Written by IFF Research

Listening widely: Engaging with geographically dispersed residents

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Engaging with customers across a wide geographical area can be difficult for housing providers, and presents its own unique set of challenges.  Residents can be clustered together on estates, or you could have individual residents dotted across the county – or even the country.  When engaging with residents there are light-touch methods like satisfaction surveys, and deeper involvement, such as operational service reviews and consultation on local offers.  Beyond this, you will need to communicate with residents give them an opportunity to make their views known and feel like part of their community.

Through mergers and acquisitions, housing organisations are growing larger and more dispersed.  Satisfaction can dip, and complaints could increase.  Getting resident engagement right on a large scale raises many questions:

  • How do you provide services locally when properties are dispersed across a wide area?
  • How do you engage with people in different areas, for example, small rural communities that may not have access to broadband?
  • How do you engage with both urban and rural communities, recognising the importance of satisfying different needs?
  • How can ever-growing housing providers “be large but local”?

A lack of resident engagement could impact on the quality of service delivered by the housing organisation – in terms of truly understanding what is important to residents in the context of their local area.  Customers can feel disconnected from their landlord, which could cause feelings of distrust. Landlords can find service provision to remote customers time-consuming and expensive, especially if in-home services are not delivered right-first time.

What is considered “dispersed”?

There are a few ways to look at this. Many national organisations, such as Guinness or Anchor Hanover have remote pockets of properties; some regional organisations like Westward Housing have properties dotted all around a region; and London organisations such as Peabody have properties in different boroughs.  Although the distances are different – many similarities exist:

  • Residents will have local needs for landlord services, such as emergency repairs
  • To provide a local service in context of the area you will need to engage stakeholders, such as local councillors or charities
  • The communication needs of dispersed populations can be met in different ways, without a single “right way” – you need to engage locally to understand the area in order to serve it.

Barriers to resident engagement

Challenges exist, not just for geographic reasons, but also because of limited resources available for resident engagement.  There is also a drive toward digital engagement for economic “value for money” reasons, but is digital engagement truly… engaging?  In terms of performance measurement, how do you ensure your service delivery to geographically dispersed residents reflects the service levels you provide to residents that are close by?

Solutions to put forward

During a recent housing event, we asked social housing engagement experts to workshop practical ideas and solutions to improve communications and engagement with dispersed residents and communities.  The topic is complex – deciding on local standards, determining which communication channels to use, and using those channels to communicate service standards (and managing customer expectations) is incredibly resource intensive.  Here are some practical solutions that our event delegates suggested to help ease the burden:

– Local Standards

  • Take steps to try to understand different demographics by filtering your data by age, tenure, tenancy type, stock type in addition to geography.
  • Make sure tenants have access to voice their opinion – to set standards and to feedback on local standards.
  • Use a variety of different methods when carrying out resident surveys to ensure residents have the best possible chance at making their views known about standards and performance.
  • Examples of local offers are available based on location from Onward Homes, by service from Hexagon
  • Some landlords publish their local offer performance – see Gentoo and Coastline Housing

– Communication channels to use

  • Ask customers how they want to engage with you – for new customers, do this at the sign-up stage
  • Use a variety of different communication methods to engage with your tenants. For example, Halton Housing utilises a multitude of methods: postal, telephone, social media, online live chat, a customer app, and an online customer account.
  • Ensure contact details for your tenants are kept up to date – this is vital to allow you to engage with them
  • Work with locally based community teams and facilities to receive feedback and engage with residents
  • Consider this: when using digital channels, it might not matter about the size of the geographical area you are operating in; the different demographics of your client base will be a more determining factor in terms of how best to engage with your customers.

– Managing customer expectations

  • Be honest about when services, such as repairs, will happen, and when any follow-up services will be provided. Communication with dispersed customers throughout the customer journey is important.
  • Utilise local contractors rather than a mainstream service provider – this will result in issues being resolved much faster.

In closing

Although it’s challenging, actively engaging with geographically dispersed residents is not impossible.  Economies and efficiencies can be gained through working with local providers, local stakeholders, and by leveraging communication channels that work for residents.  Customer care is fundamental to what we do. By listening to and engaging with dispersed residents, we will ultimately increase rates of satisfaction and lower the level of complaints, improving the quality of housing for all.

To learn more about challenges facing housing organisations, check out our blog post on tackling social housing stigma, and watch for our next article about doing more  – with fewer resources.

For more information on practical solutions to engage with your residents, please get in touch with our housing team.