Sep 25, 2017 Last Updated 11:00 PM, Sep 10, 2017

Contractors in the community

Published in Housing
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As a contractor working predominantly in social housing and the public sector, Lakehouse regularly find itself amongst established and inhabited neighbourhoods and homes as opposed to empty building sites. It’s therefore important to recognise that its site team is very much a part of the community. Here, John Lewthwaite, Group Business Improvement Director at Lakehouse, explains more.

Gallery

Working with housing associations and local authorities, clear communication and close collaboration underpin effective asset management. But as well as working in partnership with our clients, it’s also vital to continually review our relationship with customers – those on the receiving end of our service.

By putting customer service front and centre, we are better able to deliver works smoothly and on time, reduce complaints, and make a positive impact on the communities in which we work. Customer service is a key part of a more holistic approach to community engagement – we also need to be making better use of modern technology and looking at creative, effective ways to fulfil our social value obligations.

At Lakehouse, we’ve focused on creating a culture that means every member of the business has a responsibility when it comes to customer service. Building one-to-one relationships with customers is central to the role of resident liaison officer (RLO), site-based operatives who are dedicated to bridging the gap between customers and the construction labour team.

We’ve worked on expanding this customer service responsibility across the business so that residents can expect the same consideration and care from all members of the team, and we’ve developed our ‘Customer Journey’ programme to encourage all employees to provide a consistent service to the highest standards.

Crucial to achieving this has been the introduction of behavioural management training to support our site teams, and we’re the first contractor in the country to implement this. One result of this process has been establishing a code of conduct and customer charter, reinforcing the responsibility that all our employees have to our clients, customers and the business.

Introducing a set of group-wide standards for personal behaviour on site (as well as health and safety standards) means we can be comfortable in knowing that our work is consistent, and we can pass on this offer to our clients.

The code sets out the expected behaviour for all aspects of our work, from driving, parking and working practice, to carrying the correct identification and uniform standards. The code is detailed – guidelines on how to announce your presence at a residence, how to introduce yourself and when to enter a home are all included under access arrangements. While this may seem pedantic or process-focused, it reduces misunderstanding and conflict as well as providing assurance for residents that their home is being treated with care. This focus on behaviour is particularly important when working with construction apprentices and trainees, many of whom were previously not in education, employment or training (NEETs).

Monthly audits

As part of the Customer Journey, employees across both the business and the supply chain are supported by regular training and talks which set out the business’ expectations and help maintain a consistent standard across the board. Progress is measured by monthly audits to ensure all our teams are meeting these same standards. At each point of contact, we map our customers’ experience to track where changes to their service have been effective and where they are still needed.

This new approach has led to the Lakehouse Group establishing KPIs on customer service. This allows us to better integrate our approach to resident engagement into our bid process, aligning our offering with what local authorities and housing associations need and helping them to assess our performance.

To help facilitate positive relationships with our customers, modern technology can be used to make our work on social housing estates more efficient, more flexible and less intrusive. Whether checking boilers for hundreds of homes or upgrading residents’ kitchens and bathrooms, technology from tablets to online portals can help the process run smoothly.

In our compliance division, which specialises in gas safety, heating, fire protection and air and water hygiene, gaining access to homes to perform crucial checks and servicing is a challenge for both contractors and housing associations.

Technology can help us to offer residents the choice and flexibility to manage appointments with a contractor.

Working with housing association L&Q in Kent and the East Thames region, we offered residents access to an online portal with bespoke log-ins to manage their appointment slots and choose a time which suited their requirements. This was coupled with a 24-hour call centre, staffed with Arabic, Punjabi, Hindu, Bengali and Gujarati speakers to meet the specific needs of these residents. These two progressive measures allowed us to reach 100% compliance levels for gas servicing in the area, ensuring the safety of these residents within their homes.

Gaining access is not the only way we can better engage with customers via modern technology. To help record accurate stock data and residents’ preferences, we’ve equipped some of our surveyors and engineers with tablets running specialist programmes.

Delivering improved customer service is not only about effective asset management, it’s about making an impact on the communities in which we work. As local authorities continue to see funding squeezed, there is considerable pressure to ensure that value and social impact is derived from every penny of public spending.

The need to demonstrate these values in the procurement process has helped to bring obligations introduced under the Public Services Act (Social Value) 2012 to the fore, with local authorities increasingly looking to maximise on the social value of their framework contracts, as well as Section 106 agreements.

Given the skills shortage facing the construction sector, focusing on sustainable employment and training of local people is no bad thing. However, it is becoming more obvious to our local authority clients which contractors are merely making token efforts to meet contractual obligations and which are taking innovative steps to make a real social impact.

To enable effective local intervention, we believe it’s crucial to offer a range of training and recruitment options. While boosting employment numbers is important, it’s not just about advertising jobs locally and offering single trade apprenticeships. This isn’t necessarily the best and only answer for some communities. Multi-skill traineeships, for example, offer unemployed 16-24 year olds up to six months’ training in English and maths, practical work experience and employability skills. This focuses on transferable, longer-term skills for young people and enables them to sample different trades before committing to an apprenticeship.

Modifying our approach to customer service, modern technology and training initiatives is a clear method to ensure contractors are delivering in the social housing sector. But when working day-to-day with residents of established communities, the approach needs to be bespoke.

The think tank Policy Exchange recently published a report on the difficulties facing some of the country’s most troubled social housing estates (particularly in terms of crime). The report highlighted communities which have turned desperation into inspiration, where committed partnerships have brought about improved approaches to crime, domestic wellbeing and community cohesion. In every case, there was no one-size-fits-all solution, and change initiatives were led by on-the-ground intelligence and community-based organisations. We all know that construction is about more than bricks and mortar. In social housing, it is fundamentally about people – our customers. When it comes to them, there’s no room for resting on one’s laurels.

If standards are being met, raise them – there is always scope for improvement. Building the right culture and processes is important, but making these changes isn’t about saddling employees with more work. Instead, it’s about building our workforce and helping our employees to make the right decisions intuitively and encouraging these attitudes to come naturally, so that going above and beyond becomes the standard approach.

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