Can Social Housing Tenants be referred to as ‘Customers’?

Does it matter if we refer to social housing tenants as customers? I’ve often felt a bit conflicted about it. This is an attempt to unpack that and better understand why I think it matters.

What’s in a name?

To me, customer has retail connotations where goods and services are exchanged for money.

“But housing and repairs ARE services that are exchanged for money, in this case rent.”

I think customer also implies a choice to consume said goods or services. I can choose to do my food shop at Sainsbury’s or Tesco. I can’t choose which Council collects my bins. That’s why I think I can be a customer of a supermarket, but not a customer of my local council.

Why does this matter?

Labels like ‘customer’ carry assumptions about the nature of the relationship with the organisation. Those labels can unwittingly influence how services are designed and delivered.

This line of thought could lead to a situation where enthusiasm for increased efficiency and money saving results in all manner of whizzy improvements, while forgetting that the recipients of the service often can’t easily opt-out or go elsewhere.* Through the lens of a customer transaction, the assumption is that the service is good because people are choosing to use it, but the choice is illusionary.

Working in technology, I often see this applied to digital services. Non-digital services get degraded to make the digital ones more preferable (aka channel shove). To my mind, this is a dubious way of going about things. People should choose your digital services because they’re the best option for them, not because they’re the only option. Operating on these principles, where is the incentive to continually improve said service if you’re looking at uptake as a metric?

*I get that in the face of dwindling funding, organisations have for some time been in a race to do the same (or more) with less. There’s no harm in chasing efficiency savings, but I think it’s important to temper that with a full understanding of what people *need* from services. You don’t want to risk lopping off things that people require and fund things that people don’t. Because otherwise.. what’s the point?!

Using the good connotations from the customer relationship

Whilst I don’t think we can truly apply the term ‘customer’ to social housing tenants, perhaps there’s an opportunity for social housing organisations to redesign their services around a more customer-like relationship in which tenants have more agency and more choice about the services they receive.

What might that look like? Whenever a decision about a service is made, someone should be there to champion the tenant’s point of view. That might actually be a tenant in some cases. Other times it might be user research or data. The overarching goal is to include empathy at every step. Housing Associations already do some of this work, so it’s really about doubling down on talking to the people that use their services earlier and more often before things have solidified too much.

This definitely isn’t an easy path to tread, and it’s likely that the needs of the organisation and the needs of the tenant, whilst overlapping in most places, will be challenged in others. But that area of challenge is solid gold in terms of understanding how to deliver better (dare I say excellent?) services for ‘customers’.

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