I recently read an article, which was the synopsis of a future-gazing session with various movers and shakers of the housing association sector…
The session led by Inside Housing and dissected the usual themes;
• tenant/customer empowerment and regaining trust
• more creative partnership working
As a business psychologist, I was particularly drawn to the topic around regaining customer trust. This issue is particularly salient in light of the Grenfell Tower fire; and arguably, the aggregation of the aforementioned themes, executed poorly, may have the negative side effect of eroding that customer trust they often set out to improve.
So, with the backdrop of limited resources to deliver programmes designed to make services more efficient, varied and personalised, how best can leaders mitigate the downside risk?
I had some interesting discussions with three senior housing leaders, each of whom have been at the forefront of driving customer transformation.
Tracey Gray, the Executive Operations Director at Paradigm Housing Group (PHG), is currently leading a programme where they’re banking on 80% of customers wanting to be empowered to use self-service mechanisms. When the customers do need to contact the landlord, they want to be able to do so in an efficient and effective way. PHG acknowledge that the “vulnerability of their general needs customers is increasing”, which is a trend not likely to change given a stark reduction in pipeline for supported housing developments. Tracey points out that “by being more efficient in the way we deliver services to the 80%, we can spend more time delivering an enhanced housing management service to those who really need our help”.
Human nature is such that when expectations are dashed, our self-preservation mechanism kicks in whereby we prepare ourselves for further disappointment, and trust starts to erode. That is why the role of customer communication is key within transformation programmes and, as Tracey points out, it is more about “openness and transparency than anything else, and not overpromising…Do what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it, and most customers will be happy. Generally, people don’t expect a platinum plated service”.
Darren Levy who can chalk up two largescale transformations while heading up operations at CityWest Homes and Network Homes, echoes this, citing online retailer Amazon: “You trust Amazon as they do what it says on the tin”.
The motivations of housing associations (HAs) are different from the commercial world.
“Banks have been most successful at digital transformation, they have invested millions, knowing that if they don’t do it they are going to be behind the rest of the pack, which of course provides an ultimate motivator.”
However, HAs probably don’t need to transform in order to stay in business for the short to medium term, so the focus needs to be different. That said, it could be argued that the 1% rent cuts provided that very impetus required for them to finally get serious about transformation…
AmicusHorizon (now known as Optivo post-merger with Viridian Homes), are often cited as an organisation that has done this by shifting mindsets and placing firm focus on the customer. Often Ha’s board focus is around growth and development. However, at AmicusHorizon the ultimate ROI measure used is customer satisfaction level.
Speaking to John Barr, Customer Experience Director at Optivo and one of the key players in the transformation, he gave some salient examples of the depth that their customers are involved in the successful operations:
“The notion of ‘One Team’ underpins everything we achieved at AmicusHorizon (and we’ll continue this at Optivo). For example, Board members and customers have embedded a shared culture by attending identical training together and working towards a clearly defined set of goals. Our commitment (to listening to customers) means we have a constant feedback loop. We see customers as consultants and co-producers, designing, testing and feeding back directly on services. This includes working together to design and amend our online offer.
“We’re convinced this level of engagement is the link between really involving customers and business improvement. In just two areas (procurement & complaints), we made savings of £2.7m, largely attributable to co-regulation and 97% overall satisfaction with services. We’re here for the people who live in the homes we manage. Some of the conversations we have together are challenging but they take place in an atmosphere of openness and trust. It’s not lip service, it’s the right service”.
So, it seems that the key message is: if you’re going to transform a business and retain customer trust, be realistic, do what you say you’re going to do, and use your customer as your ultimate innovator, critic and facilitator.
Sounds easy? Maybe, but the crunch factor has got to be whether the board has a genuine appetite to deliver a service which delights, with customer satisfaction as the key success factor.
If this is not the case, the journey may be longer. However, surely this presents an opportunity where both the socially values driven leaders and the more commercially minded leaders can converge their thinking?
As always, I would be interested to hear your thoughts and experiences of the good, the bad and the ugly.