Independent research company Service Insights Ltd, commissioned by six housing associations (Abri, bpha, JRHT, Leeds Federated, Together Housing, and Trent & Dove), has carried out research on what the customer of the future might look like in social housing in the next 3 to 5 years. This looked at the ‘customer of the future’ in terms of ‘service’ and ‘homes’, and how social housing providers may need to evolve in order meet their customers’ future needs.
35 experts took part in a panel, using a Delphi research method which acts as an interactive forecasting technique. The experts were identified from national social housing policy organisations, global technology companies, senior leaders (e.g. CEO’s, Directors, Heads of Service) and front line staff (e.g. Housing Officers) from within social housing organisations, and social housing customers.
Three rounds of consultation were undertaken between October to December 2022, with each building from the last. From this process, it was suggested that the customer of the future in social housing in the next 3 to 5 years will evolve in very distinct ways:
- Customers of the future will be more diverse; from the most vulnerable with the fewest options to those who would traditionally have had a choice of tenure. Hardship and poverty will be a dominant characteristic, but so will activism and a pressure to provide a quality product and service.
- This will include higher expectations for the quality of services received and the quality of homes provided, combined with an increasing willingness and means to publicly challenge standards when they are not met.
- Customers will expect social housing organisations to better understand their needs and service expectations. By becoming more customer centric, organisational efficiencies will be gained by focussing delivery on what customers’ most need and want.
- Customers will want to see faster and more practical changes delivered as a result of their time and opinions provided.
- Customers will expect technology to support efficiencies in the delivery of services and homes. Whilst for some, their experience will be of housing providers extending innovative technologies through predictive analytics and artificial intelligence, for the majority of customers, their needs will simply be seeking that their housing provider uses technology to support getting the basics right. At a minimum, this translates as technology enabling a truly 24/7 self-service culture through websites and apps.
- Customers will expect greater innovation through an increased use of smart devices for autonomous monitoring of the quality of their home. Property insulation and energy efficiency will be desired as a means of mitigating the effects of the cost of living crisis, and there will be a greater provision of modular homes.
- Finally, the range of customers considering social housing will broaden in scope. Driven by the cost of living crisis at one end and increasing home-ownership costs at the other, renting in the social housing sector could become an increasingly desirable option. As demand for social housing grows, there is potential for the stigmatisation of the sector to be reduced due to it being increasingly seen as a solution to the problem.
It was also found that in the next 3 to 5 years social housing organisations need to evolve by:
- Increasing opportunities to better understand customer needs and evolve service expectations to support customer centricity.
- Demonstrating how practical changes are being delivered as a result of customers’ time and opinions being provided through co-creative practices and customer feedback.
- Providing options for customers to more easily challenge standards when they are not met.
- Improving homes by increasing the use of smart devices for autonomous monitoring; providing property insulation and energy efficiency as a means of mitigating the effects of the cost of living crisis; and enabling a greater provision of modular homes.
- Using technology to get the basics of service right, such as ensuring truly 24/7 self-service options are available through websites and apps.
- Evolving organisational culture – paradoxically, as the influence of technology develops, a greater emphasis upon human-centred organisations will emerge, driven by a re-evaluation of the core purpose of social housing. This should retain an emphasis upon face to face, community, and low-tech or no-tech solutions in service delivery.
A further paradox relating to organisational culture may emerge in the adoption of private sector practices. Whilst it is likely that knowledge, skills, and staff will continue to be drawn from the private sector, reflection upon the core purpose of social housing may influence a re-balancing of private sector thinking. However, arguably there is a balance to be found between the two, which should ideally provide a basis for creative tension and innovation.
The report was not designed to deliver a single ‘silver bullet’ solution, instead it provides insights to help social housing organisations meet the needs of their customers, positioned to allow them to reflect on their current position as a starting point.
At times, the report identifies tensions through differing views and what may appear to be inconsistencies between some responses. However, this is to be expected when bringing together the views of over 30 experts with diverse backgrounds.
As quite rightly noted by one respondent in the expert panel, “there should be no single ‘customer of the future’ since the sector should appeal to people from a broad range of backgrounds, experiences, income levels and cultures”. This research has identified specific trends which suggests ‘the customer’ is an evolving concept and one which social housing providers both need to understand and keep pace with, otherwise they will seem increasingly detached from their customers and miss opportunities to meet their needs and fulfil charitable social aims.
“This research comes at a time of increasing scrutiny and reflection in the social housing sector. When future forecasting, you might expect people to draw upon idealistic blue sky thinking. However, surprisingly our research found what might be considered a more measured and practicable set of findings. Context, of course, is important – whilst some housing providers are able to be much more innovative than others, for many providers, innovating their service offer simply means getting the basics consistently right”.Dr Simon Williams, Managing Director and lead researcher at Service Insights Ltd
“We were keen to get involved in this study because we wanted to gather different perspectives on the expectations and needs of the ‘customer of the future’ from various sectors. Having taken part, it was reassuring to find that we are on the right track with our work at bpha”.Anna Humphries, Director of Customers & Services at bpha
“We were pleased to be able to support this piece of research. We are living and working in a time of increasing change, so it was timely to take a step back and look ahead at what is coming. We want to ensure we are providing the best service possible to our residents. This research will help us focus our approach going forwards”.Ian Clark, Executive Director of Business Improvement at Together Housing