Once you’ve installed Microsoft Dynamics, what next? Well, the product itself has the flexibility to be extended in many different directions, and most of our customers are usually wanting to extend Dynamics so that others can access it via implementing a portal.
Portals are an attractive proposition to many customer-facing organisations, offering the ideal win-win situation for both the organisation implementing it and the user accessing it. Most customer-service studies point to customers wanting to answer questions themselves which in turn decreases the number of calls to the call-centre. With a decrease in the numbers of calls, the call centre then has more time to spend on other, more complex customer enquiries.
From a technology platform perspective, there are a number of portal technologies available. If you’re implementing Dynamics online, then ‘Microsoft Portals’ are available; the portal solution comes as part of any implementation and can easily be installed from the Office365 portal.
The out-of-the-box portals are suited to minimal customisations and are ideal for anyone wanting to keep things very simple and not deviate from the underlying data structure in Dynamics. Pre-configured templates are available, with the customer-service template giving access to the case entity and other customer-service elements in Dynamics, so in theory it’s a good fit for housing providers. However, the level of customisation available is sometimes not enough for the portals that a typical housing provider wants to supply; many portals require heavy tailoring to customise the user interface and to allow for integration with other systems, not just Dynamics.
This complexity is driven by the purpose of the portal. The most popular type of portal requested by our customers is a tenant self-service portal. With the tenant portal, the requirements vary considerably from one implementation to the next. They can be as little as providing a tenant with the capability to view their cases and activities, through to full self-service including viewing their rent statements and balance, making payments, logging and scheduling repairs and so on. Other non-tenant portal options are less commonly implemented; these types of portals typically allow external contractors to have access to Dynamics to update cases and/or jobs.
Whatever the requirements, the first decision is which portal solution is best. The out-of-the-box version may be capable of handling simple requirements, and that may be enough for now, but will it be able to handle greater complexity in the future? When looking at other products, do they come with out-of-the-box integration with Dynamics or is custom development required? The SDK that comes with Dynamics is powerful and can be used to integrate to any portal solution, but is custom development really the right approach?
In our experience, the answer is “no”. By far the easiest and most flexible approach is to use a portal product that already contains connectors to Dynamics.
Reducing time, cost and risk
There are three reasons for this approach. Firstly, the time spent developing the portal will be much shorter; quite simply, if you’re developing the integration from scratch then all the forms, login processes, password resets and so on will all require developing from the ground up, whereas if the integration comes as part of the portal then such functionality will already exist. Secondly, from a financial perspective, the portal solutions that offer the best integration to Dynamics are, surprisingly, often the cheapest to buy, with one product being completely free. Finally, from a risk perspective, any bespoke integration is inevitably at the mercy of Microsoft upgrades which have the potential to cause any developments to either stop working or to work unpredictably, necessitating redevelopment.
Deciding on the scope of the project and the portal solution to be used are the first two steps in the development process; the next step is the alignment of data in Dynamics with the data to be displayed in the portal. When developing a tenant portal, the way data is displayed in Dynamics for internal users is unlikely to be the same as it needs to be displayed for tenants themselves, typically resulting in some field changes within Dynamics. For example, Dynamics might hold a weekly breakdown of all charges, such as heating, water, management and communal area charge, but this information is irrelevant and potentially confusing to tenants who just want to see their overall weekly charge. Technical arrears is another example; many balances are often stored against the tenancy record in Dynamics (typically overall balance, gross balance, net balance and sub-account balances, such as rechargeable repairs or court costs). Therefore in the portal it’s important to show a simple balance figure and be clear whether the figure includes technical arrears to avoid confusion and unnecessary calls to the call centre querying the information displayed.
A personalised experience
Equally important as displaying appropriate data is the user interface. It’s not just a case of making the portal easy to navigate but also ensuring that the user is presented with a personalised experience. Whenever a tenant logs into the portal, they should be addressed by name on the welcome screen and should be able to easily see the information that is most relevant to them; this is likely to be the date of their last payment, current balance and any open cases and perhaps sub-account balances to provide a gentle nudge that they owe money. This personalisation lets the tenant know that they are being treated as a trusted customer with unique preferences which ultimately drives the use of the portal to the benefit of both the tenant and the housing provider. There are no short cuts to providing a personalised customer experience and much of the configuration involves a good deal of trial and error, with housing providers increasingly involving resident champions at an early stage to help with assessing the portal’s usability.
Another key aspect of any portal development is ensuring that the data and services offered can be accessed regardless of what platform the tenant is using at the time. As mobile devices become more powerful and 4G coverage increases, there is a strong shift away from viewing websites on a PC or laptop to viewing them on a mobile device.
Extending Dynamics through portals can have significant benefits for tenants and housing providers alike, but there can be significant pitfalls that can result in the portal becoming an expensive white elephant with poor user adoption.
By being pragmatic, picking the right portal solution and involving tenants in the process at an early stage, forward-thinking housing providers can benefit from the vast flexibility of Dynamics and allow their tenants to benefit too.
Andrew McCormick is managing director of RedkiteCRM.