Mark McArthur-Christie, Managing Director of Rubuss, a social housing customer experience specialist

How Peabody has made its debt letters more supportive

4 November 2020

Peabody is one of London’s oldest and largest housing associations. It has been working with social housing customer experience specialist Rubuss to make its communications ‘human and kind’, and recently decided to apply the same principles to its Collection team, which collects rent and service charges from Peabody residents.

Before we started the project, Rubuss (I’m its Managing Director) met with Money and Mental Health to learn more about the impact of debt chaser letters on people’s mental health.  What we discovered was the perfect storm;  more than a third of people in social housing were experiencing mental distress and nearly 20% struggled to afford their rent.  Plenty of people were scared enough to bin anything that looked like a debt chaser letter, put their phones on silent and just not respond.  These were the people Peabody needed to reach. 

Peabody’s Collections team have years of experience in helping people get help with paying rent, finding a job and claiming the benefits they’re entitled to. But they knew their standard letters were impersonal, lacking in empathy and not likely to help people engage with the support they offered. 

Changing the tone

The Rubuss team wanted to make the debt chaser letters and emails reflect the people who sent them; caring, dedicated, human and reassuring. In particular, we focused on three main changes to the letters:

  • Content – we made the language and content human, helpful, simpler and clearer
  • Tone – we made a significant change of tone, removing any sense of threat or judgement and offering help and advice instead
  • Structure on the page – we introduced a clearer, simpler to understand at a glance format

We also knew that getting the envelope opened was often the biggest challenge, so we suggested an envelope sticker that made it clear there was help and debt advice inside. This followed a similar approach trialled by Richmond Housing Partnership, another housing association.

Training the team

Many people, when they write at work, end up sounding over-formal and hard to understand. This is a real challenge for social residents in debt who are already struggling with mental health, worried and close to panicking.  

The Collections team at Peabody could already write – and write well – but we wanted to change the way they thought about written communication and its role in helping residents. So we put together a day’s workshop and got them writing in a way that was human, kind, empathetic and clear.

Test and check

Peabody’s Collections team wanted to test their thinking before using the new material with residents, so the team tested it first with those renting social housing, then older supported housing residents before finally tackling residents in shared ownership homes. 

What happened?

One of the biggest fears for a project like this is that the new, ‘human and kind’ approach doesn’t work, with residents in debt simply ignoring the material and not getting in touch.  Some of the Peabody Collections team were worried that by sounding more human, helpful and kind, they could also sound like a soft touch, depressing call rates from residents who needed help paying.  

There were two more factors that could have seen the new material and training fail:

  • Peabody launched the new letters in the run-up to Christmas, when residents sometimes miss rent payments because of conflicting demands on their money. This tips them into debt and they can be reluctant and scared to ask for help.  
  • Then, just three months after the launch, COVID hit with a huge impact on people’s jobs and finances.

In fact, our worries weren’t realised and the opposite proved to be true.  Residents stayed keen to talk to the team and get help and call rates held up despite the impact of Christmas and then COVID.  In fact, slightly more residents than before got in touch to tap into the team’s advice and help.  

The other big win was residents were a lot more responsive. Even leaseholders – traditionally a more challenging group – were now happy to talk.  

“One of the team in particular was really struggling with her patch, but once the new letters went out people were more than happy to engage and get talking,” says Paul McGovern, Peabody’s Finance Operations and Integration Manager. “We knew that changing the tone and the way the letters worked was the right thing to do.  We used to have a lot of difficult conversations with leaseholders in particular, but even they’re now a lot happier.  The fact we sound more conversational and human is making a difference. It’s been a step change.”

Here are the principles we used to make Peabody’s letters more supportive

  • An offer of help rather than threats puts you on the same side as the resident and encourages contact. Then you can start talking and offer help
  • Use terms like ‘friendly advice’ – be a source of help rather than threat
  • Use social proof (“we’ve helped X other people…”) to show you mean what you say
  • “You don’t have to pay all your rent… we can help…” – reduces perception of the debt’s size and makes it more psychologically manageable 
  • “There’s still time…” emphasises urgency without threats to get residents to call
  • Repetition and duplication of the message increases the chance of it being seen on a quick scan – people only spend 4 seconds actively engaging with printed letters, less on emails and less still when they’re scared