The customer experience environment has been shaken and stirred by the events of the last year. Many organisations have displayed incredible agility to maintain services and respond proactively to changes in their customers’ circumstances and needs – seeking to reassure, engage and provide appropriate advice and support.
Other organisations have struggled to adapt, or failed to engage proactively, adding to the disruption and anxiety experienced by customers and employees. There has clearly been significant growth in online services, digital innovation and exciting new ways of delivering services.
But it is also clear that human contact remains something that customers need. The pandemic has exposed a hardening polarisation in society. Many people with access to technology, domestic space and a decent income have enjoyed a secure if frustrating lockdown experience. However, many others have suffered a decline in their financial, mental or physical well-being and are fearful about what the future holds.
Customers of all ages and in all income, groups are utilising more online services and many of these changes are likely to persist which has implications for housing associations. Research shows that customers are giving greater consideration to ethical suppliers and the service experience. All are seeking to deal with organisations that ‘do the right thing’ and demonstrate that they care about the customer. The rapid rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine brings hope that economic activity and social life will soon revive.
For organisations, this is a moment to learn from the lessons of the last year, to refocus and act with renewed purpose and impact. For us at Golden Marzipan when we look back, three key learnings stand out.
– First, organisations need to be smart and agile in harnessing technology to enable fast, efficient transactional service and access to critical information and advice.
-Secondly, as customers, we need human contact, empathy and reassurance, especially for issues that are complex or personally important.
–Thirdly, the past year has brought to the fore the rich potential for virtual technologies to enable innovative new ways of experiencing services and content.
Increasingly, organisations will need to develop and excel in each of these areas to adapt to customer needs and create a sustainable future. This paper attempts to show what some of the more recent key research findings is around social housing with regards, customer expectations, tenant engagement and the wider customer behaviour that influences social housing tenants.
- Resident/Customer Needs/Satisfaction – Sector Analysis ( source Acuity who work in partnership with HouseMark to deliver Acuity benchmarking)
The results below represent feedback from 1000 tenant’s complaint surveys conducted between April – December 2020. The landlords were a mix of housing associations and local authorities, big and small, from across England.
What was found
Regression analysis shows the core survey question: How easy did you find it to deal with [your landlord] on this occasion? has far more influence on overall satisfaction than satisfaction with the repairs service which for many years was the top-ranked determinant. Repairs still have a significant influence, but this analysis shows us just how important customer service is (see diagram below). It should be noted, of course, that repairs and customer service are closely linked: a significant percentage of customer contact is associated with repairs.
They argue that the new question usefully reflects the customer experience across all landlord services and draws heavily on learning from the commercial sector about what customers value: frictionless touchpoints that effectively address whatever the tenant has raised. Further insights suggested the following:
- positive comments associated with good performers are heavily weighted to the importance of customer care where staff attitude, good communication and ease of making contact were common themes. But they can get it wrong too; the limited negative comments also tend to isolate customer care as the main issue.
- unsurprisingly, for the poorer performers, customer care stands out as the key grumble: answering phones, call handling, returning calls, resolving issues, and courtesy and respect are recurring themes.
Tenants’ voices provide a checklist for how to get it wrong:
|Difficult to reach on the phone, can never speak to the right person. |
They pass [the tenant] to a different department then gets cut off.
They are difficult to get hold of and do not get back to you they do not take time to listen to send out the appropriate people they don’t answer and they don’t even want to know,
They just fob you off just not listening to me. I have gone through 3 Housing Officers and managers higher up and been promised the world, but I have been let down so many times and believe that they are just saying things to get me off the phone ………
They say they will do things and they don’t ….it has taken a lot of communication attempts to even get half an answer. No one is taking responsibility for the situation at all. it is so hard to access people.
Putting everything online is just not suitable for those who do not use the internet. the communication is awful,
the communication is awful, they have absolutely no interest in me at all. Everything is automated – it is an automated maze. I’m sure they designed it to be as difficult as possible.
