We Need to Talk About the ‘C’ Word

The word ‘customer’ has moved from the fringes of the housing sector to the forefront of its marketing communications

Andy Milligan gave a talk at this year’s Housing Conference on the subject of customer-centricity in social housing.  During the Q&A that followed, he was asked “How can we use the word ‘customer’, which implies the tenant has any choice or influence over where they live and what sort of house they live in, when in fact they don’t really have a choice?” The questioner had a good point. How many tenants in social housing can make choices about their home in the same way that they can make choices about which shops to go to, which products they buy, which mobile network they use? And if they can’t, why don’t we just acknowledge that fact and call them tenants and residents?

From Tenant to Customer

The word ‘customer’ has moved from the fringes of the housing sector to the forefront of its marketing communications. When I spoke at Housing in 2017, there was little visible mention of the word, but this year I did not see a single stand in the exhibition hall where ‘customer’ was not proudly called out.  What’s driven this change? Probably three factors:

1) The government’s push to ensure the voice of residents is central in the operations of all housing providers, which gained even greater urgency after Grenfell. This has encouraged providers to take approaches that are akin to customer-centric best practices in commercial markets where decision making, in the words of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, ‘starts with the customer and works back from there’.

2) The arrival of more people, including some at a senior level, from outside the sector who would  habitually use the word ‘customer’  to describe anyone who is a recipient of a product or service.

3) A dramatic shift in attitude and expectation among all of us that, no matter what product or service we are getting, it should match the standards of the best in any sector. This is the so-called ‘Amazon effect’ (“If Amazon can get me my order delivered in 24 hours, why am I waiting a week for you to repair my boiler?”)

All of these mean that metrics on tenant/resident satisfaction become more important and at the same time even harder to improve.

We’re all customers now

The housing market isn’t alone in its newly found obsession about this word. The travel sector, for example, has also been on its own journey.  Where once we were ‘passengers’ (or as the old joke used to have it, ‘self-loading freight’), we are now customers. We’re encouraged to have our ‘choice of tea or coffee’ and seek compensation if the service is delayed. Yet trains and planes are still expensive, delayed or cancelled, over-crowded, with staff on board often over-worked, and the ease of seeking compensation can be as patchy as the service itself.

The danger of calling people customers and then providing them with a customer experience so poor that it shows what you really think of them is not lost on people within the housing sector – including the residents themselves. There’s a worry that the word ‘customer’ is used as a marketing smoke screen, a superficial re-badging, a ‘tick-box’ exercise in naming that puts a respectable veneer over a service more interested in protecting the value of an asset or filling a void property than truly caring about what the people living in homes want, need or feel.

Which leads us to the tension within the housing sector between the focus on ‘assets’ and on customer. How often inside the sector do you hear the term ‘asset’ used instead of ‘home’? How often do you worry that residents are seen as an ‘occupier of an asset’ rather than a valued customer? If the customer experience within this service doesn’t reflect and respect the resident, then let’s be honest, it’s just brochures and bull. And residents can see right through this – hence the scepticism about the word ‘customer’ in the first place.

Choice is a mindset

So how do we deal with scepticism about the c-word? I think Greg Reed, the CEO of Places For People, has the answer. He was on stage with me when the question that prompted this article was asked. Greg’s background is from the commercial sector, at MBNA and most recently as CEO of HomeServe. Greg leapt in to respond: “The tenant might not have a choice, but we should treat them as if they did have a choice.” In other words, treat them with the respect you would expect yourself as a customer of any service.

I’d argue that this conversation isn’t really about the term ‘customer’ at all, but something a lot bigger. It is about a mindset. If the resident doesn’t want to be referred to as a ‘customer’, then of course that is their choice, and the provider should call them what they want to be called, be that ‘tenant’ or ‘resident’. However, for the sake of doing what’s right, the organisation should think of them as and be happy to call them ‘customers’. Because a customer should have choice. They should have influence. They should be represented, reflected and respected at every stage of the customer experience. 

If your job is to provide a good home, then you should treat the residents like a valued customer. Not with marketing fluff which creates natural scepticism, but by providing them with a genuine customer-centric journey towards a place they can call home. Treat them in the way you’d like to see your own family treated. If everyone in the organisation had such a mindset, it would radically change the way it operates.

Do the right thing

Whether central government will ever be able to agree and implement a plan for affordable, desirable, sustainable housing for everyone is still very much up for debate. In the here and now, however, there needs to be a non-negotiable commitment to providing a listening-led customer experience. The culture of housing should be oozing in aspiration, mutual understanding and decency.

In housing, marketing promises do not build homes. Social and commercial purpose builds homes. It drives the forward motion from the blueprint stage to the bricklaying. It should also deliver a successful customer experience that benefits the provider, the resident, the community and the economy. But it starts, as Greg Reed reminds us, by thinking of the person in that home as someone who should have a choice to be there or not. It starts with thinking of them as a customer.

Talk to us at Caffeine to see how we can help you create a customer experience that is consistent, differentiated and builds loyalty.

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