We’re investing in homes and relationships so that people can thrive.
At Bromford we manage 43,000 properties which are home to over 100,000 customers. It’s perhaps unsurprising that repairing and maintaining those properties forms a large part of what we do as a social landlord. A couple of years ago, anecdotal feedback from our Home Maintenance Engineers suggested that given the right circumstances, many of the repairs they undertake could potentially be completed by customers themselves. That got us thinking about:
How might we support customers to play their part in looking after their home?
Back in 2017/18, through the starting well engineer pilot, we offered guidance on how to carry out 10 commonly reported (small) jobs around the home to all new customers in two of our localities. We also provided them with a toolkit containing the basics for household maintenance. New customers received an appointment with an engineer around 2 weeks after they moved in.
We wanted to use the pilot to explore whether we might be able to achieve:
A reduction in the 10 specific repairs we provided coaching on;
A reduction in calls for overall repairs from new customers;
A potential cost saving being delivered as a result of the starting well visit (mostly due to reduced repairs);
Positive customer feedback in relation to the new service.
Over the duration of the 12 month pilot, customer feedback indicated that the service was clearly valued. However, we found that much of this was due to our two engineers adding value to the visit by fixing small problems which customers had noticed in their first few days living in the property. This accounted for around a third of the engineer’s time. So, whilst customer satisfaction with the starting well service was high, the pilot did more to highlight issues with our void standards than it did to reduce repairs or increase customer confidence.
Following the end of the pilot, we revisited the problem definition as part of the programmeOne discovery sessions. This lead us to undertake a discreet piece of qualitative research to help us better understand the problem we were trying to solve. We had conversations with 15 customers in their own homes which allowed us to construct a set of real-life user stories through which we gained a more in-depth and holistic understanding of our customers and the relationship they have with their homes. We were also able to spot customer needs we may never have previously considered, identify customer priorities and start to uncover insights around patterns of behaviour.
During our conversations we observed that:
Unsurprisingly, people don't conform to stereotypes;
Customer behaviours and attitudes towards the home differ greatly - some people have the skill to look after it well but don't have the will, or the confidence;
Some people adopt deficit-thinking about their abilities, their health and the quality of their environment;
Community is ever present in people's lives but as service providers we tend to view services as a more binary transaction between us and an individual customer. Many customers spoke of ‘having a go’ at things themselves, often using family networks or other social contacts to help them out on jobs which happen to be outside of their own ability, comfort zone or skill set;
Whilst some customers were happy to attempt some repairs themselves, others felt that it should be our responsibility as a landlord. Customers described paying rent to cover the cost of repairs as well as not wanting to burden their already busy family when they were unable to do something themselves;
There are many stakeholders that need to be considered as part of this work, including customers themselves, friends of customer’s, family members, employers, neighbours and also their Neighbourhood Coach.
The conversations uncovered 6 overarching themes around which we were able to frame key pieces of design insight:
Skill, Will & Confidence - By far the strongest theme. Customers will have different skill, will and confidence ratios depending on the task and what’s going on in their life at the time;
Communication - Customers often didn’t mind how long it would take to get many things done so long as they were given clear timescales that were adhered to and were kept updated throughout the repair journey;
Motivation - Customers were motivated by a range of different things, although family always factored high;
Life - Customers are central to Bromford, but we can often forget that we are not always central in the lives of our customers. Our customers are people for whom we exist to serve, but for them Bromford is just a small cog in the machinery of their wider life;
Role of the Coach - Neighbourhood Coaches are Bromford’s gateway to understanding customers in a level of detail we’ve not been able to before. By having different types of conversation with customers, coaches are able to help people meet their goals by working with them, not for them;
Pain Points - Customers were often keen to discuss issues which had made them anxious, unhappy and/or concerned. Quite often, these ‘pain points’ could be perceived as quite minor issues to the business, but in the eyes of the customer they become much more when left unresolved and poorly communicated.
Using learning from the original starting well pilot, the programmeOne discovery sessions, and our qualitative research we were able to form insight which moved us to think about things less in terms of a single service offer, and more in terms of a platform for different types of service.
