By Dr Jo Simpson

Taking the temperature of customer views has always been an activity that organisations either embrace or dread. For those that embrace it, they do so with eyes wide open and invariably take a positive view of the feedback even if it is in negative territory. They see it as an opportunity to improve; to provide a better service and to progress generally.  For those at the other end of the spectrum, gaining customer feedback is viewed as a dreaded activity to try and be avoided at all costs. Some do the absolute minimum to get by, often reporting the least amount possible to the senior management team and board.

Many organisations fall somewhere in the middle territory of these two ends of the spectrum. They collect the data (some are more proactive than others), and take note of the problem areas. So, for many there is an awareness of the issues that ‘customers’ have with them; whether they have the impetus or drive to delve deeper or make changes, depends entirely on the drive, commitment and appetite for change from the executive team and board.

With the right mindset, knowing how customers feel, shouldn’t be a scary thing. Yet for many it’s a pandora’s box some are reluctant to open. The introduction of the Tenant Satisfaction Measures (TSMs) that have to be formally reported means that providers now have to really ‘face up’ to finding out whether the customer actually is satisfied with the service being provided.

These TSMs are being introduced at a particularly difficult time in the housing sector. Organisations are getting back into the swing of things and dealing with the backlog of maintenance and compliance requirements following the extensive covid lock downs; the industry is dealing with a shortage of building materials and valuable trades, such as gas engineers and plumbers. Add into the mix, the current spotlight on damp and mould, the high cost of fuel, the high cost-of-living, and all these issues contribute to a maelstrom. Add more into the mix, with staff shortages caused by people wanting different work practices, hours and locations means that many providers are chronically under-resourced in key areas such as call centres, repair planners/schedulers and actual front line staff.

Running parallel to these issues is the continuing move to more digital methods of engagement which leaves many residents mourning the loss of face-to-face contact from known and friendly faces such as housing officers or tenancy support officers within their community.  This is further exacerbated with mergers and take overs, which sometimes leaves cohorts of residents that have no idea who their landlord is, who to contact, what they are called, let alone, how to get in contact with teams they need support from. Collectively or individually,  these factors will have some degree of influence upon resident satisfaction.

The key to embarking seriously on the TSM journey is to embrace it from the start while being wholly realistic about what the results are likely to say. For organisations that have not embarked in any resident satisfaction testing then the initial results are likely to be fairly shocking (in a positive or negative way), but for those that ‘check in’ with a regularity with their residents (annual star surveys for example), these organisations will already have an idea of where their problem areas lie.

Since the fateful night that Grenfell changed the landscape for housing providers irreversibly, the lens has been focused on hearing residents views. The push from residents has always been that they need to feel heard, but also, residents want to feel like what they say can make a difference and effect change, so it is important that we ask. It is just as important that we listen. And that we take action. The value to residents of ‘You said. We did’ cannot be ignored.

Currently organisations are busy collecting and collating the data;  but the key question to pose  is ‘what are organisations actually going to with it?’  Will it be a page of figures buried deep in a board paper or will there be an active focus at management, executive team and board meetings to actively discuss and pick apart these findings? Will there be a full embracing of “this is what our residents really think of us?” and will the question be asked “what do we actually plan to do about it?”

In the eyes of the regulator, organisations need to demonstrate that their senior teams and boards hear the voices of their residents, and have a decent awareness of what the residents think of the homes they live in and the service they receive. These TSMs will certainly prompt much needed discussions and hold organisations accountable to the data they report. The regulator is sure to take a dim view of consistently bad data being collected and no visible plans, strategies or efforts on the part of the organisations to try and improve.

So where do we go from here? Ideally, organisations need to be shining a light on the results and asking the pertinent questions; Why are our figures like this? How do we compare? What’s not working and why? How can we get to better scores? What are we doing well that we can learn from? And more importantly, what is the detail behind the data, and exactly how big is the problem?

Organisations need to commit resources, a champion and a budget to finding out what the data is really saying. Digging deeper will be a necessity for many organisations to get to the real issues behind the data. What is driving it? How long has it been like this? What specifically needs to change? Are there quick wins? Organisations need to looks at the data holistically – not just at the red and amber results, but also the green results – and ask – what can we do to make this better? Why isn’t this score higher or better? What needs to happen to get from amber to green or go from red to amber to green?

Deep dives, data mining, staff and resident workshops, working groups, scrutiny panels will all go towards digging into these issues in a robust way to try and work out what needs to change and how that might work. Immediate solutions will take time to implement and see any effective change from, but the TSMs could be the building blocks that make the housing sector stand back and draw a much-needed line in the sand. This line should be the treated as the starting point from which effective significant and meaningful change occurs going forward. Love them or loathe the TSMs, it looks like they are here to stay.

The HQN seminar in October TSMs – a stock take of how things are going will explore these questions in greater detail and showcase, different approaches to delve into the data further; review some actual data in practice, discuss early results are telling us, as well as a case study of one housing association’s journey into TSMs.

Dr Jo Simpson from Jo Simpson Research is an independent research consultant with nearly 30 years of experience in development and housing research, which combines academic research, agency and client side research. For housing and developer clients a raft of different research from customer insight work, customer satisfaction as well as property based market research and intelligence reports and analysis is undertaken. Jo is also a non-executive board member and chair of the Communities and Housing committee for Kent based housing association. Jo Simpson Research regularly works for a number of local authorities, large and small housing providers and a range of private national developers.