The Housing Executive Round Table: Customer-centric repairs

Housing Executive, in collaboration with communications software specialist Localz, hosted its first virtual round table of 2022.
Multiple flying wood houses

In April, Housing Executive, in collaboration with communications software specialist Localz, hosted its first virtual round table of 2022.

The event gathered together experts in the field: Carolyn Munns, head of property services at Vivid Homes; Ian Johnson, executive director of customer services at Karbon Homes; Steve Smith, head of change and delivery at Longhurst Group, and Jamie Burton, operations manager, repairs and maintenance at Wakefield and District Housing for a frank discussion on the topic of delivering a customer-centric approach to the national repairs backlog in the wake of coronavirus.

Smith was quick off the mark with his observation that the perspectives of those delivering repairs and those providing them can too frequently be vastly different: “If something breaks in the house, let’s just say the tap, it runs full bore, the sink sinks into the flooring, damages the electrics and all the rest of it,” he hypothesised. “We do the emergency stuff and we do the follow up work. But customers would view that as one repair. It might have been a plumbing issue to start off with, but the whole thing is one repair for them. But we tend to break that up into a series of repairs. So we might do three out of four aspects of that repair. For us, that means that’s 75% successful, but from a customer point of view it’s 100% failure if you haven’t done that final piece. Because we view it as individual jobs. Customers view it as one broken property.”

Burton noted that over in Wakefield, his own organisation takes a slightly different approach: “We find that the customer satisfaction is high, and I think that’s because we’ve got a solid internal service provider, so we use very few contractors,” he explained. “So when the customer calls our call centre we’ll allocate work to a tradesperson and give them autonomy, so they control the work. All the responsibility is then on the tradesperson to contact the customer, diagnose it over the phone where possible, arrange a convenient appointment, complete it first time ideally but if not, arrange materials, the second visit,  so we find you’ve got visibility and the job is going to be there.”

Although Burton maintains that his organisation’s customer ratings are generally high, he does nonetheless concede that its approach could be seen as a little old-fashioned, and that is something he’s actively working on improving: “The management system needs refreshing and renewing,” he admits. “That’s why we’re running in parallel with the IT team on the IT strategy. I think that satisfaction is high because we get the job done, but the experience of communication, of what’s happening wit the job, when is somebody coming in, that’s where we need to develop it.”

Karbon’s Johnson can also identify with Burton’s experiences around communication: “We find the trouble is is when customers fell they have been forgotten. So the people that are waiting for the job to be done don’t have that drumbeat of communication,” he says. “That’s where we are seeing a rise in complaints. And that’s where we’re seeing the pinch points in terms of what’s happening. So we’re trying to do some work now to develop a quick text messaging service and our customer portal to update customers around this, just to say ‘we know you’ve got a repair, we know it was delayed because of materials or labour or whatever, but you’re not forgotten.’ It’s those people who feel forgotten who were raising issues.”

Munns says Vivid has an interesting approach too: “I’m expecting an interesting conversation with our customer services committee about whether or not they want us to do more. I’ve talked about rating our repairs on an annoyance factor and annoyance scale. So there’s a health and safety net which is probably quite easy to do, but as an example a blown glazed unit versus a broken kitchen cupboard. Should I be focusing my recruitment and my resources on what’s more annoying, or what has the potential to get worse? So take a dripping pipe. A drip underneath the sink is a routine. If you’re changing the bucket once a day, it’s much more annoying, and it’s really hard to unpick those jobs out, but I’m looking more about that, looking at what levers I can pull?”

Communication and listening to customers’ needs seem to be the key factors that all our panel identified as crucial to their work, and thankfully, despite the challenges presented by Covid and a glut of storms, particularly in the North, Smith seems to think addressing the issues are within our reach, if we have the right tools at hand: “It’s like this: This is repairs. It’s not rocket science. And you go ‘yeah, it’s a lot of repairs.’ But it starts with something that’s broken. So you’ve already got customers, we’ve got something that’s broken. It’s not like they’re clamouring for the moon. They’ve got something broken and there are then logistics around it,” he explains. “So repairs is simple. And rocket science is actually simple too – it’s just about a push against gravity. The tricky bit is rocket engineering. That’s where the complexity lies, pulling all those processes of people and behaviours and technology together. There is no silver bullet, and you’ve got to work at it really hard but generally I find that if you’re if you’re transparent with people that they will give you the time.”

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