One of our five areas of strategic focus here at Bromford is our relationship with customers. Our coaching model is central to this objective, not just through our neighbourhood coaching, but aspirationally through all colleagues across organisation. Towards the end of the starting well pilot, the repairs team started working with localities teams to look at how neighbourhood coaches may be able to work with starting well engineers to broaden and support the approach. We thought that it would be appropriate to explore this concept further following the end of the pilot. So, working with a head of locality and the maintenance manager we devised a short learning activity designed to enable us to understand more about how we might work with some of our customers to coach them through home maintenance.
During the starting well pilot we had been unable to change the way the service was delivered as it would have been difficult to ensure the integrity of the evaluation. For this learning activity we wanted to move away from a ‘static’ pilot to a more flexible and dynamic model. Over a 16 week period, a home maintenance coach worked with a number of customers on a wide range of activities from bleeding radiators and replacing toilet seats through to re-plastering hallways and hanging wall paper. Unlike starting well, these activities were driven by the customers themselves. The home maintenance coach was a multi skilled engineer who adopted a coaching approach, working closely with the neighbourhood coach to identify customers and then alongside the customer to build a tailored coaching plan. Importantly, as this was a test, we were able to change the way that the service was being delivered inline with what we were learning week-by-week.
The aim of the test was to:
Work with new customers, where this is the first tenancy to identify if they require support or coaching to ensure they can maintain their home to the ‘expected standard’;
Work with customers who might be at risk of damaging or neglecting their property, or have already caused damage to their property to ensure they can maintain their home to the ‘expected standard’ and also prevent any future damage;
Work with new/existing customers who may have the will to improve their home but don’t have the skills to do so, in order to provide them with the confidence to carry out some improvements themselves.
We also wanted to understand:
Whether an engineer could take on a coaching approach;
Whether we can define a ‘Bromford standard’ (and what that might look like).
Once again we met with customers in order to understand the impact that the home maintenance coach was having on their lives. Some of the key learning from the home maintenance coach test centered around:
Motivation - People didn’t always learn new skills from the home maintenance coach but having someone acting as a catalyst often helped them find the motivation they needed to get started on a task they had been putting off;
Learning through doing - People found being shown how to do something more valuable than being told to do it;
Support networks - People sometimes used friends and family to help them with home maintenance tasks;
Choosing Life - Life often gets in the way. Home maintenance isn’t always top priority. The time needs to be right for people to take an active role in home maintenance tasks.
Ultimately through both starting well and home maintenance coach, we learned that defining what we mean by ‘looking after’ a home is quite difficult to define and deciding which customers should be able to do which type of task was practically impossible. Several questions remained unanswered:
Do we mean every customer? Do we understand our customers enough to know who?
Do we expect customers to leverage the help of friends, family and contacts? What is reasonable?
What repairs do we want customers to attempt? How do we know that these are the right things?
What our ongoing exploration has taught us is that there is no single solution to delivering an enhanced home maintenance offer. Insights gleaned through larger scale tests and pilots such as starting well engineer and home maintenance coach, and also smaller tests such as the fencing service test and decorating service test have taught us a great deal. Not least, we’ve learned that there are no silver bullets; we should be thinking in terms of suites of tools or services that can be used interchangeably by customers depending on their circumstances at the time.
The focus of our current exploration is on developing this platform through our wider repairs service offer. We’re starting to pull together a proposal to use our new customer portal to deploy self help advice and FAQs to all customers before accepting bookings for all repairs jobs where there is no immediate danger to people, property or the repair itself is inherently dangerous or the legislative responsibility of Bromford (i.e. roofing, electricity or gas).
Our proposal recognises that whilst someone may not have the skill, will or confidence to attempt a fix themselves this time, next time they might be in a different place. Providing all customers with self help guides at the point they report the repair will provide them with the opportunity to decide themselves whether they have the skill, will and confidence to attempt it. If they don’t feel able or willing to tackle the repair, the reasons they give will provide us with the intelligence and insight to enable us to develop new types of user centred support which we can plug into the platform and offer at the point of reporting a repair. These might include iterations of starting well, home maintenance coach or our handy person service alongside entirely new services which we haven’t yet thought about.
Linking this work in with the continuing development of our coaching approach and aspects of the strategy focusing on enabling customers to thrive feels like a powerful evolution of the exploration work we started all those months ago. The work is ongoing, so as always please keep an eye on the blog and our exploration pipeline on Trello for more information.