Friday, 28 October 2011

Basics: Grounds Maintenance

Today is the final post in the Basics series we’ve been running to recap on some of the elementary services and products we provide (The Basics on Repairs, the Customer Hub and anti-social behaviour can be found here) and this one concerns grounds maintenance. Tony Lowry, Assistant Director of Neighbourhoods, has some thoughts on how things have progressed.


My favourite food is without doubt, Indian. I love the flavours, the presentation, everything about it. In fact, I like it so much, I decided to take a lesson in Indian cooking and what surprised me was the sense of real science behind the cooking.

There really is a clear and rational hierarchy of spices and how they should be used and in what quantities. Like the primary colours we learnt about at school, there are in Indian cooking, four primary spices on which everything else is based. These are the spices that drive the whole experience.

So what has this to do with grounds maintenance? Well, if we are really serious about creating sustainable neighbourhoods, places where people choose to live, then grounds maintenance is one of those key ingredients that has to be right. Just like the primary ingredients in Indian food, simple, effective grounds maintenance offers a gateway to lots of subtle ideas that really add something to neighbourhoods.

Grounds maintenance is one of those services that if you get it right then no-one says anything. It becomes an unspoken comfort - just like a nice two-year-old sofa that has adjusted to your body. But get it wrong, and the whole world will tell you! Three years into the THT’s existence and we were making progress on a range of issues - but in terms of grounds maintenance our brief was wrong. We had two very poor contractors (only the council performed creditably) and despite all our progress, we had thirty complaints a week about grounds maintenance, which keeps you firmly in the quagmire.

Two years later an effective specification of the standards needed, working with a first class organisation called Greenfingers (on their site you can click on the Map Garden and select Trafford Housing Trust from the customer drop down list to see photos of the areas they look after) who provide the service, and we have to date had not one complaint. In fact, we've had several compliments. Greenfingers really are first class and share the same values of leadership that THT do. Treat the workforce well, engage them, give them responsibility – and they have created a working ethic where any slight slip in standards, any minor hint of dissatisfaction is addressed in an effective, unfussy style.

And really it’s all so simple - turn up on site when you say you are going to, be visible so the community knows you are there, leave the place looking clean and tidy before you leave. Oh and don’t forget to ask customers what they think and if they have any ideas. Then when you get feedback act on it the next time you visit.

Research by Keep Britain Tidy shows how key factors affecting the local environment, such as how well the communal land is kept, can actually help engender a real sense of community. Another body of well-documented research shows that the stronger the sense of community in an area can impact on people’s quality of life. In short - and as ridiculous as it sounds at first - there is a link between personal well-being and a lawnmower, because strong positive perceptions of place have an impact on people’s everyday feelings. And best of all, this positivity about an area is catching. Is it a coincidence for instance that as soon as our grounds maintenance improves, the volume of fly-tipped waste we have to remove goes down?

So grounds maintenance is one of the basics – but no way is it a functional, dreary service that we get right through gritted teeth; getting it right is the catalyst for making someone feel better about where they live and therefore getting it right deserves all the care and attention an organisation can spend on it. Remember this the next time you add just a quarter of a teaspoon of paprika to all the other spices to create the most flavoursome Indian food full of hidden subtleties that make you appreciate the joys of living.

Friday, 21 October 2011

What Do Housing Associations Actually Do? Here's 964339 Answers

You’d think that the clue to what Trafford Housing Trust actually does is in the name. You wouldn’t have to be a genius to see that we look after a lot of housing in Trafford. It’s funny then that I don’t really consider houses to be our primary function; really what we do is create communities.

Communities is something of a tired, and at times difficult word, especially when it emerges from the mouths of politicians. But consider what it means to you. Take a mental image of a community - it probably involves houses, but it’s also people. It’s the green and commercial spaces around the houses. It’s some form of friction between the people – social friction – both good and bad. It’s the services provided to the people who are in those houses. Your image possibly goes beyond just houses and encompasses other forms of accommodation – sheltered schemes, flats, people outside the houses looking in. All of these things go towards making up a community.

Why is this distinction between houses and communities important to me? Well, because I think it points towards a hugely misunderstood aspect of Housing Associations’ work. We’re moving into an era of housing where the simple provision of housing will be delivered by an array of sources. Any one can provide housing and the Government is committed to supporting those who do it at the lowest cost. If we don’t understand precisely what a Housing Association does then I think we run the risk of leaving a lot of the work of creating communities undone.

I mentioned as part of a recent post about the National Housing Federation "Neighbourhood Audit", that we are undertaking once more. The previous Neighbourhood Audit revealed that the work that Housing Associations undertake benefits one in every ten people in Britain, with over £430 million being invested into communities! This review was last undertaken in 2008 and so it will be interesting to see how this has changed since the last time.

