How Homes In Sedgemoor Engaged New Universal Credit Claimants During Covid-19 To Support Their Benefits Journey

Homes In Sedgemoor is an Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO) managing nearly 4,200 council owned homes on behalf of Sedgemoor District Council in Somerset and a Voicescape customer since 2018. As with all customers, Voicescape conducts regular Customer Success updates with the Homes In Sedgemoor team to measure performance and ensure future requirements align with the ALMO’s objectives. It was in one such Customer Success update in April 2020 while the Coronavirus pandemic was starting to take hold that we saw a marked increase –almost twice the usual – in the Universal Credit verification requests caseload.

The Challenge

Homes In Sedgemoor had been using Voicescape‘s Collection solution to verify tenants’ new Universal Credit claims. Universal Credit verifications are triggered by the DWP telling the landlord that a tenant has made a claim and that they need to confirm various details including their housing costs.

To add a layer of complexity during this unprecedented period, Homes In Sedgemoor also saw an increase in tenants’ arrears predominantly from people whom they had never had to speak to before. This new cohort had been, up until then, largely in employment or self-employed, but found themselves on furlough or unable to access financial help from the government. They therefore found it beneficial to receive an early call from their landlord when their accounts fell into arrears. Many were unsure what to do next, and Homes In Sedgemoor wanted to talk to this new customer base in a clear but supportive way while still operating out arrears procedure.

Voicescape’s Head of Client Services, Stacey Green, said:

“Often Universal Credit claimants – particularly new claimants – do not have the skills or experience with the benefits system to make a successful claim. Landlords, that successfully carry out tenant engagement in the Universal Credit era can be a useful conduit to help smooth that process, ensuring that the claimant receives their benefits and maintains the sustainability of their tenancy as a consequence.”

The caseload volume was not insignificant for a housing provider with over 4,000 homes; the total caseload for the month of April increased to 726 records, 99 of which were for Universal Credit verifications, while the remaining 625 were for people who had fallen into arrears. Their arrears caseload had been running at around 400 per month in the months preceding April.

The Solution

This is where Voicescape‘s solution came in. By taking a supportive and caring approach Homes In Sedgemoor sent tenants a telephone message to open a conversation early on in their Universal Credit journey. That message was worded to have a positive influence on the listener’s experience of the interaction: “We have been asked by Universal Credit to verify your rent. This is the first step to ensure the smooth start of your claim. We would like to discuss your Universal Credit claim and how you are going to pay your rent. Please press 1 on your keypad to speak to an Income officer.”

Homes in Sedgemoor’s Income Team Leader, Ian Richards, said:

“We had some very good feedback from customers who received a call from Voicescape, not just from those that were new to claiming Universal Credit but also those who had gone in to arrears due to reduced income following the Coronavirus pandemic.

The calls were welcomed by a large majority of our customers because we were able to offer support right at the start of the lockdown when they were claiming benefits. This early intervention has prevented debt escalating and is important to customers in sustaining their tenancies long term.

Many customers were working and paid rent on time, so we never had a reason to contact them regarding arrears, so it was the perfect opportunity to start engaging with a totally new customer base and make sure they knew we were available for help and guidance rather than enforcement.”

The Result

The value of facilitating early engagement was clear: Homes In Sedgemoor were able to engage with people who were unfamiliar with the benefits system and were grateful that they had got in touch. The ALMO found that they could use their existing Voicescape solution to facilitate tenant engagement proactively as the scale of the issue increased, without having to increase any of their own workload.

Ian Richards, added:

We have found that our income performance has not reduced anywhere near as much as we predicted at the start of this crisis, with arrears performance still well within target.
Voicescape has been an invaluable tool to help us engage with those that need support, protect our income stream and allow us to prioritise officer workload so we can help those that really need assistance.”

Homes In Sedgemoor were able to use Voicescape’s systems to triage the increased caseload based on tenant needs and preserve capacity while channelling resource to the cases where it was needed most.

Homes in Sedgemoor’s Operations Manager, Darren Clayton, said:

“We regard our work with Voicescape as a team effort, finding positive innovative solutions to the problems we face at Homes In Sedgemoor. Again, during these difficult times, we have worked with Voicescape to keep our arrears mainly below 2 % and still provide our customers with a supportive and informative approach, helping when we can and making meaningful arrears arrangements.”