Tenant satisfaction has decreased during the pandemic – just as a new consumer regulation regime is planned in social housing. Jack Forster of Esendex explores how landlords might meet the challenge
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To what extent has the coronavirus pandemic affected tenant satisfaction in the UK, including in social housing?
The evidence shows that the impact of the pandemic has been significant. If you look at the UK Customer Satisfaction Index – which tracks and compares tenant satisfaction across the UK economy, including with social landlords – it shows the lowest levels of tenant satisfaction since July 2015.
Unsurprisingly, the UK Customer Satisfaction Index reveals that in-person interactions have fallen in the past year, while remote experiences have grown.
But the pandemic has served to make some of those remote options challenging to provide. Call centre provision becomes more complicated when staff suddenly have to work from home overnight or when there have been staff absences due to coronavirus. For social housing residents, the likes of reporting necessary repairs may have become more challenging and so satisfaction decreased in turn.
The importance of resident satisfaction and good customer service has long been emphasised in the social housing sector. What have been the challenges in getting this right?
The ‘tenant-landlord’ relationship in social housing is something of a unique one. It’s not a competitive market in the same way as other sectors. Tenants do not shop around between social landlords.
It’s further complicated by the wealth of issues on which tenants may need to engage with a landlord, all of which have varying levels of urgency and importance. The ‘product’ being provided is also central to an individual’s life – housing is so closely tied to so many aspects of well-being and welfare.
There have also long been challenges in getting the collection of resident feedback right. Many providers developed their own ways of measuring tenant satisfaction, which has made accurate benchmarking across the sector challenging. That in turn can make it difficult for an organisation to identify how they are doing on tenant satisfaction compared to others.
All of this becomes more problematic as we want to prioritise consumer regulation. The Social Housing White Paper proposes a charter of standards that social housing residents should expect their provider to meet, and it is likely the Regulator of Social Housing will show renewed interest in consumer standards.
How might social landlords improve some of the most common interactions they have with tenants?
I think there are two aspects to this. First, landlords need to consider the methods they have been using for communication with tenants and explore whether they are genuinely working.
Letters in the post, for instance, take time to arrive and it’s very difficult to know when and whether they do, and indeed whether they get opened and read. Telephone calls don’t always work either. There has to be a staff member available to take the call, which can be difficult at times of high demand and has been further complicated by changes in working patterns caused by the pandemic.
Second, landlords need to consider the types of interactions they most commonly have with residents. What are the common points at which a tenant will need to get in touch and how swiftly are they likely to need a response? There is unlikely to be a single communication channel that will suit for every single interaction with residents. But in general it is likely that digital and specifically mobile-focused channels could make a difference.
How might technology improve common exchanges with tenants?
Consider the need to report repairs. When this is handled badly, the consequence is, understandably, reduced tenant satisfaction. So social landlords need to have both a simple method by which tenants can report issues and manage visits from maintenance staff.
Mobile web apps, text messaging or instant messaging are all good potential solutions here. These enable a tenant to report an issue at a time of day that is convenient to them. There is no need to make a phone call in office hours, potentially with associated hold time. At Esendex, for instance, we offer an entirely automated solution for this, which fully integrates with existing appointment management systems.
We have also helped a lot of social landlords make it easy for residents to make more general enquiries. We do this by setting up dedicated numbers for residents to text in their queries rather than making a call. Tenant teams can then manage all of these inbound texts from a single website. This is more convenient for residents but also more efficient for staff – it means they handle multiple conversations at the same time rather than having to deal with phone calls one by one.
Percentage of text messages from landlords that will be opened by residents
Percentage of letters that will be opened
What do you see as the longer-term potential for customer service technology in social housing?
Often, teams are dealing with the same queries over and over again. I suspect in the longer run, chatbots will become helpful for those sorts of frequently asked questions.
Chatbots work for any text-based mobile channel. Users simply enter their question and then the software simulates a human conversation providing relevant answers. This means residents can get quick answers, via text, at any time of day. This method also frees up staff to deal with the more challenging or complicated issues.
Critical alerts are also something that can help. Traditionally a letter is sent when, for example, major maintenance work is to be carried out on a building. But, again, letters are an unreliable method of communication, with data showing they are only opened 75% of the time. Instead, we can enable a text to be sent out to all residents in the building – which we know is opened 95% of the time.
This text might include a link to a website that gives further information about the work and offer options for asking questions.
How might social landlords go about collecting more effective resident feedback?
We have seen many social housing providers, with the best of intentions, still sending letters and making calls to collect feedback. The net result is that not much feedback is collected and resources are directed to the wrong areas based on an imperfect sample of residents’ views.
But surveys are something else that can be delivered by text, mobile web app or instant-messaging services. And it’s possible to make surveys much more compelling and easy to complete when such methods are used – video can be included, for instance.
It also means data from surveys can immediately be collated and easily analysed. This makes it possible to quickly identify trends, areas for action, and to make positive changes that will increase tenant satisfaction.
At Esendex, that positive change is what we want to support social housing organisations to make. We really do believe mobile technology can help landlords improve customer satisfaction, and are keen to have conversations about that.
We’re holding a webinar to support just those sorts of discussions – sign up at www.esendex.co.uk/inside-housing.
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