Tragedy sounds a wake-up call for tenant engagement

In her latest blog Thrive Homes Chief Executive Elspeth Mackenzie considers the questions around customer engagement highlighted by the Grenfell Tower disaster.

As the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy continues, there has inevitably been much debate and discussion within the housing sector.

Of course we need to wait for the outcome of the inquiry to fully appreciate the lessons to be learned, but it has turned the spotlight on an aspect of our work that many housing associations struggle with – tenant engagement.

The first question is how do we, as a sector and as individual organisations, ensure we clearly hear what our customers are saying?

Traditionally housing associations tried to attract people along to attend meetings but usually only a minority of tenants would be interested in such formal gatherings, so we ran the danger of getting a very one-sided view.

In our digital age, part of the solution must be to exploit technology better – looking at subtler ways of understanding how our customers are behaving and hearing their voice.

The second question is how to make sure the message gets through to the right people so that serious issues are flagged up and appropriate action taken?

This is something that boards and executive teams need to consider. After all, how can senior managers respond to a particular issue and intervene if we don’t know about it in the first place?

Understanding customers
Here at Thrive we are trying to tackle these challenges in a number of ways, taking a more consumerist approach to understand what our customers think and how they are living in our homes.

We are committed to getting closer to our residents. With this in mind, we are introducing ‘Home Plan’ – a holistic way of managing customers and their properties – as part of our new ‘Thrive Deal’ agreement with tenants.

This will involve taking an inventory of a property’s condition at the start of the tenancy, with the expectation that the customer will maintain it to that level. We will then visit them annually to ensure this remains the case and pick up any minor repairs. Those visits also give us the opportunity to understand better how the home is being used, ensure it presents no safety risk and get feedback from our customers.

Addressing the need to make sure important messages get through, we have introduced our Customer Experience Panel – a group which combines tenants and board members. It is an unusual step but one which is already proving invaluable by giving our board a very direct link with our customers.

The panel provides a clear line of communication but also acts as a kind of consultancy group, allowing the board to hear about and reflect on customers’ personal experiences, consider the issues and translate them into useful, accurate data. In this way, when we get things wrong, we can take steps to make sure we get it right in future.

Doing things differently
We have also been working with the Customer Experience Panel to develop our series of satisfaction measures, to make sure we are looking at aspects of our services which are most important to customers, such as provision of a safe home.

At the moment much of our work is fairly invisible – for instance, fire safety and asbestos testing. But we are keen to be much more open and accountable, communicating to customers what came out of these tests and what we are doing about it.

Technology and customer intelligence will play crucial roles in future customer engagement. For example, using this knowledge to pitch certain involvement activities to people with particular interests.

By harnessing digital channels we are also introducing quicker, easier ways for Thrive customers to give instant, straightforward feedback – for instance, with a simple ‘How was it for you?’ question after we provide a service to them.

Time for action
I believe Grenfell is a wake-up call for our sector. We cannot be complacent – we must act to tackle the challenges that it has brought so sharply, and tragically, into focus.

However, unless we take these questions around customer engagement on board and take a thoughtful approach to them, we run the risk of sleepwalking back to a time when associations were told how to engage with customers – and it’s seldom that one approach suits all.

So, rather than waiting to have a raft of rules and restrictions imposed upon us, we need to act now and apply ourselves to find solutions that work for associations, their customers and other stakeholders.