Tending to Tenant’s Voices Online: The Garden’s proactive social housing tenant participation

Sally Hussey, Principal Writer and Editorial Director at Bang the Table (now part of Granicus) interviews Paul Nettleton and Anna de Souza of the Customer Engagement Team at UK social housing provider Catalyst® on creating a digital community and how Take That’s song ‘The Garden’ inspired a philosophy of home, where people gather to exchange ideas.

‘A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit’ 

– Greek Proverb

With the British government’s social housing white paper published just a few weeks prior, social housing provider Catalyst® launched The Garden – an online community platform that enables tenant participation and provides real-time customer feedback. Responding to customers preference for online engagement since the pandemic’s physical distancing requirements, this online platform enables residents to share what matters most to them while connecting at their convenience from the comfort of their home. Where recent headlines reveal resident dissatisfaction with housing associations and limited ability for tenants voices to be heard as evidenced in the wake of the Grenfell disaster, Catalyst are proactively earning and keeping tenants’ trust. Making digital engagement a focus, they underscore inclusivity and interaction over the usual transactional system between landlord and resident. Their genuine engagement with tenants’ issues and viewpoints extends to responding to real-time data and feedback while offering residents the ability to take part in local initiatives, neighborhood and community building. Here, digital engagement solutions allowed them to get closer to customers, share what they love about where they live and address community needs.

To better understand these unique offerings, I recently asked Anna de Souza and Paul Nettleton from Catalyst’s customer engagement team about creating a digital community and how Take That’s song ‘The Garden’ inspired a philosophy of home, where people gather to exchange ideas.

What executive priorities were you looking to address?

Our Customer Experience Strategy was launched in September 2019 with an aim to win over hearts and minds, keep customers close, embed consistent customer promises and improve customer satisfaction. Catalyst customers wanted to engage with us digitally and the Customer Experience team were excited to progress this aspect of the customer engagement model.

We wanted to develop an online community. An online community was not intended to duplicate a future self-serve portal, but formal and informal interaction with our customers, rather focusing on a transactional system.

We sent a customer survey to over 32,000 Catalyst customers asking how they would like to communicate and engage with us. The response was quite encouraging, with over half of respondents saying they wanted to interact online. Covid-19 showed us more than ever how important it is to stay connected with each other. Having an online community would help customers connect with us, whenever they chose and better still, from the comfort of their own home. It would help them communicate and collaborate with us and other customers both locally and regionally about shared issues and concerns. They could choose how little or how much they interact with us, providing their feedback, when it suits them.

We ran a series of co-creation workshops with customers in early 2020 to help design our customer promises. Colleagues and customers were asked how their customer experience could be improved and we could better communicate with them.

Customers said they wanted:

  • To receive updates about events and activities in their local area.
  • Catalyst to personalise communication content, in real-time, so they could take part in local initiatives and meet their neighbours at the same time.

We designed an inclusive engagement offer and our customer engagement model helps us listen and act upon the voices of our diverse communities. Our online community ‘The Garden’ allows us to do just that and offers choice and convenience so we can reach a diverse group of our customer base. The aim of that strategy was to win over hearts and minds, keep customers close, embed consistent customer promises and increase customer satisfaction. We felt EngagementHQ offered the best digital solution for us.

What were your hopes for the first year and how did this pan out?

Our main aim for year one was to get the site up and running, to test and try it and co-create it with our engaged customers. We used all the golden nuggets of feedback we’d received during the year during engagement sessions and interactions with colleagues to understand how The Garden would complement our digital offer.

It’s going well! We’ve just over 200 registered participants on The Garden and celebrated its first birthday. We commemorated this milestone by running a competition. We encouraged customers to tell us what they love about their local community or a person or service in their neighbourhood who goes above and beyond to support people. Check out the winning response, ‘home from home’ which definitely stole our hearts! It feels like word is starting to get round that this is somewhere customers can come to collaborate with us, to share their ideas and feedback, and to work with us to find solutions to their problems.

Were there any unexpected benefits you noticed after implementing tools from Bang the Table, now part of Granicus?

