WDH: Much More than Bricks and Mortar

WINTER 2021/22

What will customer service look like in the future? Has the pandemic forced us to jump down an already inevitable road towards hybrid working and digital-first customer experience, or will we see a return to in-person working and interaction? We spoke to Andy Wallhead, Chief Executive of the social landlord WDH, about his tumultuous first 2 years in the job, and his vision for the future.

An unexpected challenge

WDH was established in 2005, and has become one of the country’s largest providers of social housing, with over 32,000 homes around Wakefield and the north of England. The organisation prides itself on delivering excellent customer service, and had a strong track record of high satisfaction scores when Andy took over two years ago. He knew he had a difficult task in front of him, to continue to build on already high performance, but who could have known back then what we were about to come up against?

“There were some challenges I knew I was going to face as Chief Executive, but if I'm honest a global pandemic was not one of them. A digital transformation was something we needed to do anyway, although Covid has accelerated it.”

This is a sentiment that comes up again and again when you talk to people about the changes that we’ve all made to our working practices over the last couple of years. Covid has forced us to jump down a road that we were already moving along (perhaps more reluctantly than we should have been!).

What’s interesting about this is a ratchet effect, as some of the new behaviours that have been forced on us stick even when they’re no longer the only option. We’ve seen this in our own research into consumer behaviour changes during the pandemic  as well as in employment trends, but Andy comments on how it affects channel choice in social housing:

“Lots of people who we thought would struggle to switch to online and telephone were forced to do so during Covid, and did not switch back afterwards, even when they've been able to.”

When we look back on the long-term changes to ways of working and interacting that started during the pandemic, this ratchet effect is what we’ll need to understand them properly.

“I think it's just accelerated what was going to be an inevitable direction of travel and I don't think there's any going back from that.” 

On top of the direct impact of the pandemic, like many organisations WDH has had to deal with knock-on effects such as supply issues and shortages of labour and goods, all of them combined with the impact of Brexit and one-off shocks such as the blockage in the Suez canal. Andy is not alone in hoping things calm down a little in 2022.

“We've definitely seen some impacts, I'm hopeful that they will settle down a bit into 2022. It's something that we have to be mindful of, and we are going to revise our business plans when we do our budget planning in February. We may need to revise our inflation assumptions, because we think we're probably going to go into a period of higher inflation and potentially higher interest rates.”

There can be a debate within the sector about what the role of a social landlord ought to be. Is it ‘four walls and a roof’, i.e. providing a good quality home and keeping it well maintained and repaired, or should it be something more than that? There are good arguments either way, but Andy is very clear that he has a wider view of WDH’s role:

“If I just wanted to be a landlord, I’d be Chief Executive of some private property company.”

That feeds through to WDH’s vision to “create confident communities”, and informs a strategy that is about much more than simply houses. It’s one that is rooted in understanding the needs of customers.

That’s where technology, whether it’s through voice assistants or the ability to upload a screenshot of the problem, will help to make services easier for customers as well as making it easier for WDH to accurately diagnose the issue and send the right tradesperson.

“With some of that technology, we can send the right person out, fix it first time, and that's what customers want.”

Digital channels will also open up the lines of communication between WDH and customers, making it easier to get tailored information to the people who need it, whether that’s programmes for schools, apprenticeships, or mental health.

“Digital gives us more opportunity to actually push things out to people. Information that people might not necessarily know that they want. It's not about bombarding them with junk mail, but if we can get to a position where we can send out information that we think will be helpful, and it could be quite tailored as well, I think those are the things that get you from 90% satisfaction up to 95%, 98%, 99%.”

“There were some challenges I knew I was going to face as Chief Executive, but if I'm honest a global pandemic was not one of them.”

Technology to make things better, not (just) cheaper

In social housing the demographics and needs of the customer base make it unlikely that digital channels will ever be the only way for customers to interact with their landlord, but Andy feels that technology is crucial to the future. The main driver, though, is not cost-savings, but ambitious plans for improving the customer experience.

WDH has boosted its internal capability, and increased budgets to allow for new hardware and software, as well as restructuring around a new director role. All of this is necessary to make progress at the speed Andy believes is necessary.

“People were very patient with us during lockdown and Covid. Our customers understood the challenges that we faced, and I think we were pretty good at understanding the challenges they faced and that bought us some goodwill, but they want to interact with us in a different way. They're doing that in other walks of life, and if we don't keep pace with that I think their patience will quite rightly wear thin. We've got to move with some real speed.”

