How have Local Authority and Housing Call Centres coped with Covid?

Local Authority and Housing

-By Chloe Wright, Principal Consultant, Office Support-

As the COVID-19 situation is unfolding, after speaking to several of my clients in Housing one of the positives we can take from this is that we are seeing a greater appreciation for customer service staff. Without these individuals working tirelessly, we would not be functioning. With that in mind, I wanted to explore how my key clients in housing associations and councils have been providing a virtually uninterrupted service to social housing residents, customers and the general public.  

Here are a few of the things I found out:

IT/Technology is integral 

Call centres have been digitalising and updating their telephony systems over the past few years. Where would we be now without the tech we have access to?!Most clients I have spoken about this with have all said that there has been pressure on their IT departments to ensure they are able to run a seamless service and to provide bespoke equipment to the team so that they can work from home as effectively as possible. 

Some organisations slowly switched from having people in the offices to a fully-functioning work from home set up; whereas others were able to make this switch overnight dependent on the supplies available and the technology they used.

Microsoft Teams seems to be a clear favourite in terms of keeping track of what the team is doing and being able to stay in touch throughout the day with customer service officers. Other video conferencing platforms such as Zoom or Skype have grown in popularity following the lockdown. With it being unclear when and if companies will return to the offices full-time or at all, it is these technologies that have allowed colleagues to remain in touch with customer service officers regarding work. 

Managers are also able to use telephony technology to monitor calls and be able to assist their customer service staff  with challenging conversations, so although they are alone at home, they know their manager is able to intervene on a call remotely if needed. 

Local Authority and Housing

Longer response times from other teams…

COVID has been a challenge that no one could have predicted would have affected us in this way. On the social housing customer service side, managers are noting that it is sometimes more difficult to get a straight answer from necessary teams to come to a quick resolution for a customer. Things are slower due to not being able to just pop to another team or colleagues desk to get the answer that you want or need when you have a customer on the line. 

It is also difficult from a manager’s perspective to detect how their teams’ wellbeing is. Some people have thrived in a working from home scenario whereas some struggle with distractions or are feeling isolated and alone. Managers are trying to combat this by providing non-work related virtual catch-ups and by having very active messaging groups such as team WhatsApp groups. 

Sudji Nyanduga (a Customer Service Team Manager who has been working throughout COVID) said that “COVID has posed a challenge as each team member requires different levels of support and it can be more difficult to gauge what support to give when working from home”

In some organisations, people are able to work in the offices if they are really struggling at home. Certain offices are open to individuals who work better in an office environment, however the bulk of most organisations are still working from home.

Local Authority and Housing

Customer demand is at an all-time high  

As a result of the extremely emotional times we are all going through, customers are understandably on edge and this can make calls more difficult to resolve instantaneously. 

When speaking to customer service managers, they noted that more complaints were coming through by phone but also stated that because managers, team leaders and more senior members of staff were on hand to manage the increased level of calls, they were able to resolve complaints before they were escalated. 

On the flip side though, most social housing organisations are currently dealing with a backlog of repairs to residents homes. Once the lockdown happened, all of my clients had to cease their repairs services except in a case of emergency. This has meant that when customer service officers are dealing with the day-to-day repair calls that can now be booked in, they are taking up to 8 repairs for some residents’ houses per call. 

Customer service officers have targets in place to resolve calls (usually under 10 minutes per call) so that they can get through to the next customer and reduce the time each customer is on hold for. It is a challenge for customer service officers to now strike the balance between being empathetic and lending an ear to a customer in need and being efficient and able to speak to all customers who are waiting in the queue. 

There has also been an increase in calls around revenues and benefits, paying rent, and anti-social behaviour is also at an all-time. Sadly, domestic violence has also escalated throughout this period. This means calls are much more in depth and require a longer time to reach a suitable resolution. 

Some social housing call centres have set up special ‘COVID-Care’ customer service teams that can specialise in dealing with vulnerable residents who may need more help than general customers. 

Local Authority and Housing

Benefits of Managing a team Working from Home

Although it has clearly been a challenge to adjust to this way of working and managing a team remotely, customer service managers have outlined a few positives of the experience that they have noticed. 

Room bookings are no longer an issue as all team 1:1s or meetings are virtual so they are able to facilitate this at any time without worrying about availability of space. 

From speaking to customer service managers they are noticing that people are generally more productive in their working times. This is due to them not being distracted by colleagues or people coming up to the desk for a ‘water cooler’ chat. 

People who have had to self-isolate (which would previously have forced them to take annual leave) have been able to work throughout as they are in the comfort of their home and only have to utilise their equipment to get their job done (providing they are feeling okay and fit to work). 

Local Authority and Housing

The Predicted Future of Housing Call Centres 

No one can say for sure what the future holds, however, in these challenging times housing and local authority call centres have shown how adept they are to agile working. Most individuals are in agreement that this will become the ‘new normal’ as we embrace the technology we have and continue some form of working from home.

Theo Scott (Customer Service Manager at Rosebery Housing) is a strong advocate for the new way of running the call centres. Theo commented that “Whilst COVID-19 has presented Rosebery with many challenges, we have been able to deliver a ‘business as usual’ experience through our contact centre, as a result of the investment we have made in cloud technology. Overnight, we were able to mobilise all our agents to home-working and able to deliver a seamless service to manage inbound calls”.

After talking to several of my clients it really is admirable to see how social housing customer services teams have managed to pull together. The Local Authority and Housing organisations have carried on delivering services as smoothly as possible even when met by many challenges during these strange times.

If you are interested in finding out more about Social Housing Customer Services you can do that here. To check out our newest jobs within Customer Service click here or if you would like to speak to one of the Office Support team give us a call on 020 7766 9000.

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