Creating dedicated spaces for our customers to interact with us and each other has been a revelation for us. It’s a style of working that we’re using a lot. From communicating with customers about building safety works in their block, to working with customers to choose our new service partners together, our private groups make things simple. They’ve been the gateway to some robust and useful discussions about why we do things the way we do, and how that impacts the people who live in our homes.

How much is the social housing white paper a driver of what you are doing? And how does EngagementHQ help you to meet its requirements or principles?

The White Paper is a huge driver of the work that we do. Of course, it was on the cards for a long time, and that gave us plenty of time to prepare. But when it arrived, the strong focus on listening and acting upon the customer voice, safety and making it easy for customers to share their feedback couldn’t have been timed better. It was published just a few weeks before we launched!

A great example of this is when we collaborate with customers to review our complaint responses. Not only do we meet the Housing Ombudsman’s Complaints Handling Code, which has a chapter dedicated to it in the White Paper, but we can continuously demonstrate how we’re adapting our service offering as a result of real-time customer feedback.

Our Complaints Experience Project involves customers working with us to review closed, redacted complaints. We’re not really looking at the usual things like whether we’ve answered complaints in time, or how many complaints are appealed. What we’re concentrating on is how our complaint responses make people feel, how we can be more empathetic and kinder in the way we resolve complaints, and what we need to do differently to get there. EngagementHQ helps us to do this by providing the architecture for the group – a protected page. It hosts our quarterly survey, which customers complete once they’ve reviewed the complaints, and gives us somewhere to feed back to customers about how we’ve changed our processes and procedures because of what they’ve told us.

Can you think of a project – or two, or three – that you think really demonstrates the benefits of EngagementHQ to Catalyst? Can you elaborate?

Back in the summer, we launched a new hub, which we’re calling ‘Connecting with our Communities’. The main purpose of this is to provide neighbourhood-specific projects that our Community Connectors can use to develop and deliver community projects. With this project, we’ve taken an innovative community-focussed approach to the government’s new Kickstart scheme. Through the initiative, we’re employing 30 young people between now and summer 2022 in newly created community-based roles.

The government Kickstart scheme provides funding to create six-month paid job placements for 16 to 24-year olds who are on Universal Credit and at risk of long-term unemployment.

We’ve been able to use The Garden to really get close to our customers, and understand what they love about where they live, and how we can help them do more of it. And that’s what we’re all about as an organisation. The mapping tool has been vital to us being able to do that. It’s really enhanced our understanding of what’s in and around our communities, and how the people that live there use those services. Later this year, we’ll be getting ahead of the curve and promoting our advice and wellbeing service. We’ll use The Garden to understand what communities need from us, where the gaps are, and how we can use our knowledge, expertise and resources to address those gaps.

We love the name, The Garden. What’s the story behind this?

When we were deciding on a name, we went through loads and loads of ideas. We wanted something warm and suggestive of home. A place where people want to gather and exchange ideas. But we got to a point where we were really stuck!

The project team took the weekend to think it over. And it was one of the ideas that came back. The rationale behind it comes from a song by Take That, that Paul Nettleton in the Customer Engagement Team was listening to over the weekend. It’s called ‘The Garden’, and it includes the line ‘we can make a start, if we only learn to listen’, which just felt like the place we wanted to be. There’s also an old Greek proverb that ‘a society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit’, and again that was the sort of feeling we were aiming for.

Money always seems such a tricky subject, but there are real savings from online participation. Do you think EngagementHQ is saving you money, or time and resources and how? How have these solutions impacted your overall budget?

Cost savings weren’t the primary driver for launching our online community. We wanted to listen and act upon the customer voice loud and clear – and you can’t put a price on that. Of course, being a provider of social housing, saving money and investing in services that improve the customer experience are all important to us. The Garden allows us to reach 25 per cent more of our customer base, resulting in an uplift in real-time feedback of 150 per cent. It reduced the turnaround time for contacting customers from five days to one. It’s reduced the manual effort of our team writing, emailing and calling customers. It’s meant we can adhere to the Regulator of Social Housing’s guidance around scrutiny and saves us over £1,000 every time we run a series of face-to-face workshops.

