Housing NZ call centre failures horrify expert

Last updated 11:57 15/06/2012

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A call centre expert who ran a successful trial for Housing New Zealand's new call centre says he is "horrified" by its failures and the 0800 number was never meant to replace face-to-face contact.

Stuart Lyme ran a three-month trial in the Bay of Plenty in late 2006 to determine if channelling more inquiries through a call centre would free up tenancy managers - who were spending 80 per cent of their time behind a desk answering routine questions - to have more time with tenants.

Housing NZ changed the way it operated in April, closing its local office doors to all but scheduled appointments and directing all inquiries through a new expanded call centre.

But the 0800 number was unable to keep up with demand in its first month after receiving 119,000 calls, 53,000 of which went unanswered. There were reports of waiting times of up to 38 minutes.

The change led to the axing of 70 frontline tenancy manager positions.

Lyme said although statistical analysis wasn't done, anecdotal feedback found the trial increased rental inspections and rent collection.

"There was talk about the numbers of houses the tenancy managers looked after and hence obviously through natural attrition losing a number of managers, but it wasn't a case of a proactive push to get rid of staff."

Lyme left Housing NZ in 2008 after spending 18 months "dragging up" the then-smaller call centre from answering 30 per cent of calls within 20 seconds to just over 82 per cent.

"I am horrified thinking that all the good work that I did there has been completely and utterly undone."

Staff had not been trained properly on the correct computer screens when the expanded call centre opened in April, he said.

"So when it came to actually answering an inquiry, they wouldn't have been able to answer the question."

However, Housing NZ has distanced itself from the trial.

Transformation head Philippa Jones said it was a "historic, single discrete trial" that wasn't linked to the new call centre and the corporation had changed "dramatically" since 2006.

"But I'm sure that has fed into some of the thinking which would have been worked through as we've planned this transformation."

Jones denied staff weren't trained properly.

"We did evaluations following the training.

"Having said that, in April the training was solely around the customer service centre and we learnt some things around how we could do the training better."

Customer survey results showed in April 81 per cent of people using the call centre were satisfied with its performance, falling slightly to 76 per cent last month.

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Since April, the amount of time tenancy managers had spent face-to-face with tenants had increased to about 70 to 75 per cent, up from about 40 per cent.

The corporation said this week it had reduced the average waiting time from 8 to 5 minutes and calls had reduced from a peak of 30,000 in its first week to 22,000 last week.

Labour MP Moana Mackey said Housing NZ had "completely mismanaged" the transition process.

"While there may be some benefits in offering a phone service, they have been lost in translation."

- Stuff

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