They are rude [and have] the attitude that I should be grateful for having a roof over my head
No one will take responsibility; they push me from pillar to post
Constantly reporting issues and it feels like they just don’t care
Rude, disrespectful, belligerent, I feel like I am being told off by them, they are time wasters, they are not bothered and they do not care.
I am not treated like a human being at all, they should have a bit more compassion
Despite the challenges of COVID-19, they indicated that the comments above are similar to those that have been seen over many years and echo observations about the unresponsiveness and indifference of landlords in the Social Housing Green Paper. So how does this reflect with the sector’s social purpose?
As we head towards proactive consumer regulation, social landlords need to better understand the customer experience. Satisfaction surveys identify what’s most important to tenants, how landlords are doing and where the gaps are. Such intelligence provides both a baseline from which progress may be measured as well as an evidence-based for targeted and effective remedial action.
A key consideration in the next few years will be the increase in priority in tenant engagement and it is helpful to housing associations that Tpas has just launched their 2021 National Engagement Standards. These standards reflect the renewed focus on, and the recognition of, the importance of the residents’ voice. The new standards cover the following areas
Tpas state that the standards reflect the operating environment of social housing and have woven through them the increased expectations of the Regulator of Social Housing, Housing Ombudsman, the National Housing Federation’s Code of Governance as well as the proposed Building Safety regime. It would appear wise that most housing associations try and comply with these standards before they are forced to.
3. The Wider Customer Service Environment
Housing association customers don’t operate in a bubble and customer/residents customer service expectations are influenced by organisations that they interact with daily. Residents are individuals as well as consumers. The same people who rent and buy social housing also purchase products and services from across a multitude of other sectors such as retail, banking and automotive.
Cross-sector interactions are constantly raising customer expectations as well as innovations in technology which mean customers want faster, more efficient and on-demand services from brands. As a result, the social housing customer is always comparing their different brand experiences. Consumers expect the same level of attentive service and if they have a query or complaint; customer helplines, virtual online assistants and social media platforms make it easier than ever to engage with brands and share reviews online.
It is up to social housing to look to other industries and learn how consumers behave in these frameworks to establish a benchmark for customer experience. There is an organisation that undertakes a regular review of the customer service across a wide variety of organisations in the UK called the “The Institute of Customer Service” who have developed a UK Customer Satisfaction Index and produce a quarterly report on how the index is going. Here is a brief summary of their Jan 2021 report.
Here are their top-rated organisations by customer satisfaction dimension.
first direct, John Lewis, M & S (Non-food), M & S (Food) and Pets at Home are amongst the highest rated organisations across each of the Experience, Customer Ethos, Emotional Connection and Ethics dimensions of customer satisfaction according to the Institute.
One of their key finding of COVID-19 is that customers who say their personal wellbeing is relatively low identified the key issues organisations should improve as making it easier to contact the right person to help, better website navigation, speed of response/resolution and developing more helpful, knowledgeable staff.
They conclude their research with 9 recommendations and key actions for organisations to improve their customer service and respond to changing customer needs and behaviours.
You will conclude that these are very similar to the results of the recent Acuity/Housemark research presented earlier. It suggests that the customer experience KPI’s need to begin to measure the following if associations are to match the brands that their customers interact with daily.
- Experience – How easy are we to deal with?
- Complaints – how quickly do we resolve complaints to the satisfaction of the customer?
- Customer Ethos – How well do we keep our promises
- Emotional Connection – how much do we care about our customers
- Ethics – How honest/ responsive/transparent/respect are we.
So how do you think your organisation would rate against these five key customer dimensions?
If the sector is to make customer-centricity core to its approaches it must begin by analysing its customer demographic. All customers expect reliable products/services from providers which they can have faith in. Personalisation, customer support, value-for-money, proactive not reactive service, this is what consumers are accustomed to receiving from services now and social housing needs to evolve to meet demand. Indeed, the lack of an accepted definition of what customer centricity looks like in the social housing sector is a major barrier. Learning from the technologies and techniques used in other sectors and harnessing the wealth of tenant data available will inform a comprehensive standard for better customer experience which will increase satisfaction, and service.