How would you describe the impact on the community? What attributes of using EngagementHQ lead to a positive outcome for your project and organisation?

The thing about our ‘community’ is that it’s series of smaller geographical areas, and they’re spread over a massive area. So, it’s hard to engage with a representative sample of our customers in a meaningful way that isn’t digital. Using EngagementHQ has made our lives much easier in that respect. And we’re going to be concentrating much more on our local offer over the next few years, so the platform will really come into its own as we start to do that.

How has the platform been received by your customers? Is it making participation easier? Is it making it more meaningful? Have you noticed any difference in the kind of people taking part? Are you engaging new people or a more representative sample, for example?

The feedback we’ve had from people so far has been good. We know that in some cases, it’s helping us to reach people that we wouldn’t have worked with before. We’ve recently been working with a customer who’s agoraphobic, for example – and they’ve been clear that they would never have been able to come to a residents’ meeting or attended a workshop at one of our offices or community centres. So, we’ve seen some positive changes at an individual level like that.

Getting together with people is really important, but the future looks to be blending digital and face-to-face engagement. How are you approaching this blended or hybrid approach?

Given the climate we’ve been operating in over the last couple of years, there have been lots of factors beyond our direct control that governed whether we could meet up with customers safely. Being mindful of those restrictions meant we had to take a digital-first approach to engagement for a while. But now we’re at the point where we can get back together with customers, we’re taking the opportunity as it’s something we’ve really missed.

The trick for us now is getting the balance right – doing things digitally makes lots of sense for us because of our wide geography. We can reach people who are far apart in quite an easy way. But we know we get more high-quality insight from people when we meet them in person, and that a lot of the customers we work with regularly prefer it that way. So, we’re looking for a ‘best of both’ compromise that balances the needs of those who prefer digital engagement, and those who prefer tea, cake, and a chat in a community centre.

In what ways do you think that The Garden has improved trust and transparency at Catalyst Housing? How do you think it makes you seem more open and engaging to your customers?

Earning and keeping the trust of our customers is our mission, and there’s no better way to do that than by engaging with people on the issues that matter most to them. We’ve been able to have some robust conversations with colleagues – backed by real-time data we’ve collected directly from The Garden. By delivering a better customer experience, in a way that’s meaningful to our customers, we’ll enhance their perception of us as a landlord. This in turn will increase their satisfaction with the services we provide.

There’s been a lot in the news recently about housing associations and customer dissatisfaction, particularly around disrepair. The Garden gives us another tool to quantify that dissatisfaction, measure it, work out what to do about it, and act. We’re not there yet in terms of trust but the feedback we’ve been getting from customers tells us that we’re trending in the right direction.

Where are you at now and what are you hoping to achieve going forward?

We’ve got just over 200 registered participants. The Garden isn’t something we’ve advertised heavily. We wanted to see what the appetite was for digital engagement happening organically before we started really promoting it to customers. Our hope is that we’ll be able to do more of that going forward, and that we’ll see even more customers signing-up to The Garden this year. We’ve created teaser GIFS to promote The Garden on our socials in a fun and interactive way. We’re looking to launch a whole array of projects this year, including mapping services in and around our community centres and new projects with our resident scrutiny group. The Performance Allies and working with customers to choose our service partners of the future. The Performance Allies is our way of approaching scrutiny – a flexible group of customers who aim to get under the skin of our biggest organisational challenges and work collaboratively with us to provide our customers with the best possible service.

We’re also in the process of setting up a project where we’ll track customer satisfaction with the gardening and cleaning service we provide. This will use real-time feedback from customers assessing the quality of the work we do. Long term, we’re hoping that this will give us an opportunity to have a ‘rate my estate’ type tool on our website for all customers to use – so that they can give us feedback on what we already know is a hugely important service to them, in an easy and convenient way when they choose.

And, finally, what are your hopes for next year? Any specific objectives you can share?

We want to keep growing The Garden and make it the centrepiece of our digital offer. Our aim is to expand The Garden so that customers can interact with us, if they want, and use it to collaborate with us, share ideas and improve their experience of Catalyst.

Thanks to Paul Nettleton and Anna De Souza for their time and valuable insights.

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