Although the pandemic has been financially tough for many, Dasos Christou, executive director of Customer Relations at Silva Homes, explains how talking openly about money has helped them keep rent arrears low and customers happy
In a bid to rise to the unprecedented challenges facing many of our customers due to the pandemic, our colleagues have been picking up the phone to speak to them and guide them through these toughest of times. That’s because we at Silva have invested in its frontline services to help people who are, for example, struggling to keep up with rent payments as they’ve faced hardship like never before.
As a measure of this, during the pandemic the number of Silva Homes customers on Universal Credit shot up from 700 to 1,700 as jobs disappeared and people’s businesses collapsed. This meant that, through no fault of their own, customers started to face mounting rent arrears and heightened anxiety levels when some found themselves out of work for the first time in their lives.
We had to make sure we were ready to help, by not only putting more colleagues on those vital frontline services but also instilling a much more empathetic approach.
It’s been a case of ‘being in it together’, because no one is unaffected; and already the feedback confirms we’re getting it right, which is really encouraging. Customers say they have found it comforting to know they were dealing with people whose priority was understanding their predicament, rather than just getting the rent money in.
“During the pandemic, the number of Silva Homes customers on Universal Credit shot up from 700 to 1,700 as jobs disappeared and people’s businesses collapsed”
One customer who had to turn to benefits for the first time was grateful that we navigated the way through the online application process with them. We will also signpost to financial experts at Citizens Advice when we fund a dedicated resource for our customers.
It helps that our colleagues are able to put themselves in customers’ shoes to address financial issues. It helps, too, that we’ve moved away from a process-led approach: now, instead of automatically moving people in rent arrears to the next stage if they fail to act, we shepherd them.
We also put an onus on colleagues having dedicated patches enabling to build relationships and get to know our customers, rather than ending up at loggerheads. This has been especially the case when it comes to rent arrears. Some may have seen our rent team as a debt collection or a debt recovery service who fire off stern letters left, right, and centre – but we have proved that’s not the case.
Instead, we have been aiming to help our customers through support, signposting, expertise, advice, rapport-building, trust, and empathy. That empathetic approach was even more critical because everyone was facing such difficult times in one shape or form. It went from being something akin to a parent-child relationship to one that was more adult-to-adult – and it’s worked wonders
You hear stories about customers seeing numbers they recognise as being from landlords or private numbers chasing rent arrears, and they ignore it. Our data proves that engagement levels have been high because customers are open to working with us and they know they can trust us to safeguard their tenancy as well as their peace of mind.
“Some may have seen our rent team as a debt collection or a debt recovery service who fire off stern letters left, right, and centre – but we have proved that’s not the case”
We won’t judge them, but we guide them through what might seem insurmountable by working with them and lessening the prospects of people burying heads in sand. It turned out to be a win-win approach because we help customers get on top of rent arrears and at the same time protect ourselves as a housing association.
The result of this new approach is already reaping rewards, because the level of arrears has dropped dramatically during the pandemic and are now better than pre-pandemic levels – something we attribute to our new approach. That money will be re-invested into our community, for the benefit of all.
Our role is more than just landlord, and we want to build on that: benefitting communities through our investment in homes and support for people.
Image: Dasos Christou, executive director (Customer Relations), Silva Homes
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