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Founded in 1964, AmicusHorizon Ltd is one of the largest social landlords in England, managing 28,000 homes in London and the South East.

Their approach is customer-focused, built on a unity of purpose (or, “one team” ethos) established among staff, board and residents at central and local levels through the Board, Residents’ Council and eight Area Panels.

Building on the key drivers of CSE

“CSE made us look at how we engage with customers when we are designing our processes,” says John Barr, Director of Customer Experience.

“For example, we have an ongoing programme of resident scrutiny groups – groups of customers who scrutinise everything we do and make recommendations at the end of it.”

In 2011, Amicus Horizon took steps to involve their customers in setting up and monitoring key performance indicators (KPIs) for measuring customer satisfaction. Through survey data, focus groups and informal conversations, they selected five satisfaction criteria that matter to them:

  • Satisfaction with complaints handling
  • Satisfaction with resolving anti-social behaviour
  • Satisfaction with speed and quality of repairs
  • Satisfaction with re-let times
  • Overall customer satisfaction

This has led to impressive results. In 2014–15, AmicusHorizon achieved a 97% overall resident satisfaction rating, with all KPIs showing consistent improvement since 2011.

In this way, AmicusHorizon is building on the key drivers of the CSE standard (finding out what customers want, and how to deliver that to them), to engage customers and reach their organisational goals (to become the best performing large social landlord in the UK by 2016).

Turning customer complaints into a collaborative process

A three-stage process underpins the complaints handling process, again involving customers. Handling complaints can be expensive so AmicusHorizon tries to ensure problems never escalate to a hearing – with the extra paperwork and possible involvement of the Housing Ombudsman that entails.

The process generates greater trust between AmicusHorizon and their customers. Responsibility for complaint handling and preventing it escalating beyond stage two falls to a mixture of staff and customers (many of whom AmicusHorizon trains in negotiation skills alongside their own staff).

Again, managing the most serious (stage three) complaints passes to customers who run panels where all key stakeholders have a roundtable discussion to find solutions and learn from mistakes.  

This way, AmicusHorizon creates a more positive dynamic and turn the complaints process into a collaborative rather than a confrontational process.

Using customer complaints as a tool for cultural change

There’s another reason why complaint handling is so important: AmicusHorizon uses it as tool for cultural change within their organisation.

In addition to setting up a centralised Customer Experience Team to resolve complaints collaboratively with customers, they incentivise staff by making customer complaints one of their “gold medal” targets for the organisation. Staff receive a bonus when they achieve a 94% rating for it.

“It’s saying to everyone that it’s not just the role of our six-person customer complaints team,” says John Barr. “It’s making it clear it’s the role of everyone at AmicusHorizon to try and deal with a complaint at source using the techniques we’ve given them. It’s saying that everyone takes ownership and responsibility for dealing with unhappy customers.”

Making efficiency savings

Since 2011, AmicusHorizon has reduced the number of complaints (from over 700 in 2010–11 to fewer than 50 in 2014–15), and generated annual staff-time efficiency savings of £180,000 over the same period.

Involving customers has not only reduced the costs of complaints, but also raised customer satisfaction with the complaints process so it is now the highest in the G15 group (the 15 biggest housing associations in London and the South East). HouseMark benchmarking for 2013–14 shows 94% of customers are satisfied with complaints handling compared to a G15 median of 42%.

SGS assessor Mike Yule adds, “AmicusHorizon’s customer insight is very solid. They spend a lot of time understanding their customers and stakeholders and finding out what they really want. Their complaints handling is excellent. They go out and resolve complaints and listen. And they involve customers in the process, too. This helps customers understand that if their own people are involved then AmicusHorizon is clearly trying very hard to resolve any issues.”

Improving the customer experience

Since 2011, AmicusHorizon has continued to find ways to improve the customer experience at their Response call centre. Using techniques like mystery shopping and customers shadowing call centre advisors, AmicusHorizon learns more about why customers call.

Backed up by a Customer Relationship Management system, call centre staff monitor interactions with customers. Staff have up-to-date and accurate information on customers’ calling history, making it easier for them to deal with enquiries on the spot without having to transfer a call.

As a result, customers now find it easier to access services over the phone, while AmicusHorizon has improved first-time call resolution from 77% to 91% since 2011, and made staff efficiency savings of over £190,000.

AmicusHorizon’s commitment to improving the customer experience extends to training their staff in customer service techniques such as those developed by Mary Gober. Here the objective is to encourage staff to take ownership of a problem and offer ways to solve it. What’s more, if a staff member isn’t able to pass the issue on to a specialist colleague better placed to resolve it on the spot, they set up a call back time (always by 5pm the following day).

