Refining your approach to Complaints? This Acuity research will help.

The way social landlords deal with complaints is in the spotlight. The Housing Ombudsman – now with added powers – has set out its expectations in a Complaint Handling Code and expects robust policies and practice to be in place by 31 March. The Social Housing White Paper similarly pulls no punches with an entire chapter devoted to the subject. As the sector prepares for more scrutiny of its complaints handling, what can we learn from tenant feedback about the complaints experience? Denise Raine reports the findings from 1,000 tenants across eight complaints surveys conducted in 2020.

Why analyse complaints data?

LinkedIn provides an endless supply of cheesy inspirational accounts of how failure is the mother of success. Apparently, before he had his lightbulb moment, Edison quipped, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. Similarly, the failures underpinning dissatisfaction with complaints processes provide a rich source of data to help understand and perfect complaints policy and practice.

The benefits don’t stop there: ‘customer recovery’ – swiftly addressing outstanding issues identified in complaints surveys – offers the opportunity to flip failures into successes, converting ‘detractors’ into ‘promoters’. The alternative – do nothing – forever crystallises a bad experience as a failure, which when multiplied, gnaws away at trust and reputation. Not quoted in LinkedIn, Rick Astley should be your inspiration here: a “never gonna give you up” commitment to complainants will help transform bad experiences into good ones.

What we found

With Housing Ombudsman and White Paper themes in mind, we found:

  • landlords are not checking that their tenants understand how to complain – this could be asked as part of a general survey
  • questions about confidence or trust in the complaints process are only asked in a few surveys. Where asked, only 33% of complainants said that they trusted their landlord
  • current surveys capture aspects of the complaints customer experience such as:
    • ease of complaining – 68% found it easy to make the complaint, 63% said staff were easy to deal with, but only 35% felt it was easy to resolve the complaint. Just 56% found the process clear and easy to understand
    • communication – 54% were satisfied with the information and advice provided, but only 27% of residents said they were kept informed. Just 11% felt that the outcome had been fully explained to them
    • handling the complaint – only 36% were satisfied with the handling of their complaint , 30% were satisfied with the outcome and only 10% felt that the entire complaint was addressed 1
  • current surveys are not routinely capturing:
  • whether the process is fair, sensitive and empathetic
  • whether the process is efficient, effective and timely

In total, we found 17 different questions in the complaints surveys. Landlords ask on average eight questions with a range of between six and 12 questions.

The key suggestions from tenants for what landlords could have done better:

  • listen to them, make more effort to understand and take the complainant seriously
  • improve communication, including keeping the tenant informed of progress and avoiding the need for the tenant to chase
  • fully resolve the complaint
  • shorten the time taken to resolve the complaint

Conversely, those who had a positive experience cited: feeling the process was worthwhile; the quality of the information provided; being kept informed; ease of getting the complaint resolved; and the final outcome.
Of those dissatisfied with the outcome, we found they were:

  •  80% less likely to say staff were helpful and polite
  •  75% less likely to feel that the outcome was fully explained
  •  73% less likely to feel all areas of the complaint were addressed
  •  68% less satisfied with the handling of the complaint
  •  63% less satisfied with the level of customer service
  •  58% less likely to trust the process

This isn’t the full list of correlating negative perceptions. But it does seem to support the long-held view that dissatisfaction with the outcome taints perception across all aspects the complaints experience (and probably general perceptions about the landlord). If this is the case, it begs the question: what can landlords do to avoid unsatisfactory outcomes for tenants? This might include:

  • services designed to meet tenants’ legitimate expectations, avoiding the need to complain
  • going the extra mile – potential complaints are nipped in the bud by empowering frontline staff to act when they see something going wrong or, as some of our clients are doing, set up a high-powered resolution team or officer
  • better managing tenant expectations about what is possible through excellent communication, particularly in terms of accommodating transfers, dealing with nuisance/ASB and issues beyond the landlord’s control

As we head towards proactive consumer regulation, social landlords need to better understand the customer experience. Satisfaction surveys identify what’s most important to tenants, how landlords are doing and where the gaps are. Such intelligence provides both a baseline from which progress may be measured as well as an evidence-base for targeted and effective remedial action.

Acuity provides an end-to-end service from survey design to helping you analyse and act on the results. Please contact me to find out how we can assist you to take customer service to the next level.

  1. These results are, of course, beset by the difficulty of separating the outcome of the complaint from the complaints process, notwithstanding the best efforts of interviewers

About Denise Raine

Denise Raine is a Director of Acuity Ltd, and has specialised in tenant satisfaction and feedback research for more than 20 years.
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