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The power of our words and their impact on customer service

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We’re seeing the power of language unfold on a world stage but does the language we use create barriers, reinforce stigma, and hold us back from delivering great customer service?  

There is power in our words. Could it be some words we say create barriers between us and our Customers? 

The way we talk about our homes could be one of the root causes of the stigma around social housing. We frequently talk about assets, affordable and social housing, investments, units and stock; we’re all guilty of it. We hear it in meetings, in our reports and business plans, in the media and in Government legislation. Whilst on paper a home is an asset, we must not forget that first and foremost this is a Customer’s home. And we don’t call them by their tenancy reference number, address or tenancy type.  

Using this sort of language is dehumanising and creates barriers between us and our Customers.  

Using an inclusive language is important for everyone. In July 23, The ICS UK CSI report looked at the top three things people wanted from their Housing Association. Speedier responses topped the results (27.6%) but over 22% ask for more friendly and helpful staff and easier ways to contact the right person, respectively. We need to mind shift our existing automatic language around Customer Service in Housing to Customers and Homes.  In other service sectors, if a Customer is treated badly or rudely or without respect, they can walk away, we need to shift our mindset as our Customers could do the same. We don’t call Customers in stores shoppers, purchasers or users when we engage with them, and we need to learn from other sectors on how to treat Customers well and with positive language to show respect, and that people are valued; it’s the only way to earn loyalty and advocacy. 

How do we engage, communicate and best serve our customers?  

We know the value in positive language, being empathetic and avoiding negative words but what are our negative words for our sector? Do words such as assets and stock generate negative feelings amongst our customers and is now the time to change?  

We have a wealth of data on our Customers’ homes and with the power of technology, we’re going to have an even greater understanding of them. But as technology evolves and data becomes more every day, we need to keep a check on the language we use and make sure we keep the person at the heart of our Customer Service. We’re all different, we all live in our homes in different ways, and it is only when we can really answer the individual challenges that people face with their homes that we can truly provide great Customer Service across the housing sector, and challenge the retail, banking and tourism sectors in their offering of customer service.  

What we’re doing?  

We believe in the power of partnerships and not being afraid to ask for help to get the answers we need to support our thriving Communities. To better serve our Customers we’re taking positive steps to get a better understanding of their needs.  

In addition to our annual Wellbeing Survey, this year we’re also amplifying our efforts to hear from all our Customers in part of the Tenant Satisfaction Measures survey, aiming to reach all our Customers by the end of March.  

We also remind our Colleagues how to communicate in positive and inclusive language and using Plain English. We might not get it right every time, but we are improving. 

We’re also diversifying the way we work with our Customers. We’ve recently expanded our National Customer Group to include regional divisions and are looking to build out specialist Customer Groups for our home ownership. We’re undertaking research to help us truly understand the language and terminology that resonates with our Customers. And finally, we’ve also joined HouseProud to give us on-the-ground insights from our LGBTQ+ Community and help us in the design and delivery of our services across the country.  

Where next? 

Housing is in the spotlight and there’s a real opportunity for providers to really change the face of UK housing. With our homes being the biggest financial commitment any of us can make, great Customer Service can heavily influence our feelings about our home, and as providers, we need to get that right, even if that means getting into the granular. 

Deborah Owen-Ellis Clark is Group Customer Experience Director for Places for People.