It’s all about the tenants, so we are told. So how do landlords best serve their customers, is it with a specialist or generic model?
Geographically there is a clear and distinct split in ideology on which approach works best. According to research by Mobysoft more than 50% of RSLs take a generic approach in Scotland, whereas in England and Wales over 80% of landlords employ specialist income officers to collect rent. So a much a higher proportion of Scottish social landlords operate a generic service model whereby Housing Officers have within their remit the collection of rent and minimising of rent arrears, as well as other tasks, such as tenancy management and sustainment. Why would this be the case, and does it matter?
One reason might be because there are still a lot of smaller, community-based housing associations in Scotland, particularly across the central belt right across from Glasgow to Edinburgh. These organisations will typically have up to 3,000 properties and it is simply not economically viable for them to have separate teams for housing management and rent collection.
An Operations Director at a Glasgow-based RSL of around 3,000 properties that recently transitioned from a Specialist Income Team to a Generic Housing Management Team told me that their rationale for doing so was to improve customer satisfaction, recognising as well that this move may adversely impact their arrears performance.
However, it’s not just the smaller, community based RSLs in Scotland that operate a generic model for collecting rent. In a recent interview, with Inside Housing, Martin Armstrong, Chief Executive at Scotland’s largest landlord Wheatley, explained how Wheatley reduced patch sizes to 200 per housing officer “to get closer to our customers.”
Conflating the two issues
But, knowing customers and their behaviours and traits is one thing, knowing when a customer needs help and support is entirely different, and these two issues often get conflated.
There are 140 social landlords using RentSense, around 18% of those organisations operate a generic model, so we spoke with some of those to understand the nuances of their role and how much closer do they get to their tenants. From the conversations we had there were two constant themes, yes you have a greater understanding of your customers, but also how little time they have when essentially managing several hundred properties week by week.
“In a generic model there are other pressures on time,” explains Chris Marshall, Senior Neighbourhoods Manager, at Teesside based Thirteen. Indeed, recently Thirteen reverted to a generic approach, so they had more time to support and focus on their customers.
As the conversation flows Chris explains despite their knowledge of their customers, following an accurate and prioritised list is important, as they speak to the customers at the right time. “RentSense gives us time and makes us more efficient, so we’ve then got this time to spend with customers.”
Time is a precious commodity in housing, and it was one of the Queens Cross Housing Association, based in Glasgow, invested in RentSense, they too operate a generic model. Elizabeth Hood, Depute Director, acknowledges the promise of more time for their officers was critical.
“We wanted to give officers the time to focus on their role, so they can support tenants and carry out all aspects of their job.”
The impact has meant officers have a smaller and more refined, but crucially, a prioritised list, whilst also understanding why residents have been flagged for contact, Cat Baker an officer at Queens Cross explains how it has helped with her role.
“I have smaller and accurate list now so I can block time out in my diary to work through these. It means I have more time for other tasks, but also I have more time for the tenants that need additional support.”
However, for many Universal Credit has meant that many landlords, and their officers, have a greater workload with more complex cases.
More Knowledge afforded by Time
Gentoo, a social landlord based in Sunderland, also operate with generic officers. Their risk register identified Universal Credit as a key risk to the business and their focus to help mitigate against UC was to remove the initial UC workload from their housing officers. They have set up a Money Matters team, who have been trained on all things UC.
“In the short-term it is quite intensive, and we are in constant contact to remind those residents to pay their rent,” explains Susie Thompson, Deputy Director of Operations at Gentoo.
“Cases only ever leave the Money Matters Team when the customer has established a payment pattern.”
This approach for Gentoo has been incredibly successful, with very low arrears and minimal arrears for their UC tenants. Here knowledge has been key for the Money Matters team, but the resource was freed up by investing in RentSense to embed efficiencies, this has delivered 7 FTE for the Money Matters team, and given their housing officers more time for tenants.
With the generic approach it is not about how well you know your customers it is about having the time to support them and their tenancy, but also knowing when they need support. Knowledge can be a huge asset, but having the time to use your knowledge is even more valuable.