The Isos Housing Group took a huge step forward in April 2011, when the three social landlords within the group came together as one with the aim of creating efficiencies and offering residents a consistently excellent service.
Today, the amalgamated company has an annual turnover of over £50 million, and serves some 20,000 residents spread across ten local authority areas as far apart as Darlington, Carlisle and Berwick-upon-Tweed.
Behind the scenes, the group had been working together for some time to define a clear customer service vision. A joint customer access strategy, defined in 2009, included offering residents a single point of contact, with one telephone number instead of nine. Tina Drury, Isos executive director for customers and communities, has responsibility for almost half of the company's 400 staff, delivering housing and leasehold management, customer services, community investment and supported housing.
She recalls the far-reaching measures taken to ensure all parts of the emerging organisation focused upon the customer first. “We were very clear that customer service is not just about being nice to people, and saying 'please' and 'thank you',” she says. “For a business, it's about making sure all of our organisational decisions are customer driven.
“When we restructured, everyone – from the very top down – had to re-apply for their jobs. We weren't necessarily looking for knowledge and experience; we wanted people who really believed in our values and had the right attitude to work in a customer-focused organisation.”
Using feedback to improve
To underline its commitment – and guide its transformation – Isos joined the Institute of Customer Service, with a view to seeking ServiceMark accreditation.
Work, spearheaded by Isos customer services manager Richard Tate, started in earnest during June 2012, and accreditation was achieved in just seven months. Richard believes the ServiceMark process – which combines the unique ServCheck self-assessment, external feedback via the UK Customer Satisfaction Index Business Benchmarking tool and an independent assessor visit – has, if anything, proven even more valuable to Isos than the accredited status itself. He explains: “We picked the Institute because of the diagnostic survey process. We didn't have anything like that, and none of the other accreditations we looked at did either.
“ServiceMark has given us views of our staff and customers that we didn't have before, and we've used the feedback to make action plans and improve. “For example, even our own staff didn't think we had clear service standards. So I used the Institute's online knowledge bank and worked with customers to rewrite our standards and customer charter.
“We're implementing real-time appointment-booking software, which will improve the vast majority of our calls. We've introduced a new callback system, improved signposting on our website and responded to requests to accept out-of-hours rent payments.
“We've invested in training to ensure staff are more empowered, and that's leading to improvements too. Back in May my team proactively introduced welcome calls for new tenants, to check they're settled in and have everything they need. They looked at our feedback, talked about the idea, and now we've done it.”
A wider commitment
Delivering great customer service – and achieving ServiceMark accreditation – would demand a far wider commitment than just within Richard's 25-strong reception and contact centre team. Tina says: “Customer service involves everyone. Our trade staff, in particular, have more interaction with customers than the rest of us so it's really important they're customer focused. So I led a series of workshops to help them see they need more than just joinery or plumbing skills; first and foremost, they're serving our customers. And we check customers are happy too, asking about punctuality and other important aspects.”
“Recently, I spent the day shadowing one of our gas engineers. Not only did he service the boiler, but he also answered questions on how to keep the tenant’s heating bills down, then spotted – and fixed – a guttering problem the customer hadn't even noticed. He thought wider than the one job he was there to do, and did everything he could to improve that customer's experience.”
She smiles: “A lot of the compliments we receive are now about our trade staff.”
Clearly, the external ServiceMark assessor – who had spoken to many of the company's staff – agreed. The report read: “It was a pleasure to interview and observe so many committed employees who believe passionately in the company’s aims, purpose and values.”
Not only has Isos achieved ServiceMark, but its customers are clearly happy too. The company now receives more than twice as many compliments as complaints, and feedback is positive – and improving – across the board. Internally, engagement is also high. Attitudes are good, and the company has a rising profile in the Sunday Times' Best Companies to work for survey.
But for Isos, this is only the start of the story. The organisation firmly intends to keep improving, until its service can rival the best examples anywhere. And the ability to use ServiceMark to benchmark beyond just the housing industry is key. Tina says: “Benchmarking within the industry is great, but that only tells us how good we are compared to others delivering the same services. Our vision is not just to be the best in the housing market, but to compare ourselves with the famous brand names who have really nailed it. I don't see any reason why we can't get to that level.” Richard agrees: “In our team, we don't just want to be a high-performing contact centre in housing. We want to be a high performing contact centre full stop.”
Keep moving forward
As the next step on its ongoing improvement journey, Isos has recently completed the survey process to renew its ServiceMark. The resulting ServCheck score has shown a marked improvement, and Richard is hoping this will be reflected when customers' responses are received. He reflects on completing ServiceMark the second time around: “The first time that you do anything, it feels quite alien, but our Account Director was very helpful in explaining it all. The second time, it really is very straightforward.”
He adds: “If anybody was considering joining the Institute, and going for ServiceMark, they shouldn't be deterred; it's not a complicated process.”
Richard concludes: “We found the whole ServiceMark process very valuable – and if anything it's even more valuable today. It's helped us to learn what our staff need to deliver great service, and when we get the customer results in a few weeks' time, we'll see the impact of that, and know what we need to do next to keep moving forward.” “If you look at the real leaders in customer service, they've all been on this journey for many years. This is only our second year, and if we continue the same rate of progress, there's no reason why we can't be up there with them."