Improving customer experience in social housing and giving teams a customer-focused purpose.
Client: Paragon Community Housing
Type of project: Customer Experience & Culture Change programme
Region: South East UK
Why customer experience in social housing changes lives
Your home is a place of safety, refuge and escape. It’s about family and security – which is why it’s also an emotional area for most people when things go wrong. Housing associations now account for over 36.5% of the social rented housing stock in the UK, which makes their impact (positive or negative) profound. Added to this, some of the most vulnerable people in society rely on housing associations for a home.
Paragon cares for around 60,000 people living in 24,000 homes – all directly affected by the quality of their services. Paragon wanted to give those people a better customer experience by creating greater customer-focus internally.
What needed to change
A human approach to better customer experience in social housing
Paragon had already been through a service restructure, and begun journey mapping key service areas. A lot of their energy had been focused on what they did and now they needed to start looking at how they did it.
Developing a common, customer-centric vision: The best place to start developing a customer-centric vision was with the front line; the people who talk to customers every day and know what matters on the ground. They needed to know that they were empowered to do what was right for customers without ending up in trouble if things went wrong. They needed a shorthand – a quick way to know what the right thing was; a ‘customer promise’ that gave them focus and informed how they worked with customers. They needed to get out of their silos too and see the organisation as customers did – as a single entity.
Leadership support: To back up the front line, the leadership team needed to define and communicate a customer experience vision based on customer insight, feedback and key service improvements.
Service training programme: Front line teams knew – in theory – how to look after customers and give them the service they needed. But in practice things often went wrong. The team needed a set of practical customer service skills but they also, crucially, needed to reconnect with why it all mattered. They needed to see the customer through all the process, procedure and everyday work and understand the immensely positive impact they could have.
Agree “how we do things”: To get people out of their silos and focus on the customer, each team needed to find ways to get clarity on how services were delivered and how they – and every other team – should behave. Each team needed a common purpose everyone could agree on – and know other teams had their backs.
Empower teams to take ownership: Breaking down silos was one thing – but teams needed the autonomy to flex with what customers wanted. That meant changing processes to smooth them out as well as helping managers in promoting a coaching style where the “people closest to the problem should have the power to fix it”.
What we did
Making customer experience everyone’s responsibility
Paragon needed to face outwards – rather than inwards – at every level of the organisation. You can’t do that with a set of processes; it has to come from a shared vision of your organisation and its customers. Teams then had to understand how that vision applied to them and how it gave them permission to do the right thing for customers, even when that meant going outside process and procedure.
Customer insight and analysis
Paragon already had a wide range of customer feedback from the work they’d done on service improvements and journey mapping. We used this to give everyone a clearer picture of what mattered most to customers and to inform the change strategy. We used the themes that came from customer research to determine where we started, what we should focus on and where we’d have the greatest impact.
Customer experience and customer service masterclass
We developed two workshops as the foundation of the customer experience programme.
1. Customer Experience Foundations: We wanted to help teams move away from the idea of a few people in the call centre and on the front line doing ‘customer service’ and towards everyone being part of ‘customer experience’. That meant exploring how teams worked on customer experience, the impact of process and policy on service design and getting teams to understand the “why” behind what they did. We also explored how different teams worked together, getting them to understand each others’ perspectives, pressures and priorities.
As part of the workshops, we asked teams about the little ideas they felt could improve customer experience – things like tweaking processes or raising sign-off limits – and asked them to share their own stories too.
I get the chance to help people who have been through sometimes awful circumstances to get a fresh start and sometimes secure a home for the first time in their lives.
To help teams do DIY customer experience in their own departments, we showed them how to use service design tools like journey maps and customer personas.
2. Working with Customers Masterclass: Once we’d helped people see the difference between customer service and customer experience, we wanted to give them more practical skills so they could handle customer issues better.
