Wayne Gales is CEO at Weaver Vale Housing Trust and he was also a very popular panelist at the recent Golden Marzipan Breakfast Briefing on customer-centricity. Here, Wayne kindly shares his thoughts on hearing the customer voice in social housing.
I love that phrase ‘we’re on a journey’ it’s very overused and unfortunately for too many simply an excuse when it comes to the value some organisations place on hearing the ‘customer voice’ and actually doing something with the valuable feedback that’s received. For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not just talking here just about the good old ‘satisfaction survey’, which let’s be honest some organisations do themselves, sometimes only annually and I’ve even heard of some organisations putting them on hold during the pandemic or when they are going through internal change programmes etc (same is often the case for colleague surveys).
Here at Weaver Vale Housing Trust, we’ve been on journey, sorry couldn’t resist! What I really want to say is everything we do starts with and ends with the question, ‘how will this move us closer to our vision / organisational purpose? Which has those we serve ‘front and centre’ – we only have five strategies at the Trust and the one right in the middle of our strategy wheel is ‘Our Customers’. Of course you’ve got to have the right vision and clarity of purpose in the first place, assuming you have (that’s a bigger ask than many think) and this indeed places the tenant, customer, service user at the centre, then that’s all the boxes ticked, is it not ?
Of course it’s not, is just the start and here the hard work for those really committed just begins!
So how do we move closer to those we serve, so we can understand, listen and action what we are being told. In my humble opinion, all the above (vision, strategies etc) is all well and good and necessary, but as we all know “culture eats strategy for breakfast” as Mr Drucker once said. So we can all produce a well written corporate plan, vision, set of strategies, which has allowed some Boards and Exec Teams the place to often hide behind, but as we have seen recently such hiding places are rightly becoming exposed, as are those organisations who have failed to honour their purpose / vision.
I’ve not got all the answers (you’ve probably already guessed that) and Weaver Value Housing Trust is not perfect, nor is it complacent, and in some ways we are still playing catch up given the impact of the pandemic. But our Board and leadership population does have clarity of what matters, namely those we serve, and our culture and values serve to underpin this.
A customer-first approach
So what have we been trying to do at Weaver Vale? In simple terms, build a different relationship with those we serve, so we can really hear the voice of our customers, when they want to be heard. Our approach involves an ongoing commitment to existing engagement channels within our governance structure, such as our Customer Voice Panel and Scrutiny Group, both of whom meet at least twice yearly with the Board, our e-Voice and green inspectors, plus independent rolling quarterly customer surveys (had to get that last one in!). We are also launching a new ‘Our Promises’ – Customer Charter, supported by a customer feedback framework all shaped by engaged customers and finally so we can maintain a customer voice on the Board, we have launched a Board readiness programme to support anyone interested in becoming a Board Member.
We’ve still got a long way to go I know, but the investment we are making to improve our customer focus and to understand those we serve better is needed more so today than ever, given the challenges faced and our commitment to ‘Building Back Fairer’. Sure, sometimes this approach can place me and the team in a vulnerable position, when told in front of the Board a service is not good enough or not needed, but this place is where the real value added is, where accountability is rightly challenged, trust and mutual respect is built or lost, with those who matter the most.
We all know how important what and how we do things for those we serve is (if not you need to change career) and that it is judged each and every day, not on what we say we will do, but on what we actually do – if you can be bothered to ask that is. So to end, I ask the question, ‘are you more interested gathering evidence to demonstrate how good you are when the regulator comes knocking, or genuinely building a relationship with those you serve in order to listen and learn?
Finally in the words of Stephen Covey – ‘The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply’
Which side of the ‘beachball’ are you on?
CEO Weaver Vale Housing Trust