Opinion: The importance of understanding the customer and why change is needed
Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing
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By Ben Marshall, research director at Ipsos MORI
Housing associations have always endeavoured to understand and stay close to their customers; just think how long tenant panels, community consultations and customer satisfaction surveys like STATUS and STAR have been around. But many of these approaches need updating if they are to remain in sync with tenants’ lives and useful to landlords.
Customers, tenants, residents; whatever we term them, they are changing. Demographics are shifting, technology is developing (fast) and the digital divide will narrow. Welfare reform – including the ‘bedroom tax’ and Universal Credit – mean that, according to one analysis, “the relationship between housing associations and their tenants is at a crossroads”. Landlords now have to balance ‘following’ and ‘leading’ customers, fulfilling social responsibilities while protecting commercial interests, deciding what to deliver and what to not deliver.
The question is; are current methods for understanding customers fit for making such important decisions? Several of our clients are looking to new and innovative methods alongside more traditional ones. Digital technology is opening up new possibilities for collecting customer insights including, for example, ‘big data’ analysis and segmentation of customer databases, social (media) listening and ‘in-the-moment’ feedback via mobile and smartphones. These are not pipedreams; we are delivering projects using these methods right now.
Something else is happening. Some HAs are turning away from ‘just’ doing customer satisfaction surveys to supplementing what they already know about customer characteristics and circumstances with understanding of behaviours and attitudes. Yes they want to know how they are performing – and use annual and tracker surveys to do this – but they are also keen to learn about their customers’ capabilities and behaviours, what they expect (and don’t), and why. They want to pinpoint under- or over-delivery, and measure social impact.
As an example, Hyde Housing used qualitative research to explore the barriers to their residents accessing and using services online. We worked with another association to use an ethnographic study to understand the interaction between customers and staff on ASB. On welfare reform, projects like ‘Real Life Reform’ and HAILO are using longitudinal research to understand impacts as they emerge (while also giving a powerful voice to those affected).
In their response to welfare reforms, Viridian Housing saw a role for research to add value to their analysis of customer data. Viridian wanted to understand how to offer more effective targeted support so customers were better placed to pay their rent or think about moving home, and the involvement of a third party allowed some neutral conversation and greater depth to that enquiry.
On Viridian’s behalf, Ipsos MORI used qualitative and quantitative social research to better understand whether and how to use interventions and incentives to support customers to pay rent and, where appropriate, to downsize. The research identified several opportunities for supporting customers, and pinpointed communication needs.
Looking ahead, customers and landlords face several challenges. It seems likely that landlords who fully understand their customers, and customers who have realistic expectations of their landlords, will be best equipped to cope. Customer research can be at the heart of this, but it must adapt to thrive.