Striking a balance

Alasdair Muir discusses the role of digital technology in improving tenant satisfaction and why housing associations shouldn’t lose sight of more traditional ways to enhance customer service.

Tenant satisfaction has always been important to social landlords – but achieving it, isn’t always so easy. The pressure to build more with less and the changing needs of tenants have stretched the resources of many housing associations. But as highlighted by discussions taking place at the Total Housing 2018 event in Brighton, there is a renewed focus on customer service and ensuring tenants are getting value for money. As one speaker put it candidly, cutting out the buzzwords; “Tenants don’t want to feel empowered, they want what we all want, good quality housing to live in”.

As tenants’ needs have changed so have their expectations. In response, social landlords are seeking to shape their services accordingly, including using more digital technology.

By utilising technology and offering a greater range of online services, there are benefits for all parties. For tenants, going digital means less paperwork and more flexibility; providing them with the option to complete forms in their own time and without having to travel. For housing associations, it can free up the time of their employees, so that they can focus on other tasks. Housing officers for example, can spend more time talking with customers in person across neighbourhoods rather than getting bogged down in administration.

Recognising these advantages, and reflected in the sentiment at Total Housing 2018, digitalisation is a route that most housing associations are likely to go down. However, there are challenges too which must be overcome for this approach to be successful.

Culturally, housing associations must be open to change, and this will require leadership teams to proactively promote the benefits of digital technology and engage their staff in the process of moving more services online. They must also recognise that not all tenants will be willing, or able, to use technology, so a blanket approach will likely fail. Some tenant groups may prefer to stick with more traditional methods of contact and these needs must be respected to.

As the focus shifts onto going digital, it is also important that social landlords don’t lose sight of other ways in which customer service can be improved, especially when building new, affordable homes. After-sales in the housing industry is an area many providers fall down on, which is disappointing, given the energy and work which goes into developing and selling affordable housing, particularly in difficult economic climates and ever changing political requirements.

Housing associations must not only ensure they provide a good quality product, but that they engage with leaseholders throughout the sales process, especially once they move into new homes. In our experience, there can often be teething problems such as shrinkage cracks, or queries regarding issues such as car parking spaces, but there is rarely anyone available or in place to reassure leaseholders or resolve concerns.

One way of addressing this is to put in place measures such as ensuring that every leaseholder has a handover with their housing manager, setting out all the information they need about their new home. Another way to improve the after sales experience is to set up dedicated parts of housing associations to deal the common queries and concerns raised by leaseholders, diarising when defects periods will come to an end, and approaching leaseholders proactively ahead of such deadlines.

With tenant satisfaction high on the priority list for social landlords, digital technology can deliver smarter, more cost-effective services that better meet people’s needs. But housing associations must ensure they strike the right balance between digital tools and more traditional communication methods. As the pressure continues on boosting supply, customer service should filter through every part of the development process, and sometimes we need to recognise face-to-face contact remains an essential element of this.

Alasdair Muir is a solicitor in our Real Estate and Projects team

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