist housing officers who ‘walk their patch’, trying to be all things to all people. This model is frustrating to customers and staff. It often delivers inconsistent levels of service, confusing the customer and resulting in disappointing levels of resident satisfaction.
I am not arguing that we should do away with the personal touch. But with so many routine matters which can be dealt with quickly and simply to everyone’s benefit, we should retain our people to deal with the more complex issues and train them accordingly.
We all measure our success by reference to customer satisfaction, so the easier we make it for customers to access our services, the more satisfied they will be.
Mark Sebba, chair, Hyde Group