In November 2020, the Charter for Social Housing Residents, a social housing white paper, defined the responsibility of housing associations to provide residents with a high standard of customer service. Golding Homes launched their ‘What about Shirley?’ customer service campaign in 2020, approaching the issue of customer service with a solution entirely centred around a real-life customer.

Why was the campaign established?

In March 2020 Golding Homes received a regulatory downgrade by the Regulator of Social Housing. That was a catalyst for change for us. Early on we recognised that we needed a drastic culture change – a new culture centred around our customers.

This also made sense in a changing regulatory landscape with the issue of the Social Housing White Paper, a proposal to change consumer regulation, moving from reactive to pro-active regulation in this sphere. We are now in the throws of the Social Housing Bill and tenant satisfaction measures which are due to start in April 2023 following the finalisation of the scheme in the autumn of this year.

An older woman looks out of a window at overcast skies, she's wearing a white t-shirt decorated with black patterns.

What about Shirley?

During 2020 we realised we needed a radical shake-up of our business and an ordinary customer service campaign was not going to cut it.

We launched the “What about Shirley?” campaign based on a real customer named Shirley we found in the pandemic when we made welfare calls. Shirley was living with severe mental health conditions and when we “found” her through our phone calls, she didn’t even know there was a worldwide pandemic happening.

two blue silhouettes of women's heads facing away from one another, looking left and right. The title of the campaign 'what about shirley?' is below the image

We wanted our campaign to be personified to grasp the attention of colleagues. Make them sit up and have a high impact.

The campaign was a huge success with a 25% increase in customer satisfaction over a 6 month period. There was a 17 point increase in customer service culture and an improvement in employee engagement scores. It was also nominated for an Institute of Customer Service “Best Customer Strategy” award in 2021. Golding Homes were also nominated for the “Best company health and wellbeing initiative for customers” Housing Heroes award in 2022.

Our Hooks

We had to think carefully about how we might get colleagues engaged in customer service, where historically customers were sitting on the periphery. Our colleagues were disengaged at the time. They were overworked, and in prolonged periods of lockdowns in Kent, facing the additional challenges of home schooling. We had to find exciting and fun hooks to start with, and began by running many fun activities for a soft landing. We organised regular company-wide 25-minute high energy zoom calls. Every time we had a small fun activity for our employees to do.

Working with colleagues

We asked everyone to find a team doll that represented their team and how what they do links to the customer service we provide: we had Hermione’s, Mrs Incredible, Bob the Builder and ET. The Executive Team chose ET because of the resonance with the name (obviously). ET was also someone who didn’t have a home, someone who needed some help and that is, in essence, some of the important things we can do as a provider of social housing. There were many more dolls, and our expectations were exceeded with the uptake and the depth of discussions that started.

We nominated and selected a theme song: Proud by M People, which was a lot of fun. People got to nominate songs that made them think about good customer service – encouraging more good conversations across the organisation. Once we chose the song, we played it regularly. The Executive and senior management lead did an eyewatering cringy karaoke (lip-syncing) video that we shared with colleagues. It was funny, and also showed role modelling by our leadership. Further proof our “What about Shirley” campaign was led from the top, with no embarrassment spared.

We also sent out postcards to all our colleagues. These were written in the words of the real Shirley so we shared her story and showed them the difference we can make in our customers’ lives. Throughout the duration of the campaign we continued to send out postcards with updates. We had little ‘Think Shirley’ buttons that we could wear and branded eco-friendly coffee mugs to also share the message of the campaign.

Substantial elements of the campaign

We then moved on to some more tangible areas: we introduced extra mile payments where any employee could pay a customer £30 for a small service failure, as a gesture of goodwill or just to delight them. And they could do it with very little approval – this enabled and empowered colleagues. At the same time, we introduced an “on the spot” award where anyone could nominate a colleague who provided great customer service for an Amazon voucher. The voucher was issued there and then, providing instant recognition and a more enabling reward.

We then moved deeper into the substance of the campaign, customer service “sheep dip” training. Working with Mary Gober International (MGI) to deliver customer service training for every employee at Golding. That enabled everyone to agree on what good customer service is and find a common language and tools we could use across the organisation.

What we did do, was train our Executive Team first. We posted out on our internal social media channels to make sure colleagues saw us going through it first.

There was 100% buy-in by the whole Executive Team, demonstrating leadership and role modelling right from the top. We were all on the same page, which was instrumental to its success. Often it is the operations director banging the lone drum which makes it much harder, and often unsuccessful to drive such a great level of organisational change.  

Happy employees mean happy customers

At the same time, we recognised that happy employees = happy customers so we ran a WeCare campaign for employees. Due to the pandemic, we had to do more than we would have in normal times, providing working from home grants and wellbeing and care packages. 

We started a “go and see” campaign where the Executive and Senior Management Teams would go out with frontline colleagues. From this, they saw what these colleagues do, worked with them, and listened, to help remove any obstacles in their work so improvements they want could be made.

We wrapped our arms around field-based colleagues, which felt battered and bruised through being out and about all through the pandemic. As part of the campaign, a coffee club was started. Here, leaders met with the cleaning and caretaking team on a monthly basis. Just for an informal catch-up and breakfast. As a result of this, we saw a dramatic rise in engagement scores in this group of employees.

Other changes made

Other key elements we implemented were a new vision: outstanding customer service, great homes, and proud communities. A vision that our colleagues help to select and felt connected to because of this.

Our new values were co-created with colleagues. We have also developed a tighter performance management framework and an innovation hub where some brilliant ideas have since come to fruition.

Our culture has really improved over the past two years. Looking back, we can now say customer service and engagement are firmly cemented into how we work at Golding. Our Executive Team are doing regular phone days with customers, attending customer and estate events, door knocking and attending focus groups to co-create our corporate plans and strategies. Customers are embedded into our governance structures through two independent board member roles within our board committee structure.

Looking to the Future

We have much more quantitative data about how customers experience our service now. Complaints, compliments and transactional survey results are now combined into a holistic customer insight report. This helps us to identify and focus on  Service areas that may need improvements and measure success.

While the foundations are now well set, there is more to do to be truly great. We need to fully embed our customer service principles. Systemise the way in which we provide services to our customers, through ease and consistency,  in a way that suits our customers whether that is digital or through a more supported bespoke way.

About the author

Annemarie Roberts, Executive Director of Operations of Golding Homes, a Kent based housing association with 8,000 homes. Golding regained their G1V1 status in March 2022. The What about Shirley? campaign was nominated for an Institute of Customer Service “Best Customer Strategy” award in 2021. Golding has also been nominated for “Best company health and wellbeing initiative for customers” Housing Heroes award in 2022.

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In November 2020, the Charter for Social Housing Residents, a social housing white paper, defined the responsibility of housing associations to provide residents with a high standard of customer service. We heard from Annemarie Roberts, Director of Operations, Golding Homes about their Customer centred Service Campaign What about Shirley.

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