Redefining social housing one word at a time
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Redefining Social Housing, One Word at a Time

By Chris Proctor, CEO, Oneserve


Anyone who knows me, will happily attest that aside from my love of the mountains and the ocean, one of my oldest loves is that of etymology, the study of the origin of words.

For most, it’s an interesting fact, something we share at an opportune moment. For example, that ‘Britain’ comes from the ancient Greek word ‘Pretani’ meaning ‘painted/tattooed people’ (yes us Brits have always loved our tattoos).

But the words we use, and their meaning can be so much more. They can be the forgotten evidence that we still use in our daily lives, which recall the Norman conquest over the Anglo-Saxons (ask me another time). Or they can be the very substance of the change we seek to drive and the culture we set to develop.

We all speak a language. Some of us speak many languages.  We’re all aware of the different meanings of the words that we use and the impact that words can have. So why am I writing about this now?

Because there’s a problem with the use of words within the social housing sector.

One of the reason’s that we undertook our acclaimed ‘Beyond Four Walls’ resident research, was because we felt that there was a disconnect between Landlords and residents. And in the resident responses we received from across the country, this hypothesis was proven.

Why? Landlords claim to be ‘Customer Centric’ and residents are the ‘customers’ that want to be at the ‘centre’ of a landlord’s thoughts and actions.

The issue, we argue, is the interpretation that both have of the same thing.

Residents are customers of a growing global service world. Where businesses must fight to win and retain customers.

This is not the case for landlords. They may borrow the word ‘customer’, but arguably the same meaning is not applied. And this leads to disappointment in the actions that serve to define them.

Don’t believe me? Think of this:

Homes’, the places where we live, love, laugh and cry. Where we raise families, where we celebrate birthdays, and where we’re desperate to return after a long day. The word ‘Home’ originates from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Ham’. It had connotations of living and community; a distinctly different meaning from the word ‘House’ (Old English – ‘Hus’; dwelling).

How then do we, as a sector refer to those resident’s homes?

As ‘Stock’ (Anglo-Saxon – ‘Stocc’; stump, wooden post) or ‘Assets’ (Latin – ‘Ad Satis’; sufficient). And how do we refer a House ready to become a new Home? A Void (Old French – Vuidier; empty/hole)!

It’s an interesting point, but one worth labouring. The words that our customers (residents) use, are rich in meaning and emotion. And yet our vernacular is more focussed on inanimate, soulless and lifeless words. It allows us to become detached, thinking of these places in a fundamentally different way to how our residents think of them.

How will we become truly customer centric in a way in which our customers recognise unless we use the same words, with the same meanings as them? And not just externally in flashy marketing materials. In every internal conversation so that we’re shaping our cultures to drive comprehensive change.

Let’s take another example, the regulatory ratings of Housing Associations, the ‘V’ and ‘G’ ratings. They’re an important regulatory rating, but what, if anything do they mean to our residents? They don’t necessarily equate to happy and satisfied customers, so why should they care?

Our research highlighted two thirds of residents wanted independent, Trustpilot style reviews. So despite the regulatory ratings being in place, there is still a need for a more consumer based review system. One that outlines performance based on satisfaction.

I would argue that we can confer that we’ve failed to translate regulatory ratings into words and actions that mean something to our residents. Or that we we’ve failed to understand what those customers mean by ‘satisfaction’. Or it’s a combination of both.

The new Consumer Standards will ensure that the importance of listening to tenants and addressing their concerns is finally recognised. Providing long-overdue acknowledgement that tenant satisfaction should be paramount. The new Standards will even prevent landlords from dismissing complaints too easily.

With the new Standards in place, landlords will have to provide tenants with more feedback than ever before about how they are performing. This will need to be delivered so that it is easily understood and feels relevant to them.

Yet, unless we look beyond those four walls and at the homes they create, and unless we find a common language with common meanings, we will not move forward.

We must be the cultural change that we want to see and deliver.

We have to start embracing the standards expected by our customers and consider the words we use and the ways in which we demonstrate their meaning through action.

We must start delivering real customer-centricity to residents.

For who else do we serve if not them. 

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