Four of the five key themes of the Social Housing Green Paper linked directly to failings that led to the Grenfell tragedy. Listening to the views of customers, improving complaints processes, reducing stigma, and strengthening resident engagement will form the future landscape of social housing provision and help re-balance the landlord / resident relationship.

Yet, for the second consecutive year, operating surpluses are on the decline. The appetite to increase rents in the 2020/21 financial year was reportedly high, and before recent news events, 94% of landlords were expected to raise rents by the Consumer Price Index plus 1%, for a total of 2.7%.

Some may think with forthcoming rent increases, this will resolve their budget issues. But many housing providers are considering whether it is in the interests of their tenants to increase rents. Many residents already need to top-up their rent due to a benefits system out of alignment with rent costs. For others, the rent increase will remain minimal, and certainly not enough to pay for any “non-essential” landlord services such as customer engagement.

But with the potential for higher demands on budgets to be spent on health and safety issues, reducing carbon emissions in response to climate change, and commitments to developing and building; the amount of money left to spend on important customer engagement is minimal.  Add in the new risks to public health and subsequent risks to income and commercial results, and you have a mix filled with external pressures which leaves resident engagement teams at the thin end of the wedge.

The push and pull of budget v. regulations

The entire sector is under budget constraints, and that’s nothing new.  What is changing, however, is how the focus on listening to customers and taking their views into account. Both of which are expected to feature heavily in the forthcoming Social Housing White Paper and associated legislation.  Which could mean that customer engagement, research, and insight would need to meet new regulatory standards – a good reason for increased investment in resident engagement.

It’s clear from the themes in the Social Housing Green Paper that we must improve engagement and listen more to customers to deliver high quality social housing services.

At January’s NHF Customer Experience Conference, CX2020, discussions centred on how the regulator needs to step up and put regulation around customer engagement as most housing leaders only spend on areas where required for regulatory purposes.

Ann Gibbons, Executive Director of Customer Services at Metropolitan Thames Valley pointed out that, currently, there is no mention of customer service in Governance and Viability regulation. As an organisation who has recently undergone an in-depth assessment, Ann spoke about how the focus was on development and treasury, not customer service: “as long as the regulator focuses on development and treasury, our board and exec team will too”.

Increased regulatory focus is coming

Starting in July 2020, new powers will be available to the Housing Ombudsman (granted by the Housing Minister, Robert Jenrick).  These new powers allow the Ombudsman to issue complaints failure orders, declarations of severe maladministration, and reporting landlords to the Regulator for Social Housing.

Practical solutions – what can we do now?

At our spring social housing event, we presented this “how do you do more with less?” challenge to registered providers and stakeholders.  They came together to offer practical tips for doing more customer research with fewer resources:

– Collecting data at the point of service – using mixed methods

Collecting customer experience from customers must be accessible and appropriate to the audience at the point of collection. That could still mean paper and pen, a telephone call, an SMS text or email, or a combination.  Match your collection method to the type of service provided and take into account your customers contact preferences for the best result.

– Create a feedback loop to learn

Once you have determined the drivers for dissatisfaction, there has to be the ability to track your performance.  By improving your services incrementally and seeing what works and what doesn’t work, you can start to understand why your organisations initiatives are successful (or not) and replicate the best methods for maximum effectiveness and efficiency.

– Share the load

Smarter, more collaborative working with pooling resources with other agencies such as healthcare could enable spending to go further with reduced repetition in services for residents.

Areas that have devolved powers, such as Greater Manchester, have developed the Greater Manchester Housing partnership, where housing providers work together to tackle issues that affect residents across the whole area. They apply as a group for funding which allows them to provide effective resources in the right places. This also enables them to strategically plan resources for the ‘hot-spot’ areas.

– Learn from each other

As a sector, we can work together to learn best practice methods, rather than purely benchmarking to rise in league tables. For example, Sutton Housing Society is promoting their digital engagement channels in their new Resident Engagement Strategy, and the NHF’s Together with Tenants early adopters are setting out new approaches.  With 130 landlords participating, you can have a look at the list of adopters to find a local landlord with whom to learn and share.

Top tips you can action today

Here are some low-cost tips to get started immediately from our Director of Housing Research, Katy Wilburn:

– Review your housing complaints process from the resident’s perspective

Get ahead of the game and review your complaints process from your residents’ perspective.  This isn’t just about measuring the number of stage 1 complaints vs the number of stage 2 complaints; or the average number of days to send a final decision letter.  What is important here is listening to the customer experience.  This review can be as small or as large a research project as you like – from reading complaints case notes as a group exercise with your customers, to a full-on customer journey map into your complaints process.

– Start thinking about complaints (including social media rants) as feedback

The call to action repeated at NHF events and by the regulator is to treat all customer feedback as a complaint. For example, when a resident is speaking to a housing officer or a contact centre and expresses some form of dissatisfaction – or even satisfaction – in conversation, then this should be logged and responded to.  You can also tap into different channels of feedback, like social media, to identify drivers of dissatisfaction, and looking for areas where you can improve services.

– Ask residents to review your current questionnaires and annual reports

In small focus groups, take on board the feedback provided by customers and use that information to improve the feedback gathering process amongst your entire population.

– Think broader than satisfaction; to trust, effort and reputation

These measures of satisfaction are rooted in how modern consumers perceive their service providers – are they trustworthy, reputable and how easy is it to “do business” with them?

In closing – what’s your legacy?

Jenny Osbourne, Chief Executive of Tpas, closed her keynote at our spring social housing event with a challenge to delegates and the sector to understand and contemplate their legacy.

“We can sit and wait to be told what to do, wasting time and resources finding ways to not engage residents.  We can pass the buck and refuse to accept responsibility.  Or, we can show the way; we can be leaders.  We can do the right thing and engage with people whose lives we are in.  We can be accountable, and not wait to be told what to do.  We can respond to do what is right.” – Jenny Osbourne, Chief Executive of Tpas

Doing more with less is really about listening harder and working smarter. Future legislation will make resident engagement a priority at housing organisations, but there’s no reason why we can’t start right here. Right now. Today.

If you’d like to identify ways to engage and support tenants, while working smarter, contact us to discuss your challenges and learn how we can help.

Katy Wilburn, Head of Housing Research

Email: katy.wilburn@iffresearch.com