How to be a People Association


There’s a great story in ‘Better Relationships’ about a relationship counsellor in Canada. He was sat with a couple who were at each other like cat and dog….hurling accusations at each other about the things they did that were destroying their marriage. Each tried to enroll the counsellor on their side in this battle of right and wrong.

The counsellor asked them to quieten down. He told them he had something he’d like them to try. He asked them to go away for a month and imagine that they did still love each other; to respond to everything that they each said or did as if they were responding to the words or deeds of someone they loved.

They looked at each other…mumbled a bit, then said yes, OK, they’d give it a go.

A month later the couple came back to see the counsellor. The transformation was remarkable. They were holding hands, smiling and joking. The counsellor didn’t need to ask how it had gone. They immediately thanked him and said how happy they were. That his idea had helped them see so many situations differently. Arriving home late from work no longer triggered a ‘mardy bum‘ tirade from one partner; but an offer of a cup of tea and empathy for what must have been a hard day or miserable commute.

This clever Canadian counsellor had helped the couple break the cycle of mistrust that had grown up between them and given them a way to start rebuilding their relationship.

Housing Associations build houses.

They can’t build enough houses for all the people who want to live in one of them. Nowhere near.

They try to provide services as efficiently as possible so they can create as big a surplus as possible…to invest in building more new houses.

So on the whole the service provided by housing associations is a reactive one:

  • reacting to a repair that needs doing
  • reacting to a customer not paying their rent
  • reacting to a customer complaining about some sort of anti-social behaviour from a neighbour

The trouble is that one of the consequences of a reactive service is that you tend to see your customers at their worst; when things are going wrong or when there is conflict or disharmony. The stories your organisation tells about customers tend to be rather negative ones. Colleagues who have no direct contact with customers only hear these negative stories. Before long a view can build up that maybe customers in general don’t pay their rent, don’t look after their homes and cause a nuisance to those around them.

I’ve got a friend who is a policeman in Warwickshire. I have a cousin who is in the Met in London. My wife’s brother-in-law is a policeman in Birmingham. Talk to any of them for any time at all and they’ll have you believing that we are living on borrowed time; that civilization as we know it is hanging by a thread; that the world is a nasty, brutish place.

You have no idea what it’s like out there!

…they say.

But then for 40 or 50 hours a week they spend all their time with people who have been selling drugs or robbing banks or trafficking child labour. No wonder they have a rather bleak view of humanity…even in Royal Leamington Spa!

At Bromford we’ve come to realise that providing a customer with a home is just the start of the relationship. The home is a springboard to go on and achieve more. So we see ourselves as a people business first and a property business second. Through the Bromford Deal we’re re-imagining the whole way we work to try and ensure that every touch point with customers builds trust and shows that we believe in people.

Family small

I had a wonderful conversation recently with the ceo of a housing association in London who has been doing something similar to us. They were shocked to discover just how bad many of their customers thought their service was. They took a long hard look at themselves and realised how complicated, disjointed and faceless they had become.

I sat in the contact centre one day and heard a twenty something customer service advisor asking an 80 year old woman what her sexuality was….she’d only rung up to let us know her radiator was leaking!

This association tested out having a housing officer working with customers in just 120 homes. They did a bit of everything, dealing with rent, repairs, linking customers to job opportunities; whatever was needed. But most importantly they had time to get to know their customers. Not just the ones who caused problems. All of them.

The results were amazing.

The service was cheaper (between 10 and 20%).

Customers loved it.

Colleagues loved it.

So now they’ve rolled it out across the business. They’ve closed down their Customer Service Team, their Initial Arrears Team, their Court Case Team, their Getting Customers Into Work Team and about 20 other teams.

Tenants didn’t trust us and we didn’t trust them

Some of their people have decided that this new approach is not for them. But most love the fact that they get to rely on their common sense and humanity. They are building long term relationships with their customers built around mutual understanding and trust. Now their staff talk about how nice their customers are and share stories of customers overcoming adversity, finding work, decorating their homes beautifully.

They still build homes but now they are a People Association.


6 responses to “How to be a People Association

  1. Great post John. Flies in the face of all the ‘ism’s’ that have been created and the myopic service that gets delivered as a result, and in Back to the Future week, a very apt reminder of something from circa 1985 that worked well.


    • Thanks Peter. You’re right about the ‘back to the future’ element. I was at a roundtable discussion with about 20 HAs in London recently. Mostly CEOs and Exec Directors. Nearly all agreed that they had loved doing this sort of role when they started out in housing; that it helped create a much more positive and productive relationship with customers; but that no, they had no plans to go down this path at all. Strange.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi John. Such a shame. In Yves Morieux’s words they are creating organisations that are set up to fail, but in an accountable way. I can thoroughly recommend his book!


  2. Pingback: What Bromford did next. How Supporting People went wrong Part 3. | John Wade·

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