Elspeth Mackenzie of Thrive Homes explains how a changing relationship with customers is leading her association to transform the way it operates
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Which organisations would you identify as the main disruptors currently driving change throughout the sector?
Grainger plc, Thames Valley Housing and its wholly owned subsidiary Fizzy Living, and Legal & General with its build-to-rent fund are really challenging the ways things have always been done in the housing sector.
These ‘disruptors’ are bringing a more commercial approach to providing what is essentially the same ‘product’ delivered by the many housing associations building homes for affordable market rent and private rent. In doing so, they have made traditional housing associations like ours question what our customers really require from us – surely our priority should be to provide them with affordable homes?
The fact that these ‘disruptor’ organisations are getting on with developing affordable homes without relying on Section 106 agreements between local authorities and property developers, for example, has made us realise that it is possible to push ahead with delivery, but to do so requires focus, dedication and a clear sense of purpose.
How has your organisation approached the need to adapt to meet changing customer demands?
At Thrive Homes, we have questioned whether our customers need us to provide anything more than a commercial landlord would.
Our priority is to provide good-value housing that is safe, affordable and provides individuals and families with the security they need to make long-term plans.
As an organisation formed from a voluntary stock transfer in 2008, we have completed our original promises and we need to look to the future. We own more than 4,000 homes across Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire – in order to invest in new, affordable homes in some of the most high-value areas of the country, we must find more efficient ways of delivering services.
This is why we are launching the ‘Thrive Deal’, which is putting us onto a more commercial footing and redefining the fundamental relationship between us as a landlord and our tenants.
How do you see technology changing the ways in which housing associations are run and how they interact with their customers?
Housing lags behind other sectors, such as retail, utilities and financial services, in terms of enabling technology to provide service delivery.
We have discovered that it is possible to push the majority of routine transactions through digital self services. Embracing online services in this way not only achieves efficiencies, it also gives many customers exactly what they want: ease and reliability.
The Thrive Deal is about moving away from a traditional, ‘paternal’ relationship with our tenants, which often resulted in us designing services for the minority of high-demand customers and ignoring the fact that most of our customers simply want a good, transactional relationship delivered effectively and respectfully.
Our new self-serve facilities will ensure we provide good, consistent services to customers, who are able to take ownership of their interactions with us, at times which suit them.
When embarking on a major transformation programme, where should organisations start?
It is essential to have your board behind you as you go about ploughing the necessary time, effort and resources into designing and planning your transformation. At the outset, you need to understand the skills within your organisation, and to identify the gaps you need to fill in order to successfully deliver your programme.
Bring in external support and build the right teams, but ensure the business retains its ownership of the changes to be made.
What would you say is the most effective way of driving change within a business – and what role do staff and tenants play?
It’s all about sharing the vision for what you are trying to achieve, and bringing people with you. When we first began working on the Thrive Deal, we involved our staff in developing a ‘blueprint’ for how things would change. They knew what it was all about and what it would mean for them from the very beginning.
We have tested the concept of the Thrive Deal with customers, helping us to understand which aspects of their relationship with us are most important to them, and which make them feel most valued. Our customer experience panel, a group of tenants who have been instrumental in shaping the Thrive Deal, will play an ongoing role, monitoring its progress and providing us with regular feedback.
There’s a perception that the drive for greater efficiencies will lead to services being cut and poorer outcomes for tenants. What’s the best way for associations to get their message across that many of these changes will actually benefit tenants?
In our case, the Thrive Deal aims to clarify what customers can expect from us, by being explicit about where our responsibility starts and ends. It also defines customers’ responsibilities when they rent a home from us.
We are describing ourselves as a ‘value landlord’, one that provides core landlord services consistently to a good standard. We will also make use of the latest technologies to ensure interacting with Thrive is as easy as online shopping or booking a holiday. As a result of the Thrive Deal, we want our customers to know exactly what they will be getting for their money: a safe home that is affordable and well-managed.
We no longer directly provide services that do not help deliver our core aims and where others are better placed. For example, we have developed a relationship with the Hertfordshire Independent Living Service to provide services into our sheltered housing schemes to replace scheme managers. This enables older customers to access a wider and more flexible range of services and to decide for themselves what they need and wish to pay for. Previously, everyone received and paid for the same services.
With recent upheaval in the sector being driven by external factors such as the 1% rent cut, you could argue that much business transformation in the sector has been reactive rather than proactive. Would you say that position has changed – are housing associations now better at instigating change themselves?
Thrive Homes began its transformation project prior to the announcement of the rent reduction as we wanted to maximise our capacity to build new homes. However, if a change is positive, we believe the catalyst for it becomes less relevant. We’re just one of many housing organisations beginning to do things that break the mould.
Thrive Homes is officially launching the Thrive Deal during this year’s National Housing Federation annual conference
Elspeth Mackenzie is chief executive of Thrive Homes. Since joining in 2009, she has been leading a major change programme to transform Thrive from its origins as a stock transfer housing association, while improving its operational performance and achieving top governance and viability ratings.