How we’re engaging our rural customers in Together with Tenants

Alex Williams, 23 December 2019

Cottsway are using using a variety of methods to engage their rural customers.

Cottsway is a housing association based in Witney, West Oxfordshire. We own almost 5,000 homes spread over four counties and many of our homes are in Cotswold market towns and villages, with the majority in West Oxfordshire.

Satisfaction with neighbourhoods as a place to live is always high but living in such rural locations often comes at a price in terms of barriers to services and participation. It’s difficult to get involved when you have little or no public transport, broadband or mobile phone signal.

Many of the principles and commitments of the Together with Tenants initiative align closely to those that underpin our own customer engagement strategy. We reviewed this last year following the three-yearly consultation we carried out with customers as required by the Regulator’s Tenant Involvement and Empowerment Standard. The feedback we got from customers led us to develop a new set of strategic objectives and actions that closely match the Together with Tenants commitments.

Reaching our customers

Many of the villages our customers call home don’t even have a daily bus service. We’ve helped tackle this by part-funding the first of a small fleet of buses for a community transport group.

Services do not yet reach everyone and it is neither economical nor efficient to arrange dozens of taxis to bring people to our offices in Witney, so we decided to take the consultation out on the road. We visited village halls, scout huts, community centres and, on several occasions, pitched up on local open spaces with our table and gazebo – even partnering with the local fire service for one event.

We advertised the schedule on our website and social media, backed-up by old-fashioned posters on lampposts and in corner shop windows. We spoke at length to everyone who attended and received a lot of qualitative feedback. The cost beyond officer time was minimal – mileage, refreshments and less than £10/hr hire charge for any of the venues that weren’t free. Best of all, satisfaction that we listen to tenants’ views and act on them increased by 9% in the following quarter’s STAR survey.

A personal touch

Despite the push for digital engagement which we are all chasing to some extent, customers commented time and again that they appreciated seeing us in person, in their communities, asking what matters to them. There is still a strong appetite for face-to-face contact with our staff, so we’ve reinstated joint estate inspections and regular on-site meetings for customers in our independent living schemes.

This was behind our decision to visit the schemes to gather views and recruit customers to the procurement process for our grounds maintenance and communal cleaning contract next year. We asked them first what kind of service they want to see, and later we’ll work through the options together in terms of service levels and cost.

Using digital tools

We couple this face-to-face contact with a range of online engagement opportunities so that everyone’s voice can be heard in an easily accessible way, despite the issues faced in rural locations. We use social media to raise awareness, with Survey Monkey and to gather feedback. Our Scrutiny Group will hold regular Facebook live sessions from early next year so they too can reach a wider audience.

Our new website launches soon and we’re focused on increasing the range of information we provide about our organisation and performance. Customers are being given a vote on which areas of our performance they want to be kept informed about and those indicators will form part of a quarterly online update.

Given that the Together with Tenants Charter aligns closely with our Customer Engagement Strategy, we’ve found it straightforward to embed it in our ongoing work streams rather than creating a whole new project. 

It’s taking time to achieve and we still have plenty to do, but we’re beginning to see and feel the changes within the organisation and hope our customers see the difference too.

Find out more about Together with Tenants.