Fresh Perspectives with Anita Khan: Creative leadership and staying true to purpose.
Read my interview with Anita Khan, Executive Director of Customer Services at settle.
In Edition #3 of Fresh Perspectives.
An introduction to the series.
With Fresh Perspectives, I hope to bring talent from across property, housing and technology together.
This series doesn’t focus on the loudest or most senior voices in these sectors. Rather, I seek out leaders with a new perspective. Those on the front lines of big change in business.
They challenge the status quo. Transform attitudes. Process. Operations and customer service.
I hope that you get as much as I learn from it. That you - the reader - consider these fresh perspectives and how they might be applied to your own organisation.
An introduction to my guest - Anita Khan
An enthusiastic young leader, Anita has translated her life-long passion for community development into her key customer services role in housing today. As Executive Director of Customer Services at settle, she works with stakeholders and clients in a range of different environments.
Her talents are bolstered by her strong experience of managing teams in creative ways towards shared goals. Anita has an incredible amount of passion, care and excitement for the work she does day to day, helping her team deliver better outcomes for tenants. Her efforts continue to create opportunities for settle to realise social value and reinvest savings back into local communities.
In this interview, we discuss:
- The evolution of the traditional tenant-landlord relationship and how better tenant services should now be the new normal.
- How affordable housing can better reconnect with the core purpose that drives it.
- The new reality for customer service in housing: extra touch-points with tenants that are enabling better benefits.
- The impact of creative, agile leadership and problem-solving on the sector.
Shariq: I am here with Anita Khan, Director of Customer Services at settle. What can I say about Anita that has not already been said? I imagine housing has been vocational for you. You’ve worked with youths, changed lives, offered better opportunities to those who might not receive them. All of this before you even formally entered the housing sector. So today I’d like to start with that - your drive to do better and provide communities with the support they need.
Anita: Like most people in housing, I believe I also fell into it. So I can't say I set out earlier than I wanted to, to work in the sector. Fresh out of university, I worked for smaller organizations that aided young people. And I remember an early conversation with one of my colleagues, now one of my best friends. I remember saying to him - “we're trying to engage with disadvantaged young people. And we're trying to make a difference to their lives, but really we don’t have enough time with them. So let’s try to exert some influence”. I realised whilst saying this, that their basic needs aren't being met. Most of them live in pretty run down estates. Their quality of life isn’t good. There’s a lot of research that links health to housing, and emotional well being to the conditions you live in. I knew soon after that I needed to work in housing. You have to fix that before you can enable young people to realise a change in their lives. It was still some years after this that I joined the world of housing.
Shariq: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. So what has the journey been like since then - to where you are today?
Anita: I've been in housing now for about seven years. My first role in housing was effectively as a regional housing manager for Home Group. That changed a lot for me. When I first joined, I thought of housing in a fairly traditional way - landlords let their properties, provide a service, collect rent. There’s been a big evolution from that traditional mindset - in terms of how we think about our customers in housing.
Shariq: I’d love if you could explain more of that evolution to me. And the role you’re playing within it.
Anita: Well the tenant-landlord relationship is predicated on a tenancy agreement - but landlords are responsible for providing lots of services. So why should we not think of ourselves as a service provider in the way that anybody else would? And maximize the choices available to our customers. Deliver services in a way that makes a difference to people's lives.
Another driver for me, specifically with social housing, is that I understand it can’t be altruistic all the time. We need to be commercial when delivering transactional services to have the financial capacity for social purpose. So I am driven by identifying opportunities in a commercial environment where the margin of decisions this way or that way can have a massive impact on somebody's life. I want the stories we create with our decisions to be powerful, impactful and wholesome. So I seek to change the series of events you can set off by one decision - which will have a lasting and not-always-positive impact on people’s lives. There’s this legacy that gets tied to their homes, families and experiences whilst they’re living there. It follows them into their adult lives - and I am determined to realise better experiences that instil pride back into this institution.
The green paper discusses the stigma that has found its way into social housing. So when we choose to deal differently with people as a landlord, we can deliver better services and environments for people to truly call a place home.
[on services] But we're not Amazon and we're not any other sort of throwaway service provider. We are housing providers. The level of emotional investment people have in their houses is different. Beyond human relationships, the most important thing anybody has is their home.”
