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We must get a deeper understanding of Customer needs if we are to help them through the challenges of today

Economic uncertainty is affecting people across the country, and in this article, Group Customer Experience Director, Deborah Owen Ellis Clark, talks about the role of affordable housing providers in supporting their customers, and the work that’s being done at Places for People in establishing deeper and more meaningful relationships.  
Aiming to always do the right thing is a part of the culture at Places for People. It’s a philosophy that puts Customers, Colleagues and clients at the heart of everything we do and is underpinned by our commitment to make sure everyone is welcome, everyone is important, everyone is supported, and everyone can thrive.   
To borrow a phrase from our Chief Executive, “we don’t always need to be right, but we always need to do the right thing” – especially today, as our Customers seek to weather macro-economic storms.  
Challenges on the horizon  
With an unsettled political landscape, fears for the economy, and well-documented increased living costs, there is an acute need for housing associations to support Customers through this.  
It’s not just about the four walls in which Customers live; it is about understanding exactly who they are and what they need from us, so their homes are safe, secure and support them in leading healthy lives. We can only break down the stigma against social housing if we are outcome focused; listening intently when our Customers tell us what’s happening in their homes and taking that insight to positively influence change at the highest levels  
It’s an issue that I am determined for us to tackle as Places for People and as part of the newly formed National Housing Federation, Customer Experience and Housing Management Group, for which I’m chair.   
Listening to our customers’ voice     
Meaningful dialogue is imperative and allows us to take action to help people when they need it. At Places for People, we are constantly evolving to get to the centre of our Customers’ challenges be that through our Service Improvement Group which meets monthly to consider changes we can make to improve services for our Customers – or our National Customer Group. Established in 2020, the latter has a strategic overview and influence on critical issues, policies and strategic priorities affecting Customers across affordable housing.  
As housing providers, we don’t just provide the bricks and mortar; we work with our Customers to ensure they can be part of thriving Communities. And we need to consistently work with them to make sure their homes are fit for purpose and listen when they tell us of their challenges. The National Customer Group represents our Customers’ voices, working with local involvement groups such as scrutiny teams and ensuring there is two-way communication between the Places for People Regulated Board and Customers. Following a similar structure as our customer experience team and our community teams, our National Customer Group has representatives from across the country split into regional areas allowing us to work collaboratively with one another and across all management levels to ensure our Customers remain at the heart of what we do  
To truly reflect the diversity of our Communities we are currently looking to expand our network with Regional Customer Groups, who will not only feed insights from their Communities they represent but will play an integral role in our engagement strategies. 
All housing associations provide great initiatives; we need to do even more though and really understand who our Customers are and use our networks and platforms to drive change.   
The Customer journey   
For businesses to gain that deeper understanding we need to be more transparent and willing to listen to home truths.   
Many of our lessons learned this past year came from customer complaints, satisfaction surveys, and focus groups. Robust data management is another essential in allowing us to work better with our Customers; providing greater understanding of needs and helping us to identify seasonal trends and better prepare for economic changes 
It is our willingness to engage that will truly make a change. We need to nurture a grass roots, inhouse, cultural shift – one in which our Colleagues are empowered to make swift decisions to help customers. I’ve recently been appointed as Chair of the National Housing Federation’s Customer Experience and Housing Management Group. This new cross sector group exists to lead, inform and influence the work on housing management, customer service and resident engagement, and hopefully, influence wider change.   
We are fired up and ready to make a lasting impact at Places for People and it is something I will look to champion with the National Housing Federation’s Customer Experience and Housing Management National Group.