Knowing Your Customers – Elusive Prize or No Brainer We Need to Get On With?

Hot on the heels of Greenacre Executive’s Leadership Lounge – panel Chair, Amanda Leonard of Perfectstorm explores where the sector is at with this important priority and talks to Michelle Baker – Committee Chair and Board member at Eastlight and Julia Prichard – Chief Tenant Officer at Saffron Housing. 

As someone who Chairs more than my fair share of webinars, event panels and round tables, I always look forward to hearing from talented guests, engaging the audience and really digging into panellist’s experiences, insights and opinions. When you have a cross-section of the sector’s finest leaders assembled, from all over the country, from every type of landlord and with every Director representing any role you can think of we have to get our thinking caps on, our talent spotters out there and our ‘A’ game sharpened when we curate Leadership Lounge content and speakers.

Having polled Leadership Lounge executives for what they wanted to see, we have been sticking with our Regulation theme. Unsurprisingly perhaps with April 1 arriving after it’s much heralded warm up through the past 18 months – but having heard from the final phase of inspection pilot providers, which resulted in the first ‘mock C grades’ and looked at how the sector is transforming and connecting assets and customers to achieve outcomes, this month we wanted to dive deep into ‘Knowing your Customers and Tenants’.

Set against a backdrop of satisfaction bumping along lower than pre-pandemic levels, complaint satisfaction at only a third and on the eve of Housemark publishing the first sector-wide full year look at the TSMs (tenant satisfaction measures), we welcomed two pioneering customer-centric thought leaders. Julia Prichard who has led the customer piece at UK giant – Places for People and is now revolutionising service improvement and customer’s voice at East of England – Saffron Housing, and Michelle Baker, who is an independent Board member, committee member and Chair of the sectors first fully constituted all customer Board committee at Eastlight and is leading their groundbreaking Customer Influence Committee.

With an exciting new role at the Regulator for Social Housing imminent for Michelle and with Julia proving that small, medium, large, north, south, east or west the deal is the same when building customer trust, the stars aligned for our leadership loungers, and we bagged the A list for our latest session.

In conversation with Julia and Michelle and in discussion with our Leadership Lounge executives, it was clear that despite the will, the new consumer standards, and current tenant sentiment the sector still has a long way to go to crack this particular objective.

At a time when organisations who our customers interact with know everything about their needs, preferences and lifestyle – think Netflix, Amazon and banking, landlords still know relatively little about their customers and their needs and even less about their preferences.

We asked Michelle and Julia to explore why and how to help busy Executives prioritise what it takes to get this right.

Systems integration, poor data or too much data in too many places were all cited – but sadly also being too busy, poor culture and a lack of professionalisation also made the cut when thinking about the barriers. Joining the dots and systemically turning data into insight that can be used to design services, improve service quality and form a rich source of sentiment and knowledge are all essential to knowing your customers. Understanding customer needs and preferences, mapping customer journeys and user experience are also vital to improving satisfaction and building trust.

So why are we taking so long to get this right. We knew consumer regulation was coming, the Green Paper before it became a White Paper set out a new philosophy and early expectations back in 2017 and yet still the sector is taking baby steps across the piece.

Of course we had a pandemic in the middle, and we are still seeing the hangover of repairs backlogs, under-par voids and lettings performance. The cost-of-living crisis and rent cap weren’t far behind the pandemic in terms of economic shock and customer hardship and we know that poverty is still biting at a time when support agencies are squeezed to the point of collapse and local stakeholders are drowning in temporary accommodation spend and homelessness demand. These external factors and unprecedented complexity haven’t helped landlords already feeling the pinch but it’s the combination of data and technology maturity with complexity and squeezed capacity that has made progress slow in systematically knowing your customers and using that to drive service quality and positive experience.

Julia and Michelle also talked about stigma and how we had to avoid using patronising language, assuming that we know things about our customers or segments of customers when we don’t or even worse offering token engagement and involvement. Meaningful influence is clearly articulated in the Transparency, Accountability and Influence standard and Michelle told us how much time, effort and robust selection and training was put into having an effective customer-only constituted committee at Eastlight. Julia added that tennis match tick box consultation at the eleventh hour with a you said/we did finale frustrated her and did not represent embedded engagement and co-design which is something she has championed throughout her career.

According to research leaders across the sector when asked: “How advanced are you in capturing customer data and understanding your customers?” respondents answered that they:

     Only possess basic tenancy information (22%)
     Have begun collecting data on needs and preferences, but it’s still early (55%)
     Hold well-established customer insights and data, though it’s managed via  databases and forms (22%)
     Have a dynamic, real-time CRM or portal with self-service capabilities  (0%)

This reveals how far the sector still has to go with over three quarters still in the early stages of knowing their customers.

We asked Julia and Michelle for their top tips for getting to know your customers and meeting their needs.

  • Be agile about engagement points. When anyone talks to a customer – whether it’s servicing a boiler or holding a pop up event. Update your records and ask about preferences – get into customers’ ribs and current sentiment
  • Maintain a live access needs log – don’t use poor tech as an excuse, if it has to be manual until the technology catches up then do it. Access for vulnerable customers is critical and if you don’t understand needs you can’t provide effective services
  • Make all teams accountable for the customer experience, this will help to build a customer-centric culture and break down functional silos
  • Be clear about the data you need to capture and focus data and technology teams to achieve clarity
  • Build an inclusive customer influence strategy – embedding structures, mechanisms for customer voice and two-way communication channels

And finally don’t put knowing your customers in the ‘too difficult box’ – it is multi-faceted and it will require effort, investment and the right culture, but if our customers are everyday consumers of high street and online brands and institutions who know them and meet their needs, it’s time for us to stop making excuses and get on with tackling this elusive prize in bite-sized chunks from data quality, technology roadmap and customer-led processes through to culture and user experience.

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