Housing needs better customer service

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Originally published in Inside Housing 

It was sobering to see the recent drop in customer satisfaction with their housing associations, as reported in Inside Housing last month.  Although Catalyst comes out well in this particular snapshot survey, as the most improving of the larger associations, we think that we are a long way short of where we want to, and should, be. The ideal is to provide a consistently good and easy service to our diverse customers.

We suspect that this is true of the sector as a whole. Housing associations undoubtedly provide a much better service than many businesses – one only has to think of one’s own frustrations with everyday tasks and purchases. However, we fall a long way short of the best providers and our customer base expectations are changing.  Therefore, in my view the need to provide a much better level of service to all of our customers is real and urgent.

Customers are more demanding, connected and savvy than ever before. Regardless of whether they are social renters, have one of the bewildering range of intermediate rental products, live in a shared ownership home, rent privately, or have bought a new home from a housing association on the open market, customers rightly expect more from their housing provider.  They want to be able to contact their landlord quickly and easily, and have their question, problem or complaint dealt with promptly, preferably at first time of asking. Whether they call, email, visit an office, or even Tweet, they want to get the same level of service. Above all, they want it to be easy to do business with their housing association.  For too many people – Catalyst customers as well as those of other providers – this isn’t currently the case.

Catalyst wants to be a model housing association, so we’ve embarked on a big programme to change our culture to be much more customer-focused.  We’re looking outside the sector at the best ideas and practice from around the world, to build on the improvements that we’ve made so far. We have invested in training and systems to support colleagues to make it easier for customers and we are getting to know our customers a lot better with a far-reaching ‘census’ programme.

If we are serious about making the change to becoming successful and viable in a no or low grant world, we must shake-off outdated notions of what quality service means to our customers.  Otherwise, as our customers’ needs evolve further, we’ll keep going down in their estimations.