The very nature of social housing means customer service in the sector can be a more complex affair than in others. In a market which spans local authority homes and independent housing associations, what is the benchmark for customer experience in the industry?
The New Deal for Social Housing Green Paper was presented last summer and explored ways to instil a customer service culture within social housing whilst highlighting the fact that customer experience remains poor for residents. Similarly, The Hackitt Report highlighted customer service as a flaw and asked questions around what was needed to further encourage the professionalism in housing management to deliver a good quality service.
Creating a comprehensive standard for customer experience in an industry which straddles the ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres is a challenge because it has never encountered competition. In other consumer-facing services, crowded markets mean that companies must elevate their standards to secure customers. A lack of commercial incentive in social housing, however, does not typically breed a customer centric outlook and arguably leads providers to simply follow the standard set by fellow providers. When you consider the non-competitive dynamics of the sector, it is clear that change is needed.
For the industry to transform its customer service, social housing organisations can no longer operate in a microcosm and must appreciate the wider social and demographic context in which their customers exist.
This means looking at the full picture of the resident profile. Some industries bodies are making moves towards this, taking note of language and talking about homes rather than houses and people instead of tenants. However, it must extend much further to be truly effective. Residents are individuals as well as consumers. The same people who rent and buy social housing also purchase products and services from a multitude of other sectors such as retail, banking and automotive.
Cross-sector interactions and technological innovations are constantly raising customer expectations 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 from their local café as they do from their credit provider, 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. For instance, small steps, such as offering short appointment windows in which residents do not have to wait in all day or establishing ways to better maintain their wellbeing and safety to provide reassurance, could make great strides towards delivering a more customer-centric service.
This is not to say that all other industries are successfully transforming their customer experiences. Each sector, from transport to financial services, certainly faces unique challenges which makes customer satisfaction an ongoing process. However, they all recognise that customer experience is the essential differentiator if they are to increase customer satisfaction and retention.
Traditionally customer-oriented, competitive sectors such as retail have long been developing best practices in customer experience led by game changers like Amazon who have it embedded in their culture. Many brands now have CXOs (Chief Experience Officers) to enact this change and are looking to disruptive technologies to better understand and enhance customers’ service. 35% of Amazon’s sales come from personalised customer recommendations, a testament to the power of customer knowledge.
While not all these methods will directly function in social housing, the logic still applies. Social housing providers can embrace the same levels of customer obsession that retailers and others display, whilst utilising the latest technologies to better understand and anticipate customer expectations.
It is this difference which explains the root challenge for the social housing sector. Unlike retail, the growth of their business is not directly reliant upon reducing customer ‘churn’ and achieving customer excellence. However, if you expand your view of the outcome that customer satisfaction can achieve, perhaps customer experience should be the measure of success in the housing sector. With the customer at the core, the entire workforce will relate to the person who lives in the home they are repairing and with a better understanding of the individual they are serving, greater care will be taken and working standards will increase.
Many providers will agree that if they were to ask a team member their view on having to fill in a survey to prove they have completed their compliance obligations, they are likely to grumble and complain that it’s a nuisance. If customer-centricity is ingrained throughout the organisation, however, they would not only consider the completion of that survey as an essential element of the service excellence they deliver – they would also recognise the importance of keeping every person and every home safe. In this way, corners will not be cut and the customer will always come first.
Next steps for the social housing industry
If the industry is to make customer-centricity core to its approaches, it must begin by analysing its customer demographic. All customers expect reliable products 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 industry is a major barrier.
An industry-wide discussion and agreement of a definition of customer centricity is crucial as a starting point for benchmarking success. Without this, the disparate nature of customer experience within the sector will remain and very little can be achieved whilst that is the case. 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 increases satisfaction, and loyalty.