Don’t Forget the Squirrels

Getting tenant engagement right is a complex process. It involves embedding a culture of empathy for the services user and has to be led from the top. But as the focus moves back onto service user needs, boards and executives can’t go far wrong by looking at the humble complaints process as starter for ten.

In a previous job, we had dozens of letters from a single mum with two small children. She complained her kids couldn’t sleep because there were squirrels banging around in the loft. The complaints were passed down the chain of command to the front line to be dealt with and targets for replies were met. But the complaints kept coming. Eventually I was dispatched to the property with the local housing manager where we could clearly see a tree, branches reaching the roof of the adjoining property and squirrels hopping around its trunk. It was explained to me that they didn’t see how the squirrels were getting into the property and even if they were, the adjoining property was in private ownership, which apparently meant there was nothing we could do to fix the issue.  Long story short – we got the branch cut down, the pests were dealt with and the mum and her children got some sleep. My conclusion was this was indicative of a culture that focussed on rules, policies and efficiencies and not focussed on engaging the customer.

Eight years ago, when I was last in consultancy, a big part of my job was to support organisations to find ways to genuinely listen to tenants. The regulator was the Tenant Services Authority (TSA) and it felt like an exciting time where there was real focus on listening to customers. We trained tenants in mock inspection, we researched ‘Tenant Choice’ and we were supporting the late Tom Manion, to explore giving tenants a 100% satisfaction guarantee.

Then the TSA was abolished in the wake of funding cuts and loss of political favour, with the energy being redirected into other things. However, the Grenfell fire tragedy has once again moved the focus back to tenant engagement. There are some for who tenant engagement has always been and remains a priority. But as I dip in and out of countless board rooms and executive meetings, there are some common mistakes still being made, even by those who are seeking to do the right thing:

Firstly, data can and should be used to understand a wider body of tenants. But it can never replace conversations and needs to be used intelligently. I worked with one organisation recently that have tenants’ satisfaction scores in the mid nighties. But when you looked at the detail it told a different story. One tenant said that the repairs operatives had missed the appointment time; they hadn’t got the right part and had to come back; they made a bit of a mess: but they were really nice and ticked ‘satisfied’ with the service.  That tells you being ‘nice’ is important, but also that satisfaction scores don’t necessarily help you improve service delivery.

Secondly, there are some brilliant tenant board members. But they should be there because of the skills they bring (as our LSVT governance research highlighted), they should not be expected to be the representatives of all service users. Though we use it extensively, the term ‘tenants voice’ does not help– housing providers have a diverse and complex customer base who have different needs, contact points with and experiences of the service. A nominal place for tenants on the board is not, and never was, the answer to understanding service users. There are more sophisticated ways of building tenants views into governance and using technology now available to make sure a range of tenant’s voices can be heard.

Thirdly, it should never be out of fashion to spend time in the front line.  The organisations that understand both their staff and their tenant’s best are those that have executives who spend time with front line staff, talking to tenants. I talked to one CEO recently who said they continually got details from staff surveys, that told them very little, but when she spent a day out with operatives on the vans, no one was shy to voice improvements that could to be made.

Finally, why invent new ways of listening to tenants when we fail to pay enough attention to the simplest one – complaints. I have seen time and time again boards that interrogate void performance and income collection, and skip past low satisfaction with complaints handling. Analysis of complaints can identify patterns, and persistent cases can teach you lessons about the tenant and the culture of the organisation.

So as we delve back into how best we ensure we understand what service users need from social housing I think of the complaint about squirrels and how simply talking to customer is a good starting point. Start simple and build from there.


Gemma is a Principal Consultant at Altair – Contact her at