Blog: ‘Oh what a world we live in!’

Bruce Forbes

Recalling a recent experience of a centralised call centre, Angus Housing Association director, Bruce Forbes, asks whether they can effectively offer the type of service to tenants that housing associations were set up to provide.

As I approach the 40th anniversary in August of this year of the start of my working life in housing, I sometimes find myself harking back to the good old days when tenants could pop into their local housing office and colleagues in other housing associations were at the end of a phone line answered by someone who actually knew the person you were asking to speak to and maybe even what they looked like. I think some of us still do this.

Sometimes, the tenants might even get to meet or speak on the phone to their housing or maintenance officer without having to listen to 40 minutes of recorded messages about GDPR and how to pay your rent or report a repair online – in fact, you can seemingly do all manner of things so long as it does not necessitate any form of personal human contact.

This week, I had to personally endure what many of these large, “corporate” and impersonal housing associations like to call a “service”. While I listened to the 40 minutes of terrible music as I waited on the line (presumably Marvin Gaye or something else decent costs more to use), I found myself thinking of other Kafkaesque situations I had encountered over the years until my ears were hurting so badly that I just couldn’t think of anything else but the wonderful Rufus Wainwright song I have used as the title of this blog.

Some really devastating news had been given to me earlier in the afternoon. We thought we had recruited an excellent new member of staff who was due to start work with us on Monday. He had signed a contract of employment, had worked more than 3 of his 4 weeks’ notice and had a night out to say goodbye to his colleagues. Then, out of the blue, his current employer offers him an enhanced deal of some sort to convince him to stay without even the decency of checking the contractual situation with the employer he is leaving to join, or the service delivery problems it will cause us.

I won’t name the other housing association involved but my initial thought – try to speak to a “colleague” at this other association. After all, their employee now has a contract with us – maybe we could negotiate some arrangement as technically, he is now due us notice before he can leave our employment.

Unfortunately, this is only where the trouble really begins.

At 4.20, I phone the number on the website only to get 20 minutes of the muzak and the recordings in a jaunty attempt at a working class voice. At 4.40, after what I have been told repeatedly is due to the high volume of calls they are experiencing, a live human being eventually comes on the line. I explain that no, I am not a tenant and ask to speak to someone – a name from the website, who might be able to help. The call handler is very helpful. She tries to put me through but nobody is available. I ask for a direct line number so I can phone back without my eardrums having to endure more of the really bad “music”. No can do. An email address – no can do – you have to send it to the “contact us” address and take your chances. Leave a message on voicemail – sorry, not possible.

I try to be assertive. The call handler is very nice. I think she appreciates the problem I have and tries to get someone to help. At 4.49, she kindly tells me she is still trying. What a relief those seconds were from the muzak! I think back to my youth – surely even Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music was better than this stuff.

At 4.55, she comes back to me again to say she still can’t find anyone to take my call. At 4.59, we give up – she informs me there is nobody available. We now think we know who I should be speaking to but he’s left the office for the evening.

It is possible by this stage, however, for me to leave a number so the person I have been trying to get through to speak to for 40 minutes can phone me back in the morning. Being assertive must have done the trick.

Mission Accomplished. A lesson learned. Yes – just as I thought, centralised call centres fly in the face of every principle of a personal service to tenants that housing associations were set up to provide. And of course, if you treat your tenants like that, it’s only one step away from the unprofessional way in which you deal with your staff and “colleagues” from other housing associations.

“Oh What a world we Live In”. You’re right enough there Rufus.

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