There is often a perception that customers are reluctant to move to digital channels, but the ease with which they embrace the likes of Facebook and Amazon suggests that this resistance is often to the way in which digital has been approached, rather than the technology itself. In many cases it is customers who are frustrated with the reluctance of suppliers to move to more convenient digital channels, not the other way round.

“It's a bigger customer base than we sometimes think, it’s not just young people. We can make it simple, and for lots of our customers it'll give them a much better experience. I think the scope to improve our offer is immense.”

Andy talks about the possibility of using voice interaction (through virtual assistants such as Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant) to improve accessibility, as well as the scope to offer services in a wider range of languages to support the diverse community that WDH works within.

“Technology has a real opportunity to improve the experience and that's where we'll make those extra steps in terms of increased customer satisfaction. Without that investment we could plateau and potentially even fall backwards, because people are going to experience that kind of interaction in other walks of life. They will expect it.”

Businesses often focus on the cost-saving potential of digital transition, which often turns out to be pretty tenuous in practice, so I think this emphasis on innovation and flexibility, making things better and easier for customers, is much more exciting. Switching to digital isn’t about creating a slightly worse, but much cheaper, service; it’s about giving customers an easier, more flexible, more tailored experience that better suits their needs.

“There are ways in which we'll drive through efficiencies as a result, but the driver for me is a better, simpler, experience.”

WDH is starting with relatively good levels of customer satisfaction. What Andy is looking for is the need to anticipate future customer requirements, and the places where the organisation can find small improvements. Feedback from the survey conducted by TLF Research shows that there are opportunities in terms of making services more accessible, and in making it simpler to interact with WDH. Andy gives an example of what he means:

“I went out with one of my advisors a few weeks ago, and we saw a customer about some environmental issues. We were chatting to him about repairs and he said that he couldn't read and write very well, so that puts him off — that's the reason he hadn't reported the problem. He was afraid that we'd ask him to fill some kind of form in, so he just didn't do it, he was just living with the issue”

A customer mindset

We’ve been talking about “customers” throughout, but even that terminology can be a little contentious. Are social housing customers really “customers”? Perhaps we should refer to them as tenants and residents? It’s a semantic point, perhaps, but Andy believes it is an important part of a mindset that puts customers’ needs at the heart of decisions made throughout the business.

“Our staff do think of our customers as customers with choice, even though perhaps some of them don't actually have the level of choice that you would normally associate with the customer. That's how we think.”

Just as small differences in the experience can make a big difference to customer satisfaction, this kind of thing can make a big difference to an organisation’s culture. When he took over as Chief Executive, Andy was asked if he had any plans to outsource aspects of the organisation such as repairs. His answer was “no, not as long as the service to customers is good”.

Many staff live in the same communities as their customers, and this can create a real sense of connection and pride. How does he go about building on that to spread a customer-focused mindset throughout the organisation, especially when so many are working from home? It starts by being visible:

“I'm usually in the office three days a week, and that's because there are bits of my job that I can never do at home. Some of it is about visibility. It's also about learning — I have a responsibility to keep learning because things change. If I think about the learning I've done throughout my career, it hasn’t mainly been in a classroom or on a course, it's been through observation. I can't do that from my kitchen.”

Andy is also very conscious of his role as a leader, treating his own staff as customers:

“I do consider my staff to be customers of mine. If they need access to me for something important, I should be there. I should be there to explain decisions that we make and justify some of those decisions.”

There is no question that it is very difficult to create good customer experiences unless you have engaged, happy, staff. That’s why culture is such an important part of any customer experience strategy. We’ll come back to what that means for hybrid working later on.

“Staff engagement is crucial in that. We are lucky that we operate in a relatively tight area geographically. Staff working from home has been challenging for some of them, but it's also a challenge for the business in terms of maintaining its culture and ethos.”

It’s not about giving customers what they want

Organisations often have a very simplistic view of customer research, seeing it as direct feedback from customers that they either act upon or don’t. This is a total misunderstanding of what customer insight does well, which is help you to understand how customers see the world, and why it looks like that to them.

“Even if what we did wasn't wrong. If we've had a complaint, somebody felt it was wrong. Was there something we could have done slightly different to make that customer feel better? It might just be communication.”

