Customer Service: Changing the face of Housing Associations

Customer Service: Changing the face of Housing Associations
Published: 5 June 2019

In a sector where customers can’t always choose their provider, housing associations have often come under fire for their customer service levels. On 14 August 2018 the Government published a social housing green paper – ‘A new deal for social housing’. The paper set out a proposed strategy for reforming social housing, aiming to rebalance the relationship between tenants and landlords and improve the customer experience. Berwick Partners’ Social Housing Consultant, Tom Neely, discussed Orbit Group’s changing approach to customer experience with their Group Customer Services Director, Paul Richards.

What were the key challenges that you faced at Orbit when you joined about three years ago?

Orbit had self-declared a regrade to G2 following issues with property compliance. Scratching the surface it became clear the operational side of Orbit needed improvement, not just to property compliance, but to customer satisfaction in repairs, and lower quartile performance in key metrics like voids and arrears. Staff were working hard but often pulling in different directions and working in silos. The culture lacked empowerment and innovation to tackle the complex challenges. Our people told us they felt a bit battered and bruised by the downgrade but on a positive note, they really wanted to improve and were up for the challenge.

How did you go about tackling these issues?

Fundamentally it was all about the people. Our leadership team went through a total refresh, bringing in new talent from within and outside the sector. Interims also played an important role, as focus initially went on stabilising the business and getting back our G1 status. Orbit’s new top team led by example, working hard on culture, engaging support teams, breaking down silos and empowering people to deliver against clear objectives. Re-grading was achieved within 6 months and, on the back of this momentum, the business moved into an improvement phase where we set ever more challenging objectives and sorted out longstanding underlying issues. 

What followed was more fundamental transformation, moving the operating model away from a generic housing management model, to one separating out Property and Tenancy Management. Cost base efficiencies were found by bringing in a more commercial approach, sharpening our contract management, removing duplication and eliminating waste. More recently we’ve committed to invest in a total refresh of our IT systems. We are well into delivery of this programme working with the very latest technology to support our new ways of working and driving our digital agenda.

What has changed for the customer in this time?

At the core of our improvement plans was a determination to improve our customer service. We launched a clear ‘customer promise’ to outline what our customers can expect from us: what we do and don’t do, and also what we need from our customers. Through continuous improvement and hard work with both our in house teams and our contractor partners, we have seen satisfaction with key areas, such as repairs, rise from 73% to over 90%. Our customers are safer, and we have moved from poor compliance to one where we are being seen as sector leaders. We have just gained PAS7 accreditation and become the first housing association to gain a ROSPA Gold Award for Customer Safety.  At Orbit, we have focused heavily on making sure that when we get it wrong, complaints are dealt with quickly and properly. We have more to do, but it’s clear from the 35,000 pieces of customer feedback we receive every year that things are moving in the right direction.

What about staff, what’s it like to work at Orbit now?

We have invested heavily in the key things that our people told us they needed to be more effective. We improved our offices, redesigned our pay and rewards structure and increased our training and professional development. We have put in place a new incentive scheme that rewards results, whilst at the same time making the work culture more flexible.  All of this was underpinned and driven by a new mission, vision and values. As a result, Orbit has recently become a Sunday Times Top 100 best company to work for, and we have seen some key people measures, such as staff turnover, improve. At Orbit, we have also worked hard on important aspects such as employee wellbeing, focusing on a number of areas, including mental health. Our teams tell us they feel more engaged with the business and its direction. The great news is that this has had a direct link to improved business performance. 

How do you plan to keep attracting talent and ensure you have a diverse workforce with the skills needed to deliver great customer service?

We have a great story to tell given our clear social purpose that resounds well with many potential employees, particularly the younger generation. We are improving our employee brand and putting in place a revised approach to onboarding. We are investing in professional skills; a recent example is our work with the Institute of Residential Property Management, with whom we’ve developed a sector bespoke qualification in property management. We are also bringing in new skills in key areas including customer experience, digital services and partnership working, as well as continuing to develop our leadership and management teams by recognising the key role that they play in driving performance and engaging our teams.

How do you see customer expectations changing in the coming years and what’s needed to keep delivering? 

I can only see customer expectations rising. People living in our homes don’t compare our service with other housing providers; they compare us to companies like Amazon and Uber, or to their banks and mobile phone companies. They expect to be able to interact using their channel of choice at a time that suits them, to get up-to-the-minute status updates on their mobile and pay using the method that suits them. Other more vulnerable customers still need a face to face service, so our model has to cater for all our customers.

Customers expect their homes and estates to be in great condition and, as increasing numbers pay us directly, they demand greater value for money. Increasingly, our customers tell us they want a say in how we run their services and estates, again shifting from traditional channels to a relationship based across multi-media. In response we will have to be flexible, fleet of foot, innovative and obsessive about ensuring our customer services continue to be the very best they can be. It must be our number one focus.

What do you think are the key challenges for Orbit and the sector going forward?

I think our sector is uniquely placed to help the nation solve its housing crisis, but unlike developers driven by profit motives, we can leverage our skills not just to build affordable homes of different tenures, but to help the communities where we work to thrive. Delivering this at scale, and with consistency is crucial and can go a long way to breaking down the stigma of social housing, helping to mend our broken communities. Building high quality, multi tenure communities and working in partnership with local authorities, community groups and local enterprises is something that housing associations can do in a unique way. There are many challenges – welfare reform, land, planning, ever increasing customer expectations and a complex political environment, amongst others. But, I genuinely believe that housing associations are part of the solution and we should be both brave and confident in the role we play.

For more information, please contact Tom Neely a Consultant in Berwick Partners’ Real Estate practice, focusing on senior roles within Housing.

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