Housing providers are turning to other customer-facing sectors, including retail, to beef up their customer service skills.
Housing associations are now more focused than ever on customer satisfaction. Not only are they taking on more customer service staff – there is also a growing realisation that they need to spread their net wider.
Many associations have created new roles, such as group director of customer experience. But finding people who can work well with residents isn’t easy, for either senior or frontline roles. Some residents can be at a difficult place in their lives; others may have unrealistic expectations of their housing provider.
Good customer service candidates, will have patience, understanding and the ability to listen, particularly in some of the heated situations in which they may find themselves, says Dan Taylor, deputy managing director at recruitment agency Morgan Hunt.
Historically, there’s been a relatively small talent pool – a merry-go-round of candidates moving around the different housing associations, “all probably for an extra £1,500 a year”, according to Taylor. But many associations are now looking outside the sector.
For frontline roles, such as tenant liaison officer, Morgan Hunt often looks for candidates with call centre backgrounds because they are used to having that regular interaction with people, according to Taylor. “They’re often quite grateful to get away from a call centre and be out there facing people,” he adds.
Katy Crothall, operations director at recruitment firm Badenoch & Clark, says there has been a huge shift in the past five years towards hiring customer service staff and that many associations are looking to the retail and insurance sectors for candidates with good customer skills; training can take care of the sector-specific aspects of the job.
Housing association interviews increasingly require candidates to meet residents, something that is an “absolute given” for senior roles, says Crothall, and some have networking sessions where candidates also meet board and team members.
Recruiting methods such as these are more resource-intensive at a time when there is a lot of pressure on managers to get staff in quickly to their frontline roles. But taking shortcuts is rarely the best way to find a suitable candidate.
Six years ago, Dillan Blake-Smith left his job as a mortgage adviser for an estate agent to work as a housing officer for Circle Housing (he has since been promoted to housing services manager). The new frontline role involved skills he’d acquired in his previous job – “dealing with customers on a daily basis, on the phone or doing visits.”
His new customers lacked the security and stability of his previous customers, however: “The support you need to provide is a lot more in-depth. You have to put a lot more in because you’re dealing with sensitive situations. You have to be really patient.”
But knowing he has made a difference is immensely rewarding, says Blake-Smith: “I still bump into people who say: ‘I remember you did this, I’m so grateful that I got this home and maintained my tenancy.’ It really sticks with people.”
Building a career – apprenticeships in housing
New apprenticeships in housing and property management are creating career opportunities across the social housing and private rented sectors.
Since 2015, all three levels of housing and property management apprenticeships – from assistant level 2 qualification to senior officer at level 4 – have been designed for staff in both sectors.
It’s a significant move, according to Aspire Housing, which has 8,500 affordable homes for rent in Cheshire and Staffordshire and led development of the frameworks. “It gives people flexibility to move across sectors because the qualifications are recognised by both,” says Tim Edwards, business development and quality director at the organisation’s training arm, PM Training.
Some 10% of the workforce at Aspire, which has more than 600 staff, started as apprentices. Thomas Wilson began as a customer service apprentice five years ago and is now a neighbourhood co-ordinator. “When I left school I didn’t want to go to university. I liked the idea of being an apprentice because it meant I could earn some money, gain qualifications and be on a career ladder,” he says. “The apprenticeship gave me a good grounding because I was moved around – I don’t think I would be in the job I am today without it.”