Those moments where a customer and an organisation see things differently always present an opportunity to improve the customer experience, without necessarily just doing what customers ask for. Andy gives a great example of a customer who complained because they wanted some trees cut down. The trees were perfectly healthy oak trees, so there was no reason for WDH to cut them down, but that doesn’t mean that the answer has to be a flat “no”.

“The customer may not be happy, but they deserve a rationale for it. I don't expect that every customer is going to agree with our decision making, but we should be respectful in the way that we go about it.”

As so often when these perception gaps turn up, the secret is to do some digging so that you can understand what’s going on from the customer’s point of view. When you do that it often turns out that the “unreasonable” customer is actually being perfectly reasonable, given their experiences.

“Taking that time and not just thinking ‘he must be wrong’. A little bit more understanding, and being a bit empathetic with their situation, is often quite revealing.”

In this instance, it turned out that the real reason the customer wanted the trees cut down is that their car was parked under the tree, and the sap was messing up the paintwork. Once you understand the root cause, it opens up potential solutions:

“What I said is, ‘Well, I don't think the right answer is to take the trees down. Not only would that upset 20 people on your street, but they’re living things and they’re healthy. But the solution might be that what you really want is some off street parking.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’d love a drive.’ I can't promise that tomorrow, but actually isn't that a better solution for us to look at as opposed to chopping the trees down?”

It’s only one example, but I loved this story because it’s such a neat demonstration of the idea that customer insight is not about expecting customers to give you solutions, it’s about understanding the context of their lives so that you can see where they’re coming from. If I could get one message through to businesses about customers, that would be it — customers are not being unreasonable, you just need to understand where they're coming from.

The human connection

The importance of that human connection to customers means that self-serve interactions, however well designed, are never going to be right for every customer or every situation. When customers need to speak to a person, it’s important that they’re able to. Andy believes that, even in digital channels, it’ll be important to have a person available on screen if the customer needs help. As a rule it’s when things are going wrong, or the customer is stressed, that person to person contact is vital.

“When it's emotional, when there's something you need resolving, I think you do want to speak to someone, and that's why we need the different channels.”

Retaining person to person, and even face to face, interactions doesn’t mean that everything has to stay the same. There’s potential for hybrid working patterns to improve the flexibility of WDH’s in-person service.

“With more agile working, rather than having a lot of large offices we'll probably end up with smaller touchdown points. We've been able to respond quite quickly to reshaping some of our property requirements.”

Moving from a small number of large offices to more, smaller, local locations may be good for both customers and staff:

“More local touchdown points would be good for staff because it means they could go into an office to do printing or face to face meetings, and it will be good for customers. We can organize things that way in more local communities, but it won't be the big customer service centres that we've seen in the past with rows and rows of desks, it will be much more casual than that. It should make things easier for customers who do need face-to-face contact.”

A more hybrid approach to work is clearly the way that WDH, and most organisations, are going, but Andy is keen to emphasise the importance of staff continuing to learn from each other and talk to each other face to face.

“Some level of interaction is crucial. I don't think it's just desirable, I think it's absolutely necessary. I certainly don't want to go back to the days of as all commuting in and queuing in traffic at eight o'clock in the morning and blocking the roads at five o'clock at night five days a week. But we do have a responsibility to ourselves, our customers, and each other to continue learning from each other.”

What’s the business case?

I asked Andy about the business case for investing in customer experience and employee engagement in social housing. It’s easy to make a moral argument that treating customers well is the right thing to do, but can we make a financial one?

“Customers have choice, and there's increasing choice (which is a good thing). I think that keeps us on our toes. There is absolutely a business case for increasing customer satisfaction, because customers are more demanding. And that's right, we should be pushing standards, and customers expect that because that’s what they're getting in other walks of life. We need to improve to remain viable, because people will walk the day we think that we're untouchable.”

We often describe the business case for customer experience in terms of adopting a “loyalty strategy”, because the truth is that it is something that pays off over the long term. A loyalty strategy is an investment in the future of your business. Housing, as Andy points out, is well used to long-term thinking.

“I always say to staff this is a long-term business. This is not a business that's here today, gone tomorrow, and therefore we should think long-term not short-term. It's long-term gains and long-term improvement that we should be aiming for.”

We think that should be true of every business.

Andy Wallhead

Chief Executive