When you are providing housing for society’s most vulnerable, communication is often the first line of defence. When done correctly, it allows organisations to spot potential issues and intervene in the early stages before any permanent damage is done.
There have been huge leaps forward in the quality of the communications that residents have been receiving in the last two decades, but there is always more that can be done to ensure every resident feels valued and listened too. Complaints about service can nearly always be traced back to a breakdown in communication - Chan Kataria, chief executive of EMH Group said that “Leaving aside a few vexatious complainants, my experience is that the majority of complaints tend to be legitimate and could have been avoided through proper communication”. We’ve pulled together a list of the top three things housing providers can do to improve communication and improve their resident's customer experience.
Improvement #1 – Being aware of current social issues
The single biggest improvement that can be made to improve communication with your residents is to understand their current living situation and the stresses they are experiencing. The extra step of being able to relate to their current situation will disarm all but the angriest of residents and help to improve resident co-operation to get the issue sorted. One of the simplest ways to do this is to keep a very close eye on the current news cycle and then internally sharing information about social issues that could be affecting your residents. A great example of this is the implementation of universal credit. Nathan Angol, a customer service officer for Southwark Council says that “Since Universal Credit came in, we’ve had a rush of people come here because people weren’t aware of the transition from housing benefit. Most people who are on these sorts of benefits have some form of vulnerability, so they need support”. These types of situations are significantly easier if resident liaison officers and support staff are already aware of the potential issues and are immediately prepared with the materials necessary to handle the problem head-on. This is becoming a bigger and bigger issue as large-scale changes to social housing and appropriate funding are becoming more frequent.
Improvement #2 – Adding additional relevant channels
The second improvement that we suggest is adding additional communication channels that are convenient and appropriate for residents. One of the largest disruptions in resident communication in the last few years has been the development and deployment of social media strategies. In 2012, the ‘Connected Housing Study’ said that “Social media appears to be frequently at arm’s length from internal processes, used to showcase more than to engage; it’s not yet regarded as a strategic initiative by many senior executives in the sector”. Since then, the inclusion of social media has been a huge help in improving resident engagement as it has pushed communication into the channels they use in their daily lives. Adding additional relevant channels will further improve this, by giving even more access to those for who current channels are inconvenient or inappropriate. A great example of this is in-home devices. Where social media, letters and phone calls require a resident to engage in those forms of communication or provide contact information that must be kept up to date, in-home devices require no other information other than the address of the property. Switchee is one such device that provides a communication channel into individual resident’s homes. Switchee is a smart thermostat with a screen and messaging functionality. This means that residents are not required to keep their phone numbers or email addresses up to date to take advantage of this channel. Other devices can similarly provide your residents with a channel directly in their home that is non-intrusive but with a low technical barrier to entry. In-home IoT devices are fast becoming the next communication revolution for social housing.
Improvement #3 – Measure and evaluate impact
The third improvement is to implement effective and scalable communication metrics that can be tracked and evaluated for trends. Tracking the standard call metrics is no longer acceptable when so many technologies can provide significantly more relevant metrics. Call length and number of calls is no longer the be-all and end-all of customer engagement. Instead, outcomes become the main measure by which resident engagement is judged. For calls, this means tracking the actions and results of calls and then improving the rates of success throughout the process. Often this means implementing better systems for handling resident repairs and increasing accountability with individual repairs and maintenance jobs. This approach to resident outcome tracking also applies to social media engagements. Single customer records that keep track of user’s social media complaints and average times to respond are an important part of improving the overall resident user experience. Housing providers also now need to utilise analytics platforms to understand what is working and what isn’t. This often means monthly or quarterly analytics reports to track outcomes and failures. Studying where the systems broke down is often the most effective way of understanding what needs to be changed.
Ultimately resident communication has been improved significantly in recent years, but there is always more that can be done to further improve resident customer satisfaction. Keeping up with technology and implementing systems that function for your organisation is at the top of that list. Alison Muir, director of resident services at Peabody, hits the nail on the head when she says “All too often in housing we fall back on using corporate jargon, issuing orders or citing obscure regulations. We may be the landlord and have obligations to fulfil, but… we are reviewing all our communications to make sure they are human and kind”.