Almost a year on from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, social landlords are still learning to deal with its effects.
One of the biggest issues that registered providers have had to consider is how they approach their customer service offering, with tenants under more financial and emotional strain.
“A proliferation of data and increased understanding of tenant needs has coincided with a period of enforced transformation and the need to deliver often unexpected support,” says Jonathan Brownbill, head of account management at social housing software provider Mobysoft.
“Set against a backdrop of budget constraints, and with many of the core objectives providers hold dear such as development remaining unchanged, we are seeing providers carefully distil this information to inform revised corporate plans.”
Our latest virtual roundtable in January 2021 looked to explore this challenge, as we pulled together customer service leaders from several housing associations and local authorities for a chat about the changes the pandemic has spurred and whether doing less could improve customer services.
The conversation kicked off by exploring the challenges that registered providers faced initially due to the COVID-19 pandemic and how it prompted changes to their service. Our guests were rightly proud of how fast they responded to lockdown, of how they had successfully pivoted to largely working from home, and the care shown by their colleagues making a huge number of welfare calls.
However, complaints have changed in nature since those strange days last spring, our guests observed. While customers were patient and understanding over the first few months of the pandemic, their patience with providers is now beginning to wear thin when it comes to addressing issues such as non-essential repairs and other problems that have piled up over the last year.
“I think, as an organisation, we need to actually look to do more [in] proactively speaking to our customers,” said Richard Pettifar, director of customer services at Clarion. “I think the housing sector can be a little bit reactive around these things, and we need to be more proactive with our customers because I certainly think they’ve enjoyed that communication.
“Our customers’ expectations now are at levels never seen before, and what [it] is expected we will do. Complaints associated with that [are] becoming an issue and will be moving forward, I suspect.”
While the pandemic has reminded landlords of the importance of supporting vulnerable customers, it has also highlighted weaknesses in their operating models.
Trafford Wilson, executive director of customer services at The Guinness Partnership, and Alison Kinnon, director of customers at South Lakes Housing, both raised IT as an issue they have had to address, with Guinness using lockdown to adopt two new cloud-based systems.
“I’ve got more of a grip over things which were informally done via spreadsheet in offices which I just can’t take any more,” Wilson said. “It’s got to be on a system.”
While Kinnon cited a lack of data integration as a ‘real worry’, she took heart from how the urgency around COVID-19 has helped providers realise their priorities and given them the ability to address longstanding issues.
“We’ve managed to go from ‘We need a new finance system,’ to ‘A new finance system will actually be up and running by the start of the new financial year,’ and that’s actually taken us less than six months to do,” Kinnon said. “When the minds are focused it’s amazing what you can do.”
Driven by COVID-19, landlords are keen to move to a digital, data-led approach to customer service, such as using case management systems and holding seminars online. It seems this is a change that customers would welcome too, as 7 out of 10 customers responding to a recent South Lakes Housing survey said they’d prefer to interact with their landlord digitally.
Dasos Christou, executive director of customer relations at Silva Homes, highlighted the importance of moving to end-to-end systems, allowing customer service teams to resolve issues first time and view complaints holistically rather than individual transactions. Jonathan Cowie, COO of VIVID and chair of the session, agreed, saying that the new Social Housing White Paper will push the sector to improve its digital propositions.
“Our systems are not designed to help us particularly well in our sector in the way they are in other sectors,” Cowie commented. “With the White Paper – the focus on more visibility and the focus on customers having more access to do things themselves – I think this is going to be a really strong theme.”
Kinnon highlighted how COVID-19 has changed South Lakes Housing’s strategic thinking after the landlord previously reduced the amount of funding that it put into customer engagement. Our guests agreed that providers have realised they cannot simply build homes and look after existing homes; they have to focus more on their local communities too.
“We thought we were being ambitious back in 2019 when we were thinking about some of our potential targets and what we might do,” Kinnon said. “A year later we think we weren’t being ambitious enough at all.
“We are… revisiting our business strategy delivery plan with a view to [whether we’re] putting our resources in the right places. The green agenda is certainly an area where more money will be spent, as well as community engagement and estate improvements.”
Alan Caddick, director of housing and communities at Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, echoed the importance of community engagement, with many tenants currently stuck inside with no access to green space. He said the more the council has engaged with residents, the more it has understood what is important for people, as he warned against a ‘We know best’ attitude.
“Customers are starting to challenge us more readily… around whether the appropriateness of the housing they’re in is in the best interest of them and their children,” he said.
“In many ways they might have put up with it previously because they would have had access to go out and do things… but it’s become a lot more stark now. I think – rightly so – we’re getting more challenge about housing policy and how that needs to be delivered going forward.”
As a result of the last 12 months, many of our guests reported they had now begun adapting their customer service strategies, with Caddick’s council having introduced a new online housing portal. The Guinness Partnership, meanwhile, has taken back control of some of its responsive repairs to allow them to see them through end-to-end.
It should all be about social landlords creating a culture of accountability and responsibility, Kinnon stressed, while Christou shared his conclusion from a Silva survey that customers just want to see their landlords ‘do the basics brilliantly’.
“Our customers just want to have things to happen when we say they are going to happen, and then, if they have to contact us, to speak to somebody who doesn’t pass them around, can look into it, get back to them when they say they’re going to do it, and resolve it,” Christou said.
“They’re not asking us for bells and whistles and anything that innovative… There’s lots going on in people’s lives. Do what you say you’re going to do, and if I have a problem deal with it quickly… That came through in leaps and bounds.”
As the discussion drew to a close, the consensus emerged that providers should not be scattergun with their services but should instead look to focus their efforts, with Wilson putting it brilliantly: “We’ve got to decide: what do we want to be famous for from a social purpose point of view?”
“The pandemic has reminded [us] of our social purpose and the part we play in our communities,” Christou said. “What will come out of this, with some good, is we’ll focus on doing the basics brilliantly and looking at investing in communities, whether it’s through some of [our] initiatives or whether it’s through improving outcomes.
“I feel in a really nice place that we will continue to improve our digital platforms but it won’t be at the expense of our purpose with our customer base.”
It’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has given social landlords the chance to streamline their activities and deliver better services that customers actually value. Continuing to meet that challenge as lockdown hopefully eases will be crucial to the success of their services going forward.