We have recently completed our own audit and the figures make for shocking reading (shocking in a good way, I believe). Here are some of the headline figures:

  • Total spend on Safety and Cohesion in our communities: £189,087
  • Total spend on Education and Skills in our communities: £47,259
  • Total spend on Employment and Enterprise in our communities: £294,149
  • Total spend on Environment and Liveability in our communities: £287,495
  • Total spend on Well Being in our communities: £58,377
  • Total spend on poverty and inclusion in our communities: £37,857

The complete spend for a year’s worth of investment adds up to £964,339.59 per year. That’s an astronomical sum when you consider that it equates to nearly 3% of our annual revenue. I think it’s essential we blow our own trumpet particularly loudly on this point, because when you compare it to other companies’ spend on Corporate Social Responsibility and how loud they shout about their work in communities, what Housing Associations do is well out in front and yet you don't hear a peep about it. Perhaps unsurprisingly the documented CSR spend of other firms is hard to find, but one example for comparison would be Nike who allegedly spend $25 million on CSR and have revenue in the same year of $19 billion – equating to just 0.13% of revenue.

Housing Associations should emphasise just how much work they are doing with their communities because "its what we do". As an industry there’s absolutely no harm in explaining to people the full extent of the work that we do. Especially when you consider that several studies have shown how important social responsibility is to both employees and customers. For instance this American survey suggested that 34% of employees would take a pay cut to work with a socially-responsible firm. Not only that but 70% of consumers would pay a premium on products from a socially-responsible company.

Before anyone worries, we’re not going to be putting up rents or asking our staff to take a pay cut, because we invest heavily in our communities, but it’s strange to think that there is a whole side to the housing industry that doesn't get talked about enough. Hiding your light under a bushel is all very laudable but the housing sector has no such reason to adopt such modesty. When cuts assail us and competition is increasing it’s vital that all are aware of the full extent of our work, so that customers, employees, ministers and even ourselves can see that beyond the deceptive names, the housing sector is also about investing in communities.

I’d like to end the blog today with a challenge – how can we create an industry-by-industry index to show the total social value created (call it CSR if you like) and if we had one, is there another sector out there that would rank higher than Housing Associations?

Friday, 14 October 2011

Basics – Repairs

As October progresses and we start to look ahead to the Christmas period, it’s that point in the year when you realise how much still has to be done! One thing that can never be overlooked are the basic services and products that we are responsible for and this includes the repairs. Mike Corfield, Assistant Director of Customers and Properties, has rounded up where we are with this vital topic.

If you do something 30,000 times a year, it’s pretty important that you do it well! Our responsive repairs service carries out this number of repairs each year across the full range of our housing stock. Repairs can range from leaking taps to replacing windows; from faulty electrical sockets to patch plastering. Our tenants report this diverse range of works each and every day we are open for business.

When you are undertaking this level of work, you quickly begin to see the priorities that our customers have. Two things that are of paramount importance are that we respond quickly and, where possible, by appointment, so that you are not waiting around all day for us to arrive. I also know that it is important to our tenants that the job is completed with the minimum of fuss and in one visit where at all possible.

For this reason we have invested a great deal in our repairs’ service. This investment can be seen in the form of new technology, a modern van fleet and convenient stores facilities to provide our repairs operatives with the materials they need to carry out the work. But most importantly we have invested in our people, in the shape of customer care training, diversity awareness sessions and multi-skill and dual trades workers to ensure we can provide a flexible service. These improvements to the service we provide have been done working alongside our Repairs’ Focus Group (email us if you'd like to get involved with this group) and I am proud of what we have achieved together.

Repairs are not one of the so-called ‘sexy’ services and are often an inconvenience when you need one, but getting them right is such an important part of the landlord's offer to customers that I think it is important that we constantly review how we carry out our repairs. It was feedback from the Focus Group that led to the repairs service being made available outside of normal business hours. The take-up of evening and Saturday morning appointments has been strong and I hope that this extension of our operating hours will continue to be a valued feature of our service.

Perhaps controversially I have been wondering if the service is too good! Whether the things we do and the costs we incur are what our tenants want and whether in some circumstances our approach spends tenants rent money unwisely.

Increasingly I think that great basics in relation to repairs does not mean that we should respond unthinkingly to every report we receive. It should mean that if tenants abuse their homes they should not just be free to have the damage repaired without question. That does not represent value for money for the vast majority of tenants who cause no damage to their own homes.

It is for this reason that we have introduced a system where the tenant is expected to pay up front for non-emergency re-charges and why we are looking at those tenants who appear to report a disproportionate amount of repair work each year. We want to understand the reasons behind these problems and support our tenants accordingly, but think it is only fair that they meet their own obligations not to damage or neglect the properties they rent from us.

