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Blog 07 April 2017 l Housing

Vulnerable people: a test for customer complaints

Each week Inside Housing publishes the thoughts of industry leaders around the big issues that matter most to the housing world. In its blog today, regular contributor Dame Clare Tickell looks at the challenges facing social landlords as customer complaints become more complex. The full text of the blog is below.

Vulnerable people: a test for customer complaints

By Dame Clare Tickell, Chief Executive of Hanover Housing Association

Last week the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report on how well service industries were responding to vulnerable consumers, in particular those regulated by Ofwat, Ofcom, Ofgem and the Financial Conduct Authority. Between them, these oversee £136bn of annual consumer spending. 

The report highlights the particular risks facing vulnerable consumers. 

"We are seeing an increase in vulnerability among those who complain to us.”

These include being excluded from particular products and services because of illness, old age or low income, restricted choice for vulnerable consumers which often means that products are more expensive and, really importantly, poor user experience because the complex needs of vulnerable consumers are not well understood.

The NAO pointed out that the groups of people most likely to look for help for problems with regulated services were highly likely to also receive support such as benefits or social housing from the state.

So, what might this mean for housing associations? And in particular, how well do we understand the needs of our customers and how sensitive are we to them so that their experiences are positive ones? 

Given the fact that people are living longer we are all likely to see an increase in the proportion of people we house who are, or who become, vulnerable.

At Hanover we are seeing an increase in vulnerability among those who complain to us. Furthermore, complaints are becoming more complex. 

As a provider of housing for older people, we are used to complicated situations involving customers with cognitive impairment and mental health problems whose behaviour can be difficult for fellow residents. 

The pre-existing relationships that we have, alongside our commitment to well-being and doing what we can to identify problems early on, means that overall our customers are satisfied, at present anyway, with how we handle complaints.

We are not complacent, though. As the state draws back and people become more isolated, the demands on us are growing. Complaints handling is a complicated and sensitive area of our work requiring considerable skill, objectivity and, sometimes, curiosity. We need to continue to give thought to how best we manage this and the skills we need to recruit.

Some of our complainants are frequent correspondents and it can be easy to stop listening when yet another letter or email arrives. But these same complainants are often vulnerable and find it difficult to articulate clearly when we could be doing better or when other things are impacting on them which we can help them with.

“As the state draws back and people become more isolated, the demands on us are growing.” 

An emerging associated challenge is how we manage complaints that come via social media, often for the first time and with an initial reach that we cannot control. 

Interestingly, a growing number of these come from the advocates, friends and family of vulnerable people rather than the actual complainant. 

Our experience of this is largely very positive because we are able to engage quickly and effectively with someone who wants attention given as a priority. 

How we respond in these circumstances can be crucial, not only in swift resolution for a complainant, but also in terms of reputation management.

Of course, many of our customers are not vulnerable. 

However, a growing proportion of them will develop vulnerabilities because of their age so we need to make sure that we are prepared. In their report, the NAO points out that water, telecoms, energy and financial services are essential to an individual’s security, well-being and social inclusion.

I would add living in an affordable, decent and well-maintained home to this list. 

They argue that appropriate support for vulnerable customers is therefore essential. And where this is not recognised and in place, the overall arrangements to support vulnerable consumers will not provide value for money.   

A final challenge for us going forward is how we measure success when managing complaints from vulnerable consumers. 

At the moment, speedy resolution is considered to be an indicator of success.

Actually, many of our complaints take a long time to resolve to the satisfaction of our customers. Interestingly, the Financial Ombudsman Service considers that satisfaction with the outcome is a key consideration and point to the fact that 57% of people who did not get the outcome they wanted are positive about the service, an increase of 16% in 12 months. 

Perhaps we should be prioritising quality and satisfaction with outcome as much as we do the length of time it takes.