What we covered in the Masterclass
- Give the teams a better understanding of the importance of customers
- Give the team skills to be more confident communicators
- Give the team the skills they need to work with customers more effectively
- The importance of your role – why customer skills are so fundamental
- Where and why customer relationships go wrong
- How people really communicate
- How people really understand
- The dangers of being an expert when you’re dealing with customers
- Customer emotion and how to deal with it
Communicating with customers (written and telephone):
- Checking understanding
- The dangers of assumption
- Being conscious of the customer’s knowledge level
- Breaking down the complex to the simple
- Using structure to help people understand
- Communicating in sensitive situations
Complaints and how to deal with them
- Understanding what’s really behind a complaint
- Spotting complaints early and fixing them
- Complaint language and how to spot it
- Saying no and giving bad news effectively
- How to stop complaints escalating
- Emotion in complaint and how to deal with it
- Answering complaints effectively
Tone of voice
- Mirroring and matching in tone of voice – in writing and on the phone
- Avoiding being a call-centre robot
- Giving information on the phone and checking understanding
- Sounding human and professional
The “Culture Club”
Absolutely no-one had to sing Karma Chameleon or wear a dodgy ’80s hat, but we wanted to give the leadership team a forum where they could talk through the issues that came from changing culture. Paragon’s leaders were absolutely vital to the project’s success, simply because their teams scrutinised everything they did and said for signals of how to behave, so they needed to be powerful examples for the new culture.
We based the work we did in Culture Club on what we’d learned from customers and the feedback we’d collected during the training sessions with teams.
To ground all our activity, and give us a touchstone for decision making, we developed a manifesto, agreed to and signed, for all senior leadership:
The culture club manifesto
We want to create a culture where…
We will treat everyone as an individual, being mindful of their needs, background and perspective.
We never take the impact we have lightly. We will make customers’ experience with us as effortless as possible.
We will be mindful and conscious of the way we are being; both with each other and the people who rely on us in the community.
We will be a resourceful family of individuals, each playing a part in caring for the communities, people and families we touch.
We will be inventive in every challenge we face, being open to change, taking ownership and working together to pass the baton, not the buck.
We will show people the respect we would want ourselves – recognising our differences are what make us special.
We will celebrate the impact we have and take time to remind each other of the ways we make a difference.
Developing the Paragon Person
The Paragon Person was a touchstone for teams, based on feedback from the sessions we ran and working with everyone in the organisation. It was intended to be a set of guiding characteristics for what it meant to act “Paragon”; something to unite behind. A common purpose.
Each team had their own, personalised interpretation of the Paragon Person – here’s an example:
A Paragon Person…
Takes ownership – a responsibility to each other and our customers.
Is resourceful – using what we have at our disposal to achieve.
Celebrates the impact we have – and recognises when we could do better.
Treats everyone as an individual – embracing their individuality.
Is empowered to be honest – not over-promising.
Passes the baton, not the buck – so we can all win.
We worked with each team to develop their own Team Promises, setting out how they’d work with internal and external customers.
The Customer Champions programme was designed to be a platform for positive disruption and a catalyst for change. We recruited a group of individuals with a common purpose to work together to support each other, solve problems and bring a level of energy into the business.
We knew front line teams were closest to customers, but often struggled to do their jobs because of unnecessary effort in processes, systems and everyday little things that got in the way. A little like grit in an engine – small things having a big impact.
So we got groups of front line staff together and asked them what little things they’d change to have a big impact for customers. Then we sent them back to their teams to make those changes with the blessing of their leaders.
Connecting everyone to a customer-centric view of customer experience in housing
There’s always a danger that projects like these can be too theoretical, too focused on leadership and don’t get input from the people who deal with customers every day. That’s why we started by working with the frontline, getting their insight and knowledge of simple, small improvements that could have a big impact.
Next, we looked at how to bust silos, both practically and organisationally. We got different teams together to understand how each worked and build relationships – it’s hard to ignore someone you were joking with and sharing lunch with last week.
And we worked with everyone in the organisation, finding out WHY they worked in housing, why it mattered and why it gave them a unique perspective on their jobs. And we turned these stories into the Paragon Person and each team’s promises.
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