Alongside the Mary Gober training, staff have learned to write in concise, understandable ways using Park Sims techniques in customer-friendly writing.

AmicusHorizon ensures their contractors adopt a customer-focused approach too. They receive regular customer service training that includes the Mary Gober customer service techniques. When they plan their repairs work they contact the customer in advance. They wear uniforms and identify themselves with badges on the doorstep. On completing their repairs, they leave the property as they found it.

Extending CSE accreditation beyond the call centre

After their latest review in October 2014, AmicusHorizon chose to widen their CSE certification to include their 10 local offices.

“At first, we just had CSE for our Response call centre,” says John Barr, Director of Customer Experience.

“Now we’ve extended it because we have a knowledge base that gives all staff the information they need at their fingertips. A lot of it is online too so the customer gets a consistent response whichever way they choose to contact us. By extending the knowledge base, we pass responsibility to local offices to update their parts of it. This encourages data ownership and creates more efficiency savings.”

Extending CSE certification across other offices gave SGS assessor Mike Yule the chance to meet staff and customers face to face in area offices and contact centres. He gained a good insight into the customer experience and the benefits of delivering excellent customer service.

“It demonstrates the power of the AmicusHorizon brand and the impact that it has both on people at work and in their personal lives. AmicusHorizon has set the customer service benchmark very high, and the organisation is a great example within the sector and beyond in the marketplace. The positivity and ‘can do’ attitude of staff is quickly apparent. It encourages cooperation, understanding and a willingness to work together to find an outcome,” he says.

Sharing good practice

AmicusHorizon takes the developing and sharing of good practice very seriously. They organise roadshows where senior managers go out across their three regions to talk to front-line staff and spread the key messages of their strategic plan.

Ongoing CPD and staff training receive a high priority. “When you talk to staff, they tell you all about it,” says SGS assessor Mike Yule. “If there’s a new approach to customer service or complaints handling, staff are the first to get new training in it.”

They take every opportunity to involve their customers in training too. Joint training is held with staff members, for example in mediation and negotiation skills (for complaints handling), digital skills and financial skills. In advance of Universal Credit AmicusHorizon set up a working group, risk scored vulnerable customers and provided skills training and support. This work was recognised as best practice among the G15.

AmicusHorizon promotes volunteering and fundraising among residents. They advertise opportunities for customers in their local community. Some go on to take up full employment. Customers are also welcome to apply for positions within AmicusHorizon.

AmicusHorizon also appreciates the value of looking outside their sector. “We regularly visit other companies to learn from them, both inside and outside of our sector. Lots of other companies (from pub chains to the NHS) visit us too. Because of our success, several of our staff have been invited as keynote speakers on subjects such as customer experience, complaints handling, business transformation and digital inclusion. We also chair a national multi-sector CRM User Group.”  

Growing in confidence and delivering business outcomes

Last year, AmicusHorizon received Quality Assurance Scrutiny (QAS) accreditation, the assessor commenting that customer engagement was “embedded in virtually every aspect” of the organisation’s operation.

AmicusHorizon staff are happy too. Working relationships are good, as reflected in lower levels of staff turnover (at 11% the lowest in the G15 group, compared to a 17.8% median). Days lost to sickness and absenteeism are low.

“We’ve won awards because of our customer service delivery and much of that is down to what we’ve learned going through the CSE process four times,” says John Barr. “Awards like this give us confidence. They’re the external stamp that endorses what we’re doing.”

AmicusHorizon recently produced a joint paper with the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and the University of Westminster.

This report “Success, Satisfaction and Scrutiny: The Business Benefits of Involving Customers” demonstrates how their “one team” approach aligning board, residents and staff behind focused goals can lead to better business outcomes. There are real financial benefits (value for money savings) in getting high levels of customer engagement and customer satisfaction.

“Delivering a positive experience for customers and staff is an ongoing process,” John Barr adds.

“We try to collaborate with different people and embrace new ways of working. The CSE process is robust. It’s a 360-degree view from customers, contractors and other stakeholders. It provides an annual opportunity to look at ourselves in the mirror and to look under stones. The process has influenced how we engage with customers and colleagues to drive consistency (for example, between the contact centre and the local offices), and to give staff the information they need to give customers the service they’ve told us they expect.”

“John Barr has a team around him totally committed to customer service excellence,” adds SGS assessor Mike Yule. “And I’ve never seen a better example.”