Posted by Steve Botham
August 7th, 2012
LEADING TO A NEW CUSTOMER FUTURE – FOR HOUSING
Meeting Customer Needs in Challenging Times
Customer Services as we know it is no more. The model is no longer fit for purpose. It was built in a kinder age when we had the capacity to deliver whatever the customer wanted and we had customer service training courses for every need and situation.
Any Housing leader who loves a good worry will be in their element at the moment – there are worries galore. “I am really concerned that we are going to lose our credibility with our customers” one CEO from a very highly regarded HA told me recently. “Our customers are going through horrendous situations at the moment” said another, “and we hardly dare tell them that it is going to get worse.”
The recent NHF report Building Future reports that Housing Associations provide services to eight million people. Many of them in trouble, hurting, and stressed. People will complain bitterly as your staff provide unpalatable options for them as benefit issues hit, people will question why your team are so well paid when they and all their friends are out of work, people will damage your properties when they feel over charged – or they simply cannot afford your prices.
We use the phrase “predictable surprises” – the things we should think about before they come up and bite us. It’s predictable that we will see more stressed customers, customers with increased mental health problems and customers who begin to see you as part of the “establishment” working against them. This in turn leads to stressed staff that become more reluctant to engage the majority of customers because of their negative experiences with a few.
Housing Associations are naturally customer and community focused – they have mission statements such as “Our aim is to deliver excellent customer care services to all our customers” “We will work to the highest possible standards of service and professionalism.” No problem with that – the question is what does excellent customer service look like in 2012? Who determines the standards?
It’s time to revisit customer service. We start by asking – what does our customer want in 2012? 2013? 2014? Some of the basics remain – they want a decent home, to be treated as human beings, to be able to access information and support easily. But new issues exist – how do we communicate in the social media age? How do we handle those who are downsizing from the home you told them was “ideal”? How do we support people under added stress? How do we streamline and simplify our processes to reduce errors, take out costs and save time? Do we need to provide more choice – what some Councils are calling the Easy Jet approach with a more basic core service and a choice of additional support?
But in Housing the customer relationship is two way – Has have always wanted to encourage “good citizenship”, proactive tenants” “community volunteers”. Again in a changing environment – what do good customers look like in 2012 – how do you reward and encourage them? How might this link to an increased number of social enterprises, community “companies” and trusts – people who contribute to the value of your assets.
One Housing Association claims it has got its customer service right because it has supplied training, got the processes in place and monitors its performance regularly. This seems very limited to us. We need People and Community Leadership strategies in place – and they need to be at the heart of your organisation. Key things to look at include
· Review your purpose – is it to provide “excellence” – what does that mean in cash strapped times? Do customers want excellence or value for money? What’s most important to a family on reduced income? Or an elderly person with reduced social care support?
· Scenario planning – what are the predictable surprises for your customers? The difficult challenges your staff will face? The challenges that your processes and standards need to be able to respond to. What will you need to monitor in coming months
· What customer service skills are needed – a ready smile and a telephone friendly voice may not be enough for a customer with a mental health problem, a host of clients resisting eviction or a Council asking you to do stock transfer within very tight timescales.
· What are your values? What will give you a firm reference point in challenging times
· Is your leadership fit for purpose (“of course we are” you cry – but we are entering unchartered waters). Do you work together robustly to ensure the organisation is focused, effective, and aligned. What behaviours will get rewarded and encouraged in the future?
· Will your managers provide coaching and support to enable front line staff to deal well with the challenges they face? Will you ensure that you are learning from the new challenges you face and constantly getting better at what you do?
· What will you stop doing? How will you get rid of processes that are to long? How will you stop inefficient working in your organisation? How might you create more standardisation to reduce costs
The secret? - High impact leaders who work effectively together to shape and deliver a new customer strategy and develop the organisation capacity to deliver that strategy. Leaders who understand the future risks for their customers and staff. Leaders who bring real focus and clarity in order to energise and align the organisation. Leaders who ensure that customer service training or development is not treated like fairy dust sprinkled on children to make them play better but is linked with “what we reward, what we role model as leaders, what we talk about.” Leaders who can innovate and improve their organisation and the services it provides with changes that will be well implemented. Leaders with the humility to recognise they have not got all the answers but make best use of the expertise, talent and energy within their organisation.
Caret Consulting Group are experts in delivering change, enabling leaders and shaping and empowering leadership teams within Housing. We work in partnership to help HAs shape the future