It's fair to say we retain a gentle skepticism about the Housing Ministers' plans to reward tenants for undertaking their own DIY and repairs. We are fully behind imparting skills to tenants (such as the DIY courses we ran aimed at residents as part of the Big Day In...), and we are always looking at sensible ways of saving money. But Shapps' idea brings with it the danger that you incentivise people who possibly aren't the best people for the job to "give it a go". It raises the prospect of patched-up, bodge jobs, which at best will not work and at worst will endanger the current tenants - or those who rent the property afterwards. We know that the quality of repairs is of paramount importance to our tenants and at the moment we aren't seeing much interest from them in a DIY approach - although, as ever, we remain open to new ideas.

We believe our repairs team offers a quality, responsive service to our tenants when they need a repair, but one that will not hesitate to charge for work where we believe the repair is not the result of fair wear and tear. I do not think such an approach is inconsistent with great basics, indeed in my view, to do otherwise would be to undermine any claim we had of offering great basics in this important service area.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Basics: The Customer Hub

Amid the chaos and celebration of an excellent Big Day In… (see Facebook for the full photo galleries) this week sees another “basics” post, looking at the work and progress of the Customer Hub.


 “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

Try texting on that.
On the 10th of March 1876 Alexander Graham Bell uttered the above words into his curious new invention, which he called the telephone.

Ever since this time organisations have struggled to get the basic function of picking the phone up right: endless waiting times, labyrinthine push-button technology, voice-recognition software (that often doesn’t recognise voices) and staff unable to answer basic enquiries when you do finally get through - are common features of telephone handling at its worst.

In the early days of Trafford Housing Trust, calls from our customers were received all across the organisation; in each of our neighbourhood offices, at the repairs' hotline, at our head office and they were made directly to landlines and mobile phones across the business. Not surprisingly our customers experienced a poor service with fewer than 50% of calls actually being answered. The need to improve this situation has led to the establishment of our Customer Hub (Contact Centre) and some 18 months after its launch I decided it was time to reflect on whether it had achieved what we envisaged for it at its launch and what customers should expect when they contact an organisation by telephone.

Our Customer Hub now handles up to 3,000 calls per week and we manage to answer 95% of these without the caller hanging up. I think this is a tremendous improvement over what we had and I know the new service has received a great deal of positive feedback. But just being able to have your call answered is only the start of the story - you ring because you need something from us and it is pointless you calling if the person who answers the phone is unable to help you.

It is for this reason our Hub staff have not been set up as switchboard operators, following cumbersome written instructions and handing off ‘difficult’ enquiries to other more experienced staff. The Hub has a target of being able to deal with 75% of the queries you make over the telephone. This means staff receive detailed support and training and are constantly looking at ways to help with issues with which they are unfamiliar. You may not realise but details of any previous enquiries you made are logged on our computer system so in many cases the Hub staff are as well placed to help you as the actual person you have previously dealt with.

So is the Trust completely on top of how it deals with your telephone calls? Of course not. We think that there are a number of improvements we can make to the training and support of staff that will mean they are able to resolve more and more of customer enquiries at the first point of contact, we are also conducting an exercise to understand more about why customers contact us in the first place. We have found that many people are ringing us because they are chasing a previous call, or because something has gone wrong with a service we have provided them. We need to understand what we are doing wrong that causes these calls and look at ways of improving our systems to ensure such failure-related calls are reduced to an absolute minimum.

We also need to look at streamlining our procedures for dealing with the issues customers ring us about so that they are:

 · As far as possible handled there and then without the need for a call back
 · Are carried out efficiently, without waste and fuss
 · Actually resolve the issue that you rang in about

There is a long way to go but if the starting point of customer service is a speedy, convenient and knowledgeable place to contact the Trust, then I think the Hub can be the cornerstone of our desire to have great basics.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Big Day In Is Tomorrow!

Tomorrow is an auspicious day at THT. Indeed it is special enough to warrant a departure from the usual Friday-only blog post policy. The reason tomorrow is special is not because it is the birthday of Lee Thompson from Madness, or the anniversary of the Jarrow March (thank-you Wikipedia) but because it heralds the long-awaited arrival of THT's Big Day In...

The idea behind The Big Day In... is simple enough. We spend our working lives talking about how being at the heart of neighbourhoods is the key to what we do, so for the 5th of October we are going to exemplify that by taking the entire THT staff into our neighbourhoods and putting them to work.

The projects were all suggested and voted for by tenants - all we asked was that they were achievable in a limited period of time and that they could be achieved by a team of THT staff. There are 20 projects in total ranging from DIY courses to shopping services for the elderly and tomorrow we will be documenting how they go and giving feedback on Twitter and Facebook to keep you updated.

We'd love some encouragement, so get commenting, tweeting and posting! If you see any of us around Trafford, don't be afraid to offer us cups of tea and biscuits!