Breaking the bad news

Umpire decision

We recently had the rather dubious pleasure of breaking the news to a group of residents that their landlord had put a serious question mark over the future of their sheltered housing scheme. The meeting ended with residents visibly shocked and one or two in tears. Involvement of local councillors, interest from the local press and reports of sleepless nights were to follow. A second meeting (also attended by many relatives) effectively saw residents vote with their feet and walk away from the consultation process.

So how does this square with a commitment to genuine consultation and excellent customer service? There are two really big issues here. One is about trust. The other concerns perceptions of older people.

Firstly, residents did not sufficiently trust their landlord or indeed us an independent facilitator of the consultation process. This is despite us knowing two things – that no decision had been taken and that the housing provider had done its homework (notably in establishing that supply significantly outstrips demand for this sort of housing in the local area). But no matter how hard we tried we could not fully persuade residents (or perhaps more importantly their relatives) of either of these things. To some extent it has been back to the drawing board – including more analysis of supply and demand, discussions with local authorities and other local housing providers. While the picture now if anything looks worse, we are hopeful that this additional effort will have built a bit more trust, enough to get the consultation process back on the road.

Secondly, we have been reflecting on whether or not older people need to be treated any differently from anyone else. Emotionally the answer is ‘yes’. This is a diverse group of people who need to be treated with that extra bit of sensitivity. Older people don’t deserve great upheavals and are perhaps less well-equipped to cope with change. Logically the answer is ‘no’. This group of people  have spent their lives dealing with all of the things life has chucked at them, some of which has been far tougher than that experienced by people of younger years.

Is it not a little patronising to treat some people differently on the basis of their age?

We are left thinking about the time and attention that it takes to build trust. Trust is based on those involved in any relationship knowing that there is a will towards mutual understanding and care. It flourishes where there is some element of choice and some scope to make mistakes. Good customer service requires honesty in all our communications even when it comes to discussing things people might not want to hear. Oh and don’t leave people in the dark, even if you haven’t yet resolved an issue or decided what you are going to do.

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