Not everyone likes surprises, but there is something very refreshing about realising that your preconceptions about something or someone were completely wrong.
We all live with our biases, preferences and long-held and hard-to-shift beliefs. How often have we seen a person on a train and painted a picture of their lives in our heads, only to get into a conversation that forces us to rethink our unreliable first impressions?
In 2020, a survey of 700 social tenants revealed that 74% have experienced stigma, purely because of the home and area in which they live and their tenancy type. The main sources of this were direct, local influences and the media, but also in some disappointing cases it was their own landlord.
At the Trust we are undertaking a large piece of work to get to know our customers better. For our Customer Data Project we have asked everyone on our teams who has a computer and a phone to call and speak to a list of customers.
It's a timely piece of work on many levels not least in light of the government's social housing white paper (Nov 2020), which outlines the regulator's role in championing consumer standards, including addressing the stigma that some social housing tenants feel.
This autumn Tpas, See The Person and the Chartered Institute of Housing are joining forces for a 'week of action' to tackle social housing stigma.
They plan to encourage tenants and housing staff to explore the reasons behind these issues. Hopefully, they will also build on existing practical solutions for housing associations, whether that's organisational culture, the homes we build, changes to the way services are delivered or just how we talk to people.
So how does our Customer Data Project fit into all this? Its main aim is to gather accurate and up to date practical information so we can tailor our services accordingly. If it also serves to tackle the stigma that some social housing tenants feel, so much the better.
No matter what team we are in, from finance and IT to HR or management, we get to have a chat with customers we would never normally meet - to hear about their days, their situations and, sometimes, their passions. To 'see the person'.
This kind of customer contact is rare for back-office staff and could have a really positive and lasting impact for our teams and how they design future services for our customers.
I know for a fact that many of our customers love where they live; near their family and friends, close to good schools and jobs (because around half are working households ) and in a lovely part of the country, all with the stability that an assured tenancy brings.
So what is the focus of this stigma? Isn't it wider than just social housing? And what, if anything, can we do about it?
It's important that we focus on what we can practically get on an do as housing associations, not get too side-tracked by the wider context and above all to listen to our customers and, if we're lucky, to be delightfully surprised.
We're looking for new board members who can help steer the direction of the Trust.