Shariq: Tell me about settle's approach to customer service. How has it been different to your prior experiences, if at all. And what do you believe needs to further be developed?
Anita: What I really like about settle is our emphasis on social purpose. So there’s a time for us to be super efficient and transactional but there’s a time when people need more from us. Now if you go onto the website of pretty much any housing association it would say something about their social purpose. What I feel is different about us is that there are tangible activities that we do to demonstrate our commitment to it. So, for example, every person in our business is given two days off a year, in addition to their annual leave, to go and do volunteering activity. In the last few years alone, these activities have generated a minimum of a million pounds worth of social value in the local areas we work in.
That really appeals to me. What I’ve been more involved with is thinking differently about the attitude “our customers are satisfied, right?”. I have a problem with organisations under-reporting dissatisfaction. You produce stats that say certain satisfaction figures are in the 90th percentile and take a much needed voice away from customers in social housing - particularly people with vulnerability. So people just accept what they're given. And it goes back to what I was explaining around the landlord-tenant dynamic. They almost think they don't have a right to ask for any better because they accept what they’re given.
Shariq: But, at the same time, we’re living in a world where customer service has defined a new reality for us.
Anita: And I think that's really important because we live in a world where our customers tap their screen twice and a package shows up the next day. That's the life that we all live. This is the life our customers live too. So for them to have a drastically different experience when they call us - it doesn’t make sense. You call us. Expect a call back. Receive a letter at some point. It's multiple contacts to transact a single service. That's not the modern world. That's not the life we’re used to. And that is not good enough.
Shariq: Absolutely. I understand what you mean about being a service provider first.
Anita: At settle, we benchmark ourselves, not just against housing associations, but UK-wide service industries. And the emphasis around good service is that you make it as easy as possible. So low effort. The dream of: tap the screen, something's done.
Our metrics too are now built around real time surveys. Every time you transact using our service, we ask, "How easy was that?" And that helps us understand our services better. But we're not Amazon and we're not any other sort of throwaway service provider. We are housing providers. The level of emotional investment people have in their houses is different. Beyond human relationships, the most important thing anybody has is their home. People love their home. So I think we can't simplify it by just saying, "We've got to be like Amazon." That's too simplistic. There are times when people need us to be that, but there are times they need us to demonstrate that we are a bit more. That's where the social purpose comes in. So we can do a bit more for them - be commercially efficient where customers need services to be easy and invest where customers need more from us.
Shariq: This is honestly fantastic and so good to learn! Are there any others?
Anita: Another metric we use is trust. We do a perception survey. It’s more qualitative. There's lots of questions, and from them, you derive a trust score. So to me, those two things are really important. So when you deal with us, is it easy? But then when you need something more, how do you feel about us? I think those things are more important than asking somebody, "Are you satisfied?" Satisfied with what? Am I satisfied with the last contact that I had? Am I satisfied that I've got a home to live in? Am I satisfied with life generally?
I think it's too simplistic and too generalised a question to ask. Also, it’s important to acknowledge that the new regulator for social housing puts an emphasis on trust. At settle, we’re now seen as an early adopter of that owing to these developments.
Another example of our focus on social purpose is customers switching over onto universal credit. Every customer that switches onto universal credit gets a face to face visit. We ask, "Are you okay managing this by yourself?" “If not...” It's almost like a triage system of understanding what that person's needs are to best manage their finances. So it’s certainly not the same for everybody. Some might be totally fine. But we want to be there regardless and remind you you’ll always have the support.
From April 2018 till date, the additional income that we've managed to help customers gain is close to 800,000 pounds. Just just through that extra engagement. So money that they're entitled to, money they didn't know how to access. That’s what makes a difference.
The engagement bit is the bit that's really important. People need to see the potential of what we're trying to achieve for themselves... many of us aren't really clear on what the binary relationship between what we do every day is, and this arbitrary number that you report to us"
Shariq: I sometimes dive into my guests’ linkedin to find a topic I’d like to explore more. “Managing teams in creative ways towards shared goals”. I really liked that. What is some of the creativity that you find yourself injecting into this kind of team environment?
Anita: Engagement is a big part of my leadership style, but also an organisational style for settle. The approach is - you set a vision, you engage, and then you execute. But the engagement bit is the bit that's really important. People need to see the potential of what we're trying to achieve for themselves. When we first started talking about effort and trust, people wondered why.
