Published by ‘Inside Housing magazine’ 26/11/2019.
The idea of ‘customer is king’ may sound like it is from the private sector, but it is a useful mantra for those also operating in social housing, says Simone Chinman Russell
It is said that ‘customer is king’. Organisations across the world invest massively in perfecting their customer offer with the aim of attracting new business and maintaining customer loyalty. And it’s not just about what they provide in terms of range and quality.
Increasingly, it’s all about how the service is delivered.
To achieve this, providers of goods and services must understand customers. What are their aspirations? What do they need? What is most important to them when trying to access a service?
This is a moving feast because customer expectations are changing. When it comes to services, we are told that people want to get what they need quickly, with minimum effort and at a time that suits them most – a smooth, almost instantaneous ‘first point of contact’ transaction.
Clearly, the increasing move towards digital channels for service provision has many benefits to both the consumer and the provider, including for the latter on long-term cost-saving through things such as reduced staffing and premises overheads.
So, where does the social housing sector come in? Last week I was having a discussion over dinner with senior housing leaders about whether social housing tenants have the same aspirations when it comes to accessing our services. The answer was a resounding ‘yes’.
But there was a difference of opinion on the degree to which there should be a largely ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to providing access to housing services.
There was particular debate about the ‘digital offer’. One school of thought was that it is patronising to assume that just because some customers may be older, or have fewer financial resources, they needed ‘hand-holding’ or don’t also want instantaneous, preferably 24/7, remote access to services.
The other perspective was that because of the very nature of the services we provide, it is imperative that we continue with the multi-channel offer.
My personal view is the latter. I don’t think we’re ready yet to flick the switch to make digital the only channel into our services. And interestingly, even though there is a huge push towards ‘digital by default’, many housing organisations (including the biggest promoters of digital connection) continue to invest in ‘customer segmentation’ exercises.
This is where customers are categorised by age and other factors such as location and even tenancy history, as a basis for designing services.
I guess that being a local authority provider is different to being a housing association and maybe that’s why I am hanging on to the traditional approach to customer service for a little bit longer. For example, as well as the landlord function, we, along with the other 188 stock-holding local authorities in the country, have statutory functions such as preventing homelessness.
And no matter how far I stretch my imagination, I can’t see how a digital solution can be found to accessing this service.
Before you call me old fashioned, I’ll point out that I am a champion for customer service modernisation. I lead on our local authority’s customer first strategy. A key theme for this is how we provide that smooth, first point of contact transaction for all the council’s customers who want it, delivered 24/7, blending seamlessly with back office systems.
In achieving this we can encourage more people to access our services in this way. However I am also passionate about equalities and ensuring a level playing field when it comes to service access. As such I fear for those who may be left behind as we bound forward to embrace our digital age.
“Our customer first strategy does what is says on the tin. It encourages our people to design services around the customer, not around what is convenient for teams or the physical location of offices or existing technology provision”
To resolve this quandary, our customer first strategy does what is says on the tin. It encourages our people to design services around the customer, not around what is convenient for teams or the physical location of offices or existing technology provision.
Simply, it’s about how we can deliver the most benefits to the customer, through understanding their needs and wants and then working out how this can be achieved within the boundaries of our operating context, and of course, budget considerations.
This is a journey and there’s no quick fix. It’s about challenging our teams to cast aside their experiences of ‘how things have always been done around here’ and think about where we want to be. And, unlike solely commercial organisations, it’s not about beating off the competitors because many of the services we provide cannot be found anywhere else.
Aside from our responsibility towards our tenants and the wider community, it’s simply about us being an organisation that people want to do business with. An organisation where customer is king.
Source: Inside Housing - Comment - How to be an organisation people want to do business with