Until recently, our customer service team had never dealt with a call from someone suicidal. Now we get three or four crisis calls a month, writes Gavin Short.
The world of social housing is changing. The cost of living crisis, shortage of affordable housing, worsening mental health and overstretched public services have all contributed to a shift in the role of the customer service team.
The Commons Library Research Briefing on mental health statistics in England reported in March this year that depression has increased to 27% among people who are renting, and that rates of depression were particularly high among those with lower incomes. These are the people who make up our client base and who we are trying to help on a daily basis.
All these factors combined have resulted in a noticeable increase in the number of calls to our customer services’ team from customers who are very distressed and sometimes suicidal. Something, until recent months, we’ve never had to deal with before. On average, we might have three to four calls per month where one of our advisors needs to talk down a customer before we can alert the emergency services.
It’s unlikely someone would ring their private landlord and discuss a mental health crisis, but in social housing it is becoming more common for a customer service team to become like a fourth emergency service. One of our call handlers recently spoke to a customer who explained that he was in financial difficulty and struggling to make ends meet. He communicated feelings of hopelessness, extreme anxiety, not having anyone to turn to for help and support and said his only option was to “make it all go away”.
While on the call, he informed our call handler that he’d been saving up his medication and was going to take an overdose while on the phone. Thankfully, our customer advisor handled the call very well and the police and ambulance service responded in time to help him at his property.
Some police forces will respond in these situations, but others won’t, even with the same given criteria. One of the biggest challenges our team is facing is trying to help these desperate people in need who call our customer services line.
These new challenges have led us to put certain measures in place to help protect and support our staff when dealing with these difficult calls. These involve:
Understandably, COVID-19 had a negative effect on the types of interactions that the customer services team were dealing with, as they became more serious and emotive, with customers losing their jobs, or being furloughed or isolated in their homes.
We started to implement duty of care measures for our staff that we’ve kept in place since to ensure their well-being is looked after when dealing with more complex and emotional cases.
These include having a debrief immediately after a difficult call, a mandatory break, a routine touch-base two to three days later and access to a well-being service officer.
We also introduced a social media management platform, by Orlo, which helps us respond more quickly to common enquiries and FAQs, taking some of the call volume away from our call handlers, who then have more time to deal with the more complex enquiries which need to be handled sensitively.
We’ve also found that many of our customers like communicating with us on social media platforms as it gives them the opportunity to message us out of work hours or ‘on the go’ rather than holding on the phone to speak to one of our customer services team.
It gives our customers flexibility in communicating with us and provides our team members with a break from dealing with the emotionally heavier calls in the day by splitting their time between call handling and answering live chat enquiries in a digicomms role.
Our customer services team has a huge role to play in helping people with their housing enquiries and coping with today’s pressures. We are still learning how we can help fill the gaps left by other public services, but with the right procedures and technology in place, we can support our customers’ lives better and the well-being of our team.
Customer experience manager