I am sitting here from the friendly confines of the Hannover, Germany Social Housing company thinking about my last week in Scotland. I visited several social housing companies and discussed several themes. Subjects ranged from social enterprise to property management, anti-social behavior and process improvement projects. One thing that is sticking in my head is my visit to what is called The Hub in Glasgow. The HUB is the customer service center created to serve what is called the Wheatley Group members. The Wheatley Group is a very large umbrella organization that has several social housing companies underneath it including the Glasgow Housing Authority with over 40,000 units alone. Below is a list of the full portfolio served by the Wheatley Group.
- Glasgow Housing Association, Scotland’s largest social landlord, with 41,500 affordable homes in Glasgow
- Dunedin Canmore – with 5,500 homes in Edinburgh, Lothians and Fife
- Cube Housing Association with 3,300 social homes for rent across the West of Scotland
- West Lothian Housing Partnership with almost 400 affordable homes for rent
- YourPlace Property Management, with over 26,000 customers
- Lowther Homes which has a growing portfolio of almost 500 mid and full-market apartments from Glasgow’s West End to Edinburgh’s Leith
- Loretto Housing Association with 1,089 homes across Central Scotland and its care subsidiary, Loretto Care, which works for and supports over 1400 people.
Now that you understand the size and scope of the work being done by Wheatley, it is easier to discuss the customer service portion of their work. While each housing association underneath Wheatley retains its name and feel, they do work with Wheatley in overall strategy and operations. It is important that top notch customer service is given and Wheatley governs a lot of that strategy. To improve upon customer service across the portfolio, the company implemented a new 360 degree customer service software called ASTRA. The software allows them to integrate all databases into this one extremely easy to use software program which saves time and money. Before Wheatley implemented this system, an employee needed to look into several databases to answer customer questions. Now an employee can be trained only on this one system. This obviously makes answering and responding to customer questions or demands quicker and easier.
The next step of the Wheatley Group’s service model is something called The HUB. This is their 24 hours a day 7 days a week customer service home. Any residents who live within a Wheatley Group property will be put into contact with The HUB when they need to ask a question or have a problem. Yes that means the resident will be directed to a phone bank instead of calling the property manager. I must admit I became a little skeptical when I heard this news. Throughout my career, I usually find the property manager or the site staff typically understand resident concerns and problems better than a “nameless bureaucrat” sitting somewhere in an office. I immediately began to probe management staff at the customer service staff asking questions like, “Don’t you think you are actually losing some customer service when the property managers are not directly answering questions?” and “Doesn’t the property manager usually have a better relationship and history of each client on the property than someone sitting in a phone bank?” Staff was ready for all of my questions and not only answered them but gave me some demonstrations.
One staffer told me that the staff within the customer service center was more likely to deliver a consistent customer service approach because they worked together under the same roof and received the same training and support. They are constantly trained on putting the customer first and ensuring a strong experience. The same staffer brought up a good point when she told me that when a property manager must run around a property, work on rent arrears, handle anti-social behavior, worry about maintenance requests and talk to interested renters, it is hard to consistently balance it all and deliver excellent customer service. Having a large group of professionals handling maintenance requests, rent payments, questions and or comments frees up a lot of the property managers time to do more important work like spending more time with residents and getting inside of units to access long term development and maintenance needs. Staff within the call center also refuted my claims about the property managers knowing more about their residents than somebody sitting in a call center. I watched one of the customer service reps in action and was impressed how much data and information is at hand. The ASTRA system allows the staff to look at a history of the residents and have a strong understanding of past issues, problems or maintenance requests. You can clearly see all of the past interactions between the housing company and the residents which make it easier to talk through anything regarding past history. When it is needed, the customer service center will still connect a resident to the property manager when it is needed and the whole transaction is documented from A-Z.
I spoke with a few staff at the HUB who used to be property managers and they also told me having this call center would have been a great asset to them back when they worked in the field. They regularly interface with current property managers and the reaction is extremely positive. In all, The HUB is handling an average 12,000 calls per week, plus 500 online enquiries. The center operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, providing a round-the-clock service. That is a lot of work that is not being distributed to properties but being handled by a very capable and well trained staff.
I am sure there are many who will still be hesitant to give up control of parts of property management to staff working at a call center. However; after my time in Glasgow I must admit I am a believer. A call center might not work for a small property manager but I am sure some iteration of it would work extremely well in any medium or large sized housing authority/association. The more we turn to technology within the industry, the more we can utilize it to help become better property managers and also ensure customers receive the best information possible. I love the idea of a personal touch and personal knowledge but when your property manager or assistant leaves the organization or is sick or perhaps on vacation, where is all of that history and knowledge? If you are ever in the Glasgow area, I suggest you email staff there and see if a tour of The Hub is possible. It is an exercise in seeing how technology and a willingness to try new methods can create a dynamic and engaging customer service experience within the social housing industry.
Have you seen something similar? Has your housing company tried something similar and seen different results? Please email me as I am curious to hear different voices.