I think that’s because many of us aren’t really clear on what the binary relationship between what we do every day is, and this arbitrary number that you report to us. So while inculcating concepts like these takes time, workshops, messaging exercises, even road showings really help. We do a lot of that at settle.
Shariq: Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Anita: So, I have under my directorate around 160-170 people. You sometimes have to rely on the hierarchy to deliver messages. I always think there's a risk to that. So you want to do it, but you also want to supplement that with hearing from the horse's mouth. And you need to create enough space for people on an individual level where they feel they can speak to it - so broadcasting doesn't always work that well. A monthly team meeting isn’t conversational. It’s a broadcast.
Broadcasting messages around service, delivery, and design doesn't really work. That's not engaging in the same way. So when I was embedding myself at settle, I met every single person in the team one-to-one. And I think that approach worked really well - people get a sense of how you are, your disposition. But also it gives you a chance to articulate your vision to people on a one-to-one basis and, more importantly, gain their insight into the organisation and the role.
Shariq: Yes, it forges better working relationships. Creates alignment.
Anita: Yes, and in terms of the road showing - 2 out of 3 in senior management would deliver each of the sessions to every colleague in the business. We do no more than fifteen people at a time. So it's small enough that it can be conversational. And you just have to keep repeating that. I think that that's really important.
I think the fuzzy lines of hierarchy are important, too. Otherwise my view of the world is shaped by the managers that report to me. And ultimately that's one person's view of the world; it's not necessarily mine.
We've worked quite hard at settle over the last three years to create those fuzzy lines, that collapsed hierarchy. It doesn't matter whose role is what, you know, people come talk to whoever.
Shariq: Do other leaders at settle share this approach as enthusiastically?
Anita: Coming to settle, I think I’ve been quite fortunate - having a CEO like Gavin as my boss. His view of the world is not too dissimilar to mine. He likes that we have the fuzzy lines. A new pilot project, where we’re exploring digital transformation of our services, is a prime example of that kind of thinking.
I put together a group of colleagues from the organization, some of them within my directorate, some not. Various levels, front lines, managers, team leaders. We set ourselves the discipline of a twelve-week period. We said, this is the issue. We need to find solutions. We’ve got 12 weeks, we are in active exploration, go off and find different solutions. Now we’ve narrowed them down to the 5 most feasible. I think of this as a more effective way of working, rather than going: issue, solution, done. It’s the discipline of being open and curious to different solutions.
Shariq: We've discussed customer service and touched quite briefly on technology’s new role within it. My question: what kind of larger transformation do you think this will usher into the sector?
Anita: You'll see that different organizations have started recruiting people outside of the sector. And a lot of people from customer experience or customer service backgrounds have started to come join the sector.
And there’s also this urgency, this push around development. Theresa May coming to the National Housing Federation last year in September. Then at CIH again in June. A sitting prime minister has never done that before. She’s pushing for development at a time when budgets are squeezed, so there’s this implicit deal that you find cost efficiencies and build more homes.
For me, it’s been interesting to think about the role digital channels can play - both in developing new homes and in customer service. Let’s look at an example: if I digitise my service delivery, my cost per transaction becomes roughly less than 5p per contact. But if I rely on a more traditional, face-to-face means of contact, it’s roughly 200 pounds for a housing officer to go and visit somebody.
So we should digitise where it makes sense - i.e the services our customers want to be simple and easy - whilst investing in the customer contacts we see as trust levels. But overall this makes us more efficient - so we can build more homes.
I thank Anita again for her time and promise to send over a copy of a book I have been reading lately (Sprint, by Jake Knapp). Anita's views, experiences and outlook make me proud to work in housing and excited for the transformation ahead.
- The tenant-landlord relationship has evolved. Housing providers are now seen as service providers and have to manage the expectations that come with it.
- Trust can be a powerful, eye-opening metric and housing providers should take note.
- A flatter organisational structure: it's favoured by start ups for a reason and will start to be seen more in housing, encouraging more open communication and collaboration, with a direct impact on the end goal.
- There is great opportunity in engagement. An extra engagement point can have a transformative impact for a tenant.
- Digital can transform processes and will up-skill your people. Embrace it.
Talk to Me:
Stay tuned for the next in the series. And if you’d like to recommend a young leader in housing for me to sit down and have a chat with, do let me know below.