By Chris Elliot, Client Manager, TLF Research
Benchmarking performance against peers is hotly pursued in most business sectors and especially in social housing. Accounting for about 20% of UK households, until recently housing associations had a regulatory requirement to survey tenant satisfaction and report their results to the regulator. The compulsory questions (known as STATUS) provided a general overview of residents’ overall satisfaction with their landlords and made peer benchmarking easy.
Following the end of the regulatory requirement to test tenant satisfaction using the old STATUS methodology, HouseMark (a membership based organisation for housing associations) was asked to devise a new voluntary methodology that measured satisfaction and that could be benchmarked in the same way as STATUS. Following extensive consultation with RSLs (Registered Social Landlords), the Survey of Tenants and Residents (STAR) was launched including the STAR benchmarking service.
But how actionable is the research? Can it identify key drivers of dissatisfaction amongst tenants that can be actioned and incorporated into the strategic plans of the RSL? Can benchmarking work alongside more detailed research that aims to identify tenant importance, impact and priorities for improving tenant satisfaction? One social housing provider that has championed a new approach to this is Leeds Federated Housing.
Leeds Federated Housing Association
Formed in 1973, Leeds Federated Housing Association provides housing for rent and other services to a range of customers around Leeds, Harrogate and Wakefield. The birth of Leeds Federated came from merging a collection of smaller landlords and during the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, Leeds Federated grew to its current size of around 4,000 homes. As well as the older homes they inherited, they have built new stock, particularly in partnership with Leeds City Council. Over the last decade, the Association focused on improving the quality of its existing stock resulting in all of the Association’s stock now achieving the ‘decent homes’ standard, and the Association performs well across all its housing management functions, when compared to other organisations providing similar services.
Leeds Federated pride themselves on being resident-focused, with a mission to ‘make places for people to live become places they want to stay and places other people will want to move to’ . Fundamental to the achievement of this bold vision are four key goals:
•Maintaining homes with a high quality repairs service.
•Improving the quality of the neighbourhoods customers live in making people want to stay and others to move into.
•Helping customers make the most of their lives.
•Continue to be a high performing housing association in all aspects of its business.
It is with these goals in mind that Leeds Federated Housing have taken the journey to understanding their customers and improving their lives.
“Like most providers in the social housing sector we’ve historically undertaken the regulatory STATUS customer satisfaction survey as the main source of formal customer feedback”, says Simon Williams, Research Manager at Leeds Federated Housing. “But with the regulatory requirement recently being removed, this provided us with the opportunity to look outside the social housing sector to see how other high performing companies measure customer satisfaction. This is what eventually led us to look at the Leadership Factor and Customer Satisfaction Index methodology”.
This move breaks a tradition in the social housing sector. Williams says, “Benchmarking landlord against landlord has been somewhat of a tradition for us but it has always been difficult given the diverse nature of our property stock – we’ve a mix of new estates & older inner city housing within Leeds plus stock in Harrogate, Wakefield and Castleford. So to find a housing association with a similar stock mix and social challenges is very difficult, limiting the value of benchmarking.”
“A turning point for me was thinking of customer satisfaction from the customer’s perspective. Whilst we can input data into a computer to benchmark our services against other housing providers the reality is that our customers can’t do the same – they can’t easily move house or request an alternative repairs service from another housing provider. Instead they’ll measure their perception of customer satisfaction against their experiences with their local supermarket, high street bank or shop. Moving to the ‘The Leadership Factor’s Customer Satisfaction Index measurement, which is based on a broader range of companies, seemed such an obvious choice”.
Changing to the Customer Satisfaction Index method has not been without its challenges. There’s a lot of tradition in the social housing sector and with that comes the strong conviction amongst some that STAR should remain the predominant methodology used for tenant satisfaction. But closely looking at HouseMark’s own description tells you that STAR is only designed to provide an overview of tenant satisfaction with the general services they receive from their provider.
Williams says, “Due to the nature of our business our services directly affect the quality of people’s lives. Getting the right services delivered consistently in the right way is tremendously important. If we fail to deliver services well, it’s not as if our customers can easily move home. Getting the best information possible enables us to make the best decisions”
“So from the start of 2012 we’ve started using a mix of STAR and Customer Satisfaction Index. In practice this means using the minimum core questions from STAR which allows us to continually monitor historical trends and benchmark our customer satisfaction performance against our social housing peers regionally and nationally. Customer Satisfaction Index measurement however forms the most important part of the process – we can benchmark our Customer Satisfaction Index score against about 80 other housing associations and also against other big brand high street names. The way the data is collated and analysed has provided us with a far deeper insight into our customers’ needs. This has given us a significant advantage against our competitors who are still only using STAR.”
This advantage is enhanced by the fact the Customer Satisfaction Index question set is bespoke to Leeds Federated after being framed round the outcomes of exploratory tenant focus groups to find what was most important to them. This again presented a massive cultural change compared to the ‘one size fits all’ question set of STAR (and STATUS before it).
So has Leeds Federated’s decision to work with the Leadership Factor paid off? “The whole thing has been excellent’’, Williams says about the partnership. “It’s provided a great platform for us to refer back to and as far as we are aware we’re the first housing association in the country that uses the combination of STAR and Customer Satisfaction Index. As a method for understanding satisfaction we do feel we are in a strong position and bucking the trend”.
The reality is that the two methodologies have a lot to offer; STAR provides a good overview of performance (HouseMark claim nothing more themselves) and can continue to maintain historically measured trends and social housig sector benchmarking. The Leadership Factor provides significant customer insight to tenant satisfaction.