From baristas to barristers

We live in an age where customer feedback has never been so crucial to the success of a business. The Amazons, Tescos and John Lewis’ of this world have thrived precisely because they listen to what their customers want – either through direct feedback, or the data.

There’s nothing stronger than having constructive feedback in order to improve customer experience, but if customers are listened to and engaged with well, it also gives you something that money can’t buy – advocates. Loyal customers who will elevate your company through a simple and effective marketing tactic – word of mouth.

For housing, customer ‘feedback’ takes an added dimension.

The events of the Grenfell Tower disaster have shone a spotlight on the dilution of the residents’ voice in recent years and gave the sector the wake-up call it needed. A key feature of Dame Judith Hackitt’s review is that social housing residents didn’t and still don’t feel like their concerns were heard.

A decade or so ago, admittedly in a different regulatory environment, resident engagement was very much flavour of the month within the sector, reflected in the existence of the long-since-disbanded Tenant Services Authority. Indeed, here at Salix Homes, we launched our ‘Customer Senate’, which at the time was a ground-breaking and award-winning concept and had a significantly positive effect on who we are as a business today. However, fast forward to present day and if the concept was still in place today, it would feel dated and quite honestly, not fit for purpose.

So how do we as a sector rise to the challenge of modernising how we engage with our customers?

To get a truly representative and engaged group of residents can we really continue to rely on goodwill, free time and the promise of a biscuit and a brew?

Not from what we have found.

Our response was the creation of the Salix Homes Customer Committee – a diverse committee made up of customers, from a variety of backgrounds, and with a variety of insight and opinions to share.

Crucially, however we have been determined to give the body parity in our governance structures. Why wouldn’t we pay our customers for their valued opinions the same way we would for an accountant or a lawyer?

Yes, this step means it remunerates our residents fairly for their time, ideas and input; and yes, it means it has significantly widened the pool of potential candidates; but what this step has done is more symbolic than all of that – it treats our residents’ views as equally as it does our board.

The response has been phenomenal in every sense. 129 applicants for 12 committee seats, unearthing a range of backgrounds, professions and talents amongst our residents, from baristas to barristers.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to customer engagement.  I recognise that our Customer Committee is the more structured and somewhat formal end of engagement approaches, and it in no way undermines our other customer engagement tactics. These include our digitally engaged audience, who engage with us via our MySalix digital portal and social media channels, and our Community Connectors who are the link between us and the wider community. The key to a truly successful customer engagement strategy is ensuring every customer feels they are being engaged with in some form or another.

The Hackitt review rightly highlights the importance of the customer voice and given a truly equal footing in our governance structures, this can only enrich us as a sector and crucially help us provide better services and safer homes for our residents.