An interview with Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association
Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association (CREHA) owns or manages 6,000 homes and works with over 8,000 customers. It is based in Craigmillar, one of Edinburgh’s main urban regeneration areas.
The Association is a member of Places for People, and is one of the UK’s largest property development and management organisations.
Castle Rock describes itself as ‘a modern, progressive organisation committed to the long term success of our neighbourhoods.’
The Associations says its vision is ‘to provide aspirational homes and inspirational places.’
Complaints Standards Authority (CSA) Officer: I’m aware that Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association has concentrated on customer service for some time now. Can you tell me a bit more about your approach?
CREHA: We understand the benefits of providing excellent customer service and have invested in customer service training for all staff. This training places a huge focus on behaviours and language we use.
Our view is that customer service starts with us, we ask all staff to display positive, professional behaviour with a focus on what we CAN DO, and an understanding of the risks associated with providing a poor service.
To ensure that we are consistently proving excellent customer service we introduced our SPIRIT values (principles and behaviours) that we monitor staff against. We set challenging customer satisfaction targets and have a strategy in place for assessing it. We are fully compliant and accredited with Customer Service Excellence.
CSA: Has this impacted on how you handle complaints?
CREHA: We recognise that sometimes things can go wrong. We know that customers complain as a last resort because they are unhappy with the service we have provided and that this can damage their trust in us. Through our ongoing customer service training, staff understand the risks attached to poor complaint handling. We acknowledge that managing complaints well is the first step to rebuilding that trust and strengthening relationships.
CSA: When did you introduce these changes?
CREHA: We introduced the new complaint model in April 2012. We rolled out our customer service training during 2010 and 2011 and we trained staff in complaint handling. We used the Gober Method to help us to structure a consistent approach to complaints and create a language of service. We held meetings with all teams to discuss the draft model and prepare staff for frontline resolution. Although we did not have a logging system in place immediately for frontline complaints we asked that staff use the model and practice responding to complaints within five working days. Any complaints that could not be resolved at this stage then went to stage 2 (investigation). This helped to prepare staff for logging and made the changes easier to embed.
CSA: I understand that you have now adopted a streamlined, two stage complaints handling procedure. How did your earlier focus on customer service help you to make this transition?
CREHA: Our focus on ‘welcoming complaints’ helped us to move very quickly to a two-stage process. Our staff understood why the process was changing, and it tied really nicely into the ‘ownership and responsibility’ part of our customer service training. The key point to remember is that you must get your staff and customer service approach right before you introduce the process. All staff can follow a process – it’s the ‘how’ they follow it that counts.
CSA: What were the key steps in changing the way you approach complaints?
CREHA: The key steps for us were:
Step 1: Staff attitude
We viewed this as the most important part of changing the way we handle complaints. Whilst staff welcome complaints we wanted to ensure that they approached the new model positively with a key understanding of the benefits to both customers and the organisation.
Step 2: Senior Management Team and Board of Management
We ensured that they were fully aware and supportive of the changes to the model. We highlighted the key changes including the impact on the Board, staff, customer benefits and reporting requirements.
Step 3: Prepare staff
We talked through the draft model and the benefits for staff with all customer facing staff. We discussed their responsibilities, completed case studies and discussed examples of common complaints and the actions we should take.
Step 4: Complaints handling system
From discussions with staff it was clear the best way to ensure that all complaints were logged was to introduce a simple logging system which was easy to operate.
CSA: What impact and benefits have these changes had on your organisation?
CREHA: We view the new model as a positive change for both staff and customers.
We would summarise the benefits as follows:
Our staff can provide evidence for issues raised by customers which allows us to identify improvements to our services.
The logging of on-the-spot apologies has highlighted issues which senior management were unaware of.
We can make quick, easy changes to service which greatly improve our customers experience.
Customers get frontline resolutions and that also means less senior staff time is taken up with complaints that can be resolved quickly for customers.
CSA: Change management can be difficult in any organisation particularly when it involves a change of culture. What challenges did you face?
CREHA: Since we had invested so much time training staff to deliver excellent customer service, our concerns were more around the technical aspect of the logging process. Most of our staff resolve these complaints informally already on a daily basis and the real task was encouraging them to take the time to record it. We had to work closely with staff to support them and understand what they needed from an accessible complaints system.
CSA: How have you kept staff informed about changes, and how have they responded?
CREHA: We personally met with each team in every department and talked them through the changes. It was important to talk to staff about their concerns and give them an opportunity to work through some of the most common issues and how we can actively empower them to resolve these issues. We have emailed staff with updates as required and supported them at their desks when the logging system was introduced. Staff have responded positively because they see the benefits and it formalises what they were already doing.
CSA: Have your customers noticed any changes?
CREHA: We don’t know yet, but the tenant panel are pleased with the results so far.
CSA: What advice would you give other organisations are planning to improve their complaints handling or adopt a two-stage complaints procedure?
CREHA: Ensure that your staff are briefed on the model as soon as possible. The best way to get buy in is to ensure that they are involved in the process and have enough time to adjust to the changes. Start to move towards frontline resolution as soon as you can – don’t wait for a new logging system. Your staff’s approach to complaint handling is the most important thing, regardless of the procedure they are following.
It is important to highlight that a response to a stage two complaint is your final response and must represent your organisation's view. Consider asking investigating managers to work cross functionally (housing investigate property services etc.) which will ensure that a more independent investigation is carried out and will also help communication and lessons learned. As it’s your final response before the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) you should set an internal timeline of ten days and ask a more senior member to review the response to the investigation. In our case this is our Managing Director.
CSA: What has been your biggest complaints related success to date?
CREHA: Our biggest success is our staff’s response to the changes. The changes have been positively received and our customer focused approach has been reinforced. Our new complaint logging system has been well received by staff and peers.
Reviewing our performance, we are also pleased to see the investment taken by our senior management team in relation to stage two investigations. So far, we have acknowledged and responded to 100% of stage two complaints within our timescales and received no queries from the SPSO to date. We aim to continue with this level of performance and customer satisfaction.
CSA: The key to a successful complaints system is one where lessons are learned effectively and regularly. What systems or processes do you have in place to help you learn from complaints?
CREHA: We will review our complaint performance on a monthly basis. These reviews will focus on lessons learned and service improvements and will be shared with all staff. They will include case studies and examples of what we have learnt. We have had complaints about a new landscaping contractor. They were appointed with customers on the procurement panel and next review meeting with them is being held with customers who will challenge these service failures.
CSA: What’s next for Castle Rock Edinvar?
CREHA: We will continue to monitor our complaint performance and measure customer satisfaction with our complaints handling procedure. Our focus will remain on lessons learned and how we can actively apply these lessons to improve our services and evidence this. We are also developing a new streamlined monthly complaint monitoring report for all staff which will focus on areas for improvement and case studies.
We are also considering creating a customer complaint panel whose role is to attend a working group once a year to get involved in our lessons learned and help us to improve our services. This ties in with how we will assess and demonstrate our performance against the Scottish Social Housing Charter standards to our customers and the Scottish Housing Regulator.