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Housing associations have a debt of gratitude to their customers

There is no getting around the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on people in all walks of life.

Almost 130,00 people have lost their lives, many have been hit by long Covid, children have lost out on schooling and vulnerable people have spent months in isolation.

Jobs have been lost and businesses have gone under due to lockdown restrictions and many people have struggled to keep their heads above water.

The pandemic has certainly changed the way we approach our daily lives due to social distancing guidelines and the new normal that is working-from-home for many.

And it has changed the way that housing sector organisations such as Silva Homes operate – in an extremely positive way.

Our customers have faced unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic, but we have adapted frontline services to help them get through it and we’re all better for it.

This is especially the case on the financial front as we have shifted resources and changed ethos to serve our customers better when they are really up against it.

The pandemic has been something of a game-changer for Silva Homes because we’ve embraced new ways to help customers.

It stemmed from concern about the rising number of people who relied on Universal Credit to make ends meet.

During the pandemic, the number of Silva Homes customers on Universal Credit shot up from 700 to 1,700 as jobs disappeared and people’s businesses collapsed due to unprecedented difficulties.

This meant that, through no fault of their own, customers started to face mounting rent arrears and heightened anxiety levels when some found themselves out of work for the first time.

But we not only made sure we were ready to help by having more staff on frontline services but also instilling a much more empathetic approach.

Our colleagues can put themselves in customers’ shoes to address financial issues and we’ve moved away from being process-led – an approach where people in rent arrears move to the next stage automatically if they fail to act. Now we shepherd them.

We put an onus on having dedicated teams able to build relationships and get to know our customers rather than ending up at loggerheads.

This has been especially the case when it comes to rent arrears.

Some may have seen our rent team as a debt collection or a debt recovery service – who fire off stern letters left, right and centre - but we have proved that’s not the case.

Instead, we have been aiming to help through support, signposting, expertise, advice, rapport-building, trust and empathy.

That empathetic approach was even more critical because everyone was facing such difficult times in one shape or form.

It went from being something akin to a parent-child relationship to one that was more adult-to-adult and it’s worked wonders.

You hear stories about customers seeing numbers they recognise as being from landlords or private numbers chasing rent arrears and they ignore it.

But our data proves that engagement levels have been high because customers are open to working with us. After all, they knew they could trust us to safeguard their tenancy as well as their peace of mind.

We wouldn’t judge them, but we guided them through what might seem insurmountable by working with them and lessening the prospects of people burying heads in the sand.

It turned out to be a win-win approach because we help customers get on top of rent arrears at the same time as protect ourselves as a housing association.

Feedback confirms that customers found it comforting to know they were dealing with people whose priority was understanding their predicament rather than just getting the rent money in.

Another customer had to rely on state benefits for the first time and they were grateful that we helped them through the online application process which can be daunting. We will also signpost to financial experts at Citizens’ Advice.

The result of this new approach is already reaping rewards because the level of arrears has dropped dramatically during the pandemic which is something we attribute to our new approach.

That money will be re-invested into our community – for the benefit of all. Our role is more than just landlord and we want to build on that – investing in homes and communities.

This article was written by Dasos, our executive director (customer relations) and published by two news outlets, which you can access by clicking the buttons below.

Read this article in Housing Executive

Read this article in Housing Digital

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