Sovereign Housing’s head of digital services, Sam Dart, will be speaking at Housing Technology’s ‘Connected Communities 2019’ event at the BT Tower in London on 10 September. He has been at the forefront of a shift to a cloud-based portal at Sovereign Housing.
Making life as easy as possible for Sovereign customers is at the heart of the development of our customer portal. We expect to see online bank statements in seconds or to buy food in a matter of minutes, so why shouldn’t Sovereign residents expect the same when paying rent, arranging repairs or undertaking other simple actions connected with their accounts?
From two portals to one…
The Sovereign/Spectrum merger in 2016 meant two customer portals running side-by-side. One was modular, the other an outdated SharePoint solution. At that point, our choices included sticking with one of the existing portals and transferring data over or creating a similar model that incorporated both businesses’ systems. But to provide what our customers wanted – a digital-first, mobile-enabled, fast and flexible service – we quickly realised that neither of these models would do.
So our IT and customer insight teams and product owners worked together to think bigger. How could we make a customer portal the primary contact channel, freeing up those on the phones to deal with more pressing and complicated matters than simply taking rent payments? What would customers want, and expect to be able to do with their technology ten years into the future? What if Sovereign merged again – how would we absorb another business’s systems? The challenge was to get people to see a problem that might not yet exist.
When developing our portal, we knew that we wanted to capitalise on customers who were ready for online, and as such, we couldn’t afford to be tied to a system that might become obsolete before we’d even launched it. This is why we went for an enterprise CMS product. Rather than spending years developing and then delivering something that was Sovereign-specific, only to find that the world had moved on by its release date, we picked an off-the-shelf product and worked with a partner to configure it.
Removing the clunky burden of traditional systems from our residents, leaving them with easy, self-service end-to-end online journeys was, and remains, our priority. And instead of guessing what they might want, we’ve asked for feedback as we go along, continuing to build and adapt our product. It’s been quite a change of mindset.
Microsoft Azure offers us the scale and resilience that we need to get this done and Kentico-EMS offers sector-neutral enterprise-grade CMS, with capabilities within the platform that are closely aligned to the type of features we want to provide. With this system, we control our own destiny, are resilient and, even better, it’s our intellectual property to do as we will with in the future.
A decoupled architecture
With this in mind, we decided that our customer portal would feature a decoupled architecture – separating the customer-facing solution from internal systems. Instead of linking the website with line-of-business systems, using bespoke point-to-point interfaces, an API layer was used to retrieve and return data from an aggregated integration database.
We use the Microsoft Azure Managed Instance, using a set of ETL processes to extract information from multiple line-of-business applications, which aggregates the data in a single, application-agnostic data model. This means that our wagon is not permanently hitched to the same systems, and if we want to change them, we can.
This is because our customers are not ‘one-size-fits-all’. We’ve carried out extensive customer journey mapping. Sovereign Living, leasehold, market rent, shared ownership and affordable rent customers all access different parts of the system. Using Google Analytics, Mouseflow analysis and eye-tracking, we’ve monitored behaviour, checking which parts are most popular and which pages are ignored.
The ‘heat’ is shown as colours onscreen, with red showing where people linger longest. This tracking can display minute detail – are areas of the site called by the right name, how quickly do our customers find pages, are they clicking on the right sections to complete actions? It also helps us to think about future investment – why splurge £30,000 on a feature if people aren’t going to use it?
So here we are a year on, confidently continuing to add iterations. We’ve given residents the opportunity to access fire risk assessments at the touch of a button and send handy reminders via ‘push’ notifications. In a year, we’ve only had one outage, meaning the system has been available for 99.3 per cent of the previous year, compared with previous systems that needed input on a week-by-week basis. We don’t have to shut down to make fixes, and our 16,000 residents are now reporting 89 per cent satisfaction with their payment journeys.
We’ve seen almost 100 per cent organic growth in 12 months, from 8,000 to 16,500 users, as customers find us using search engines. Our business case talked about 60 per cent of users, but we don’t want to cap it; if we can continue to improve our offering, we’ll continue to see people coming to us.
We didn’t take this approach because we thought it would be easy (it’s not been without hitches) but now we’re keen to share our experience. Other housing providers may not be looking for the exact product that we’ve created, but helping those developing new technologies to recognise what customers really want, and how to work back through systems to get them there is something we can help with.
Sam Dart is head of digital technology services at Sovereign Housing.