Sunday good time to ring Housing NZ

02:44, May 15 2012
Your call is important to us: Housing New Zealand is one of a very few Crown contact centres with a 24/7 service. Managers at the Porirua centre say if they are to reduce call waiting times tenants need to ring at weekends and evenings, not wait until 9am the next morning.

An irony is at play with Housing New Zealand tenants calling the expanded 0800 service.

Because Kiwis are so used to not being able to get any service from a Government department outside of weekday office hours, tenants are "saving up" their problems and calling on Mondays.

Monday volumes have rocketed to as many as 10,000 calls, says the Customer Services manager at the Porirua call centre, Andy Walmsley.

Staff are overwhelmed and at times tenants can be waiting more than 20 minutes to get their call answered.

If they hang up, they go to the back of the queue.

"The challenge for us to is to continue to educate our customers that we're a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week service and they should call us as soon as an issue arises, not wait until 9am the next day.


"It will be an advantage for them and us. They'll have a shorter wait period and our workload will be spread out more," Mr Walmsley says.

Sunday is a good time to call. Volumes then drop to 500 to 700 inquiries. If you're not a Shortland St fan, call then - the phones tend to go quiet.

There was derision from some community agencies, social commentators and Opposition MPs when Housing NZ said it was "reshaping its services to make them more responsive, efficient and consistent for customers".

Before an April 10 switchover, the 0800 801 601 service was handling 850,000 calls a year and diverting another 1.2 million calls through local HNZ offices.

Now only a fraction go through to offices.

The idea was that by making the call centres in Porirua and Manukau "bigger and better", with staff there able to handle a much wider range of calls and assessments themselves, tenancy managers out in the districts would have more time for tasks such as home visits and inspections, matching prospective tenants to properties and - when it really couldn't be dealt with over the phone - having the face-to-face meetings with tenants that HNZ insists are still available.

Seventy HNZ staff lost their jobs, and the PSA says that will rise to 220 jobs gone as the agency narrows its focus to managing properties and instructs staff to stop assisting tenants with their wider social needs. Social commentators warn that already vulnerable families - some of whom don't have telephones - will be worse off.

Last week, as newspapers reported that call waiting times were blowing out and that HNZ was scrambling to recruit more call centre staff, Labour's housing spokesperson Annette King called the changes an "abject failure".

That may be ignoring some positives.

HNZ communications spokeswoman Lisa Mulitalo says Pomare advocates she deals with have told her it's useful for them, and tenants, to get immediate answers from call centre staff rather than having to wait a couple of days because a local tenancy manager is out on the road.

She said they were impressed that maintenance inquiries - by far the leading reason for contacting HNZ - might result in a return call later that same day to let the tenant know when a tradesman was coming. [Hutt News was unable to contact the advocates for direct comment by our deadline.]

Previously, someone with a housing need would phone the call centre and be given an appointment for a couple of days later at a local HNZ office. They'd have to wait until then to find out where they sat in terms of eligibility and priority.

Now, armed with the checklist on the screen in front of them, call centre staff can do a pre-assessment over the phone in 20 minutes. If they fit HNZ's criteria, an appointment will then be made for a face-to-face needs assessment.

Kip Te Kata, the Hutt Valley's housing services manager on secondment to the Porirua call centre, says 0800 staff perform "a bit of a triage function at the front end".

"A lot of our applicants feel like they're in a bad way, and it might be to them but when we assess them against key criteria [they're not so urgent in comparison to others]."

The real problem might be their level of rent or other financial problems, so they might be referred to Work and Income, or they may need short-term emergency housing because they're living in a car or under a bridge. HNZ may be involved in the medium term, but it is not a provider of emergency housing, so those callers are referred to other agencies.

"We weed out the really urgent ones and book them for assessments," Mr Te Kata says.

There are 84 call centre staff working in eight teams at Porirua, although at any one time no more than 50 are on deck.

Another five teams of 10 will operate from Manukau but at present they're only at about 30. More are being recruited and trained.

HNZ can tap into a private answering service for overflow call volumes but as that costs the taxpayer per call, they're trying to eliminate this requirement by recruiting more staff and spreading the call load.

Mr Te Kata admits initial call volumes blew out of the water the predicted "model", and call wait times, especially on Mondays, "could be horrendous". But he says that is now settling down.

Prior to April 10, the number of calls where tenants were aggressive, swearing or stressed out was about 5 to 10 per cent, as these more difficult situations tended to go to the local offices.

"Now we're changing the decision points, enabling [call centre staff] to handle a wider range of situations, the number of stressful calls they're fielding is rising - definitely it's higher than 10 per cent now."

Staff can pass aggressive callers on to team leaders if it's getting out of hand, and advice can be sent to a tenancy manager out in the field to call around and have a face-to-face chat.

Mr Te Kata has done his share of those house calls and most tenants take on board advice they're not helping their cause by swearing and carrying on.

"There's a lot of really brave people on the phone.

"But when you go and confront them at the door, it's turned around a lot."

A beauty of the call centre system is that everything is recorded "for training and dispute resolution purposes".

Another criticism was how HNZ would deal with callers for whom English was a second language.

When Hutt News was at the Porirua call centre, we listened as a staff member calmly dealt with a Russian woman who needed help.

Within minutes, the operator was able to tap into an interpreter service and continue a three-way conversation, with the woman able to speak in the language she was most comfortable with.


Housing NZ manages 69,000 properties nationwide, including about 1500 homes for community groups providing residential services. More than 200,000 people live in HNZ homes. In the Greater Wellington area there are about 10,000 HNZ properties, 4600 of them in the Hutt Valley.


CAB gets delays too

Staff at Citizens Advice Bureau are copping some of the stress felt by Housing New Zealand tenants who can't get through on the 0800 number because of call volumes.

Andrew Hubbard, who handles social policy issues for the network of Citizens' Advice Bureaus around New Zealand, said tenants have called or visited CAB offices. The CAB volunteers might ring the 0800 number and also find themselves at the end of a long wait.

"When we can't get through either, that just adds [to the tenants'] frustration."

Mr Hubbard said that as only a month has elapsed since the expanded 0800 service went live, apart from the problem of wait times at busy periods, it's too early to pick patterns or give commentary on whether the switch away from local offices in favour of a centralised call system has resulted in a better service.

Hutt News