Futures Housing Group is embarking on a £600,000 plan to revolutionise the way it works to create effortless experiences for its tenants, improve business processes and deliver financial efficiency. In the first of four articles, Futures Housing Group’s head of ICT, Gavin Hitchcock, explains the housing provider’s journey to launch a new unified and multi-channel communications system which will make it easier for staff to work flexibly, as well as give tenants more choice when contacting Futures or accessing its services.
With more than 300 members of staff and over 20,000 people living in our 9,000 homes throughout the Midlands, the challenge for us is to deliver a range of online self-service options and contact methods for tenants through an integrated communications approach which supports back-office efficiency.
Our new system will use Microsoft Skype for Business (SfB) to deliver telephony, video conferencing, instant messaging, desktop sharing and collaboration for staff. It also brings in Enghouse Interactive Contact Centre (EICC) which will provide customer communication options including telephone, email, SMS, live web chat, social media interaction, self-service and contact automations for tenants.
Integration between EICC and our back-office systems (including Orchard Housing) will enable automated inbound customer identification (by looking up the telephone number, email address, social media identifier or webchat login) combined with automated contact centre agent ‘screen pops’.
The starting point for the project was to gain insights into customer demographics and their propensity to use technology, differing communication methods and self-service options. The research findings informed the project’s business case, set expectations on customer ‘take up’, and allowed us to plan longer term customer marketing and support strategies.
As significant investment would be needed to move to such a solution, Alysium Consulting was employed to investigate and challenge the internal business case against value for money principles. Substantial benefits were identified in improved customer service provision and associated operational and financial efficiencies such as reduced travel costs/time, back-office efficiencies, and reduced transaction costs by increased customer self-service and greater process automation.
Ian Lever from Alysium Consulting said, “We had already done a significant amount of work with Futures Housing relating to the channel shift agenda and challenging the use of paper and older customer contact processes which were both time consuming and costly.
“We reviewed Futures Housing’s progress and added some additional benefits which demonstrated a real return on the investment. We then appraised these benefits using our knowledge of the technologies available (and in development) to ensure the business case was not only financially viable but also achievable and deliverable.”
Following final approval, we moved to the specification and procurement phase with support from Alysium. Due to the complexity and range of potential solutions available, coupled with the anticipated financial commitment over its contract term, we chose a competitive dialogue process with a published opportunity in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU). Competitive dialogue was chosen so that we could speak to the bidders direct, with the aim of developing one or more suitable alternative solutions to meet our requirements.
The first lesson we learned was that competitive dialogue offered the best option (under the regulations in place at the time) to ensure that the correct outcome took precedence over process efficiency, albeit at the expense of what can seem an overly-long process). However, the new 2015 procurement rules allowed for a competitive procedure with negotiation, and the soft market testing is considered as preliminary market consultation, showing that these limitations have now been recognised and allowed for by EU directive 2014/24EC.
The procurement process finished in September 2015 with the contract being awarded to Amillan, a communications integrator specialising in unified communications, cloud and mobility technologies, and advanced contact centres.
However, we recognised at an early stage that this wasn’t an ‘off the shelf’ solution that had been tried and tested within our type of infrastructure. For this reason, we designed a proof of concept into our project approach. It’s a little bit like cooking a meal; we knew all the ingredients should work together, but until you actually cook it in your kitchen using your cooker, you can never be certain that it will taste as good as it should.
The second lesson was that technology solutions like this are complex, with many ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’. I’d say that including a proof of concept is essential to generate confidence that the solution will actually work within your environment. Linking this to an ‘exit plan’ for the contractual commitment is also highly recommended.
From December 2015 to May 2016, our ICT team and Amillan worked together to deploy the proof of concept which involved a series of test phases against a pre-defined list of core system functions. The testing was done on a pass/fail basis, on the understanding that a formal contractual commitment would be made if all test areas passed.
Chris Cheetham, Futures Housing’s project manager, said, “The proof of concept that we developed with Amillan was very comprehensive and allowed us to exercise and test almost every detailed element of the solution. This was essential because we needed to have sufficient confidence in it to proceed with the full replacement of our existing legacy systems.”
The proof of concept phase ended this May, and alerted us to a number of learning points. Perhaps the most important was the difficulty in delivering video using our existing thin-client terminals due to hardware limitations. A number of alternative devices were tested and we decided to fast track 40-50 staff members from thin clients to notebooks. This was an obvious solution because it supports agile/mobile working for our staff as well as allowing us to progressively replace terminals over the next couple of years as part of our hardware replacement programme.
The proof of concept also highlighted that the accessibility software used by a visually-impaired member of staff wasn’t compatible with EICC. This resulted in us accepting an earlier version of EICC’s desktop software, with Enghouse proactively committing to deliver the required functionality by late 2017. A number of minor (and acceptable) SfB/Citrix compatibility issues and hardware restrictions were also identified to be dealt with during the project delivery phase.
So, what next? Following the successful proof of concept, we plan to:
- Replace our existing contact centre with the EICC multi-channel contact centre solution;
- Replace our legacy telephone system with SfB unified communications;
- Finalise the specification and integrate Orchard Housing with EICC;
- Upgrade selected desktop hardware for ‘at desk’ video conferencing;
- Implement dedicated SfB video-conference meeting room solutions;
- Initiate a comprehensive change management programme to ensure that staff, tenants, partners and stakeholders gain the maximum benefits from the new solutions.
Watch this space to find out how the Futures journey unfolds in the next few issues of Housing Technology.
Gavin Hitchcock is head of ICT at Futures Housing Group.