'We are all customers and we expect much more now than we ever did.'
Should residents be treated as tenants or customers? Can technology ever replace human contact in housing? We spoke to customer service guru Linda Moir, who headed the London 2012 dream team, to find out her thoughts on customer service in housing.
One of the big debates in housing is whether tenants can ever really be seen as customers, what do you think about this?
Well first of all I don’t doubt that the relationship between landlord and tenant is a special one and it’s not exactly a traditional customer relationship – providing someone’s home is a unique thing. But the simple fact is that we are all customers and our expectations have risen, and are continuing to rise, rapidly. So I think any organisation, regardless of the sector they work in, has to consider that.
One thing I think is crucial to understand, and I think is definitely relevant for housing organisations, is that the quality of the service that you offer can really drive your reputation and influence wherever you are working.
For many organisations, face-to-face and phone contact is increasingly being replaced by technology. Do you think a service as personal as housing can be delivered this way?
The move to digital services has been driven by a combination of the need to make cost savings and a change in the way people want to access services. But I do think that there is still a big, big role for human contact – whether on the phone or in person. And the more personal a service is the more important it is to maintain that.
The central issue is to decide where human contact adds real value and to maintain that where you can.
I’d certainly be cautious about moving to digital services purely for efficiency. Though that’s an important consideration it has to be balanced with the needs of your customers.
The financial landscape has been difficult in recent years, particularly for housing organisations. How can organisations deliver great service with less resource?
There’s no doubt that this is a huge challenge, and it’s one a lot of sectors are facing.
In the aviation industry the margins are incredibly tight and in everything that you do you have to be sure that it is adding value to your service.
Though the environment in housing may be different the challenge is the same in nature. If you have to take something away to reduce cost you have to make sure you don’t lose the standard of service – and it is often the human bit that is the difference.
It seemed that the success of London 2012 was very much based around an exceptional customer service culture. How important do you think having a strong culture of customer service is?
It’s everything. It really is that simple. You cannot be a successful organisation, offering great customer service if you don’t get the culture right inside your organisation.
Something I’ve learned in my career is that the type of organisation you are internally will absolutely project into your service. So for example people associate British Airways with a very professional but perhaps slightly rigid service, and that was exactly what it felt like to work for the organisation.
So any organisation has to make a decision about the style of service they want to offer, and then they have to work on making sure the culture of their organisation matches that ambition first.
There is a significant demographic challenge for a lot of housing organisations as they house people from 18 to 80. How can organisations provide customer service that works for people of all ages, cultures and needs?
That is one of the big challenges that virtually any organisation providing a general service faces and the answer is not simple.
It’s true that the move to digital services has created something of a split, with people wanting to access services purely on their smartphones at one end, to people who still want human contact at the other. The first thing to consider here is that there is no one size fits all and you should be careful about making judgements about one demographic wanting to access services in a particular way. I know 90-year-olds that are much better with technology than I am!
So be open-minded in your approach to providing services and do your best to learn as much as you can about how your customers want to access services.
I do also think that some of this is about having different options for different people though. And it’s a challenge which will take time, patience and trial and error.
Linda Moir is a HR and customer service expert. She will be appearing at Total Housing, our South East and London conference, which takes place in Brighton from 7-8 March.
- View the full Total Housing programme and book your place here