Many of you will be familiar with customer relationship management (CRM) systems, either as a module of a housing management system or as a separate system interfacing, or better still, integrating with your HMS.
This story is how two housing providers came together and embarked on a project to procure and implement a new CRM for use in their two main office sites. The two RPs were Asra Housing, based in Leicester, and Surrey-based Paragon Housing. The new organisation of PA Housing was formed in 2017, with 24,000 homes split roughly 50/50 between the two main geographic areas.
The need to change and invest was well recognised at an executive level with our corporate plan affirming “this will mean investing more in digital technology…” and “making major investments in IT, including bringing in a new CRM system” in the fundamental aim of improving customer service.
Savings were to be made by the concentration of support services in Leicester which would became the ‘engine room’ of the organisation. A three-year integration programme would see most, if not all, IT services based in Leicester, although the CRM project was not strictly part of the integration.
The need to change
The Leicester system had been in use for eight years and was showing its age. It therefore came as no surprise when it was made ‘end-of-life’ from 1 April 2018. The Leicester team had been planning to replace it but a previous abortive merger caused the project to be put on a back burner. A simple contact system was in use in Surrey and while the CRM would certainly be brought into use there, it could be done at a later date.
So, Leicester became phase one with a live date ideally no later than 1 April 2018 while Surrey would follow as phase two in October 2018 (when a number of other corporate systems were due to go live) but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The search for a new system – request for information
I need to rewind to early 2017, when an RFI was issued on behalf of Asra by 3C Consultants to ten known CRM suppliers to get some ideas about potential solutions, approximate costs and likely delivery timescales.
The RFI resulted in eight responses, of which seven were judged to be viable and would meet the needs of Asra and subsequently PA Housing. The next step was to engage in a full procurement process with the interested suppliers.
It was at this stage (a few months after the merger) that I became involved, initially for the procurement and then going on to the implementation stage. This involved working with Charles Brooks (one of the C’s of 3C) with whom I had worked previously on some Paragon procurements.
A requirements document was prepared, based on an original Paragon CRM specification that had been prepared working with 3C. This was further developed by Asra with its requirements and was eventually issued as an invitation to tender (ITT) to the seven interested companies, five of whom responded.
In July 2017, we issued the contract notice and also held an information day for suppliers, while August saw our evaluation of the tenders. We carried out telephone reference calls, detailed demonstrations, five open webinars (for all staff) plus a series of final presentations during September and October. Our award criteria were heavily weighted (70 per cent) to functional and user aspects with cost thus being only 30 per cent.
We had planned to make a preferred supplier recommendation to our executive team in October 2017 but due to the closeness of the leading suppliers’ scores, further due diligence was necessary. It became clear that we needed to hold a ‘play-off’ day in the hope that a clear lead would emerge although there could be no guarantee of that, of course. The day was held in late November and given the importance of the decision, we involved a lot more staff from all interested departments.
A decent lead emerged from the day and Blacklight Software from Wakefield was awarded preferred supplier status to implement our requirements on Microsoft’s Dynamics platform. The project would start in December and go-live in July 2018. This live date was, of course, four months after support on the CRM system ended; however given the stability and reliability of the old system, this was considered a low risk worth taking.
We had specified a four-year contract term, resulting in a cost of £1.6 million including Microsoft licencing and employing two Dynamics developers. If there was one lesson learned from the procurement, it was the need to involve all potential users of the CRM system.
Well, obviously they were the winner of our procurement but there are also always factors beyond what you can measure during a procurement project.
Our evaluation team members felt at ease with the half-dozen Blacklight staff we saw during the procurement. Questions were answered directly, leading to a feeling of honesty and integrity. There’s always an emotional element in any sale situation; can I deal with this company and these people?
We felt more than confident in our choice of supplier, with Blacklight’s staff proving credible and trustworthy throughout the process.
In large procurements, I’ve always visited the head office of the leading company before the deal is struck. You can tell a lot by the demeanour of staff – engaged or disinterested? Does the salesman greet you in a polite and business-like way rather than effusively (and probably insincerely)? We are going to visit Blacklight but I had enough confidence to leave it until after contract signing.
By the way, you may be asking the same question that we did – what on earth is ‘blacklight’, which seems a bit of a contradiction. Well, if you look it up, it’s just ultraviolet light of a long wavelength (like infrared but at the other end of the visible range in the electro-magnetic spectrum).
As we’ve gone through the first workshop sessions, the technical strengths that we detected during the procurement have been well confirmed.
Dynamics is a line of ERP software from Microsoft and the CRM variant was of interest to us, enabling the building of a custom system for the whole of PA Housing. Dynamics can be very easily used with other Microsoft products such as SharePoint, Yammer, Office 365 and Azure.
Dynamics is best described as a toolkit of parts (such as tasks, users and letters) that need to be bolted together by means of a workflow engine to perform a business process. It’s essential that the business process and the workflow to support it in Dynamics are well understood and ideally mapped.
There are a number of Dynamics sites in the housing sector who could be regarded as trail-blazers, having developed their own CRM in Dynamics. Some of these have also gradually replaced parts of the traditional HMS to leave just a core of rent accounting. Significant cost savings start to accumulate at this point from saved HMS licence fees, although it has to be said that Dynamics licencing is almost on a cost par with other leading CRM systems.
This bespoke Dynamics solution marks a bright future for us in that we’ll be able to customise Dynamics to match how customers want their services provided. We’ll be able to improve customer self-service portals using new technology, allowing tenants to be able to log and track their own cases in an efficient and user friendly way. Integration between the CRM and telephony system will allow our customer advisors to provide tailored advice to individual customers (with Dynamics automatically ‘screen popping’ the customer’s details and history during the incoming call).
The incumbent loop
No, not a new Olympics gymnastic manoeuvre.
The supplier of our current HMS and CRM didn’t bid for the new CRM system because, while they were developing a new CRM module, they considered that it was not sufficiently developed to meet our needs. However when we eventually saw it, it superficially appeared to meet a fair number of our requirements. This would not be the full-blown system that we had specified but the cost was much, much cheaper.
Given that, we had to seriously consider this as an option and so we asked them to complete key sections of our functional requirements document. This would enable us to make a fair comparison against the submitted tenders. The result was a 61 per cent match against requirements with delivery of some features spreading out over 18 months.
There was a genuine disappointment that this option did not have, at this time, sufficient features to be a viable solution for us (apart from the considerable cost savings, there would have been much less interfacing and integration work).
A steering group consisting mainly of heads of our different departments and Blacklight representatives has been set up to monitor, control and guide the implementation.
After Christmas 2017, we got seriously into implementation with a series of workshops in January and February 2018 to develop a technical system specification. A core team of four PA Housing staff would work on the system with Blacklight, calling in other colleagues as necessary.
We are aiming for standardised business processes across the organisation, although local operating practices and policies will doubtless mean some (minimal) variation.
Once we have the full system, testing will easily run to two months’ duration (apart from the many workflows, we have a complex matrix of interfaces and integration across many systems). As with testing, training is not an activity to be neglected and we can see logistical issues with the sheer amount of staff training needed during summer 2018 for the many large systems we have going live at the same time.
The PA Housing project team will get some early training, enabling them to be productive in designing workflows and get the most out of Dynamics. A pilot build of a small number of our workflows will give us early exposure to prove the concept and pave the way for the brave new world.
Barry Alford is head of ICT at PA Housing.