Moving house is frequently listed among the 10 most stressful ‘life events’ and with so many hurdles to leap before you cross the threshold of your new home, it’s little wonder technology has been able to step in and make the process of choosing a property, finding a mortgage and dealing with the legal aspects of buying a house much smoother over the past decade.
Estate agents were among the first to use digital cameras in anger, those glossy photos stapled to fact sheets replaced by printed images and more recently uploaded to that new shop window, the website.
The right mortgage is easier to secure thanks to the arrival of the comparison site, and an efficient conveyancing lawyer is never far away – you can even read what others think of their services before dispatching an email for a speedy quote.
The move to an online marketplace has forced smaller agents to seek strength in numbers, often under an umbrella brand like Countrywide. Founded in 1990, parent to familiar local brands like Taylors, Bairstow Eves, Gascoigne-Pees and Fulfords, and now the UK’s largest property services company, Countrywide’s five business divisions can guide you through the property-buying journey, from finding a property to offering financial, surveying and conveyancing services en route to completion. There’s also a lettings division that links landlords with prospective tenants via some of the 1200 agency offices.
This rapid growth, and the fact that the five divisions operated as independent silos, meant a reorganisation was required to reduce costs, increase efficiency and drive Countrywide forward into its third decade. In 2006 new group CEO Grenville Turner recognised this and brought in a new management team which, from August 2008, included CIO Ivan Brooks, who moved to the firm’s Milton Keynes headquarters after 13 years at the McDonald’s restaurant chain.
Brooks realised that what was needed was a group-wide IT department, cutting out duplication between the siloed divisions and moving towards a single centralised IT organisation backed up by a common datacentre and single data network.
The tender for the data network was won by Virgin Media Business. Virgin boasts the UK’s most advanced fibre optic network, and worked with Brooks’ team to plan Countrywide’s implementation down to local branch level.
“We worked hand-in-hand to plan the implementation,” says Brooks. “You don’t want to put the same connection into every location: a branch on the high street is very different in terms of technical requirements to a head office. So they worked with us over the planning and then we left them to it. Roll-out went pretty smoothly.
“At the end of the day we’re talking about a piece of infrastructure which sets us up to make smart decisions in the medium to long term. The network is about reliability and scalability – if we want to open a new branch it’s clear where we go for a network connection; it’s plug-and-play I suppose.”
As well as the data network, Brooks consolidated information assets into a single datacentre, and the combination of these two moves have put Countrywide in a position to save almost £1m at once and plan further efficiencies across the IT function.
“The datacentre and the data network go hand-in-hand. It gave us a chance to bring people together and move equipment which could have been in any one of our offices, and which wasn’t appropriate for running serious business systems.
“There’s a business case of £4m associated with the datacentre. About £1m is probably different invoices and lower cost by changing the way you buy the network and eliminating operating locations. That saving is through business change. The other £3m is about using the network to change the business and gain efficiencies,” Brooks adds.
One early benefit of the consolidated systems is in reducing support costs. With all systems sharing one common, efficient network, service desk teams can fix the majority of technical problems remotely, saving, Brooks says, £150 a time on site visits to branches from service centres in Yorkshire and Milton Keynes.
Because VMB’s fibre network stretches the length and breadth of the UK, it gives Countrywide a fixed cost for kitting out a new branch, and Brooks’ team will soon be deploying the firm’s first group-wide email system to all 7000 employees.
“We’ve got photos of our old computer rooms. One showed a cupboard with an email server which was carrying the email for two or three of the most senior people in the organisation,” he says.
With a large, efficient and reliable network in place, did Brooks consider deploying a SaaS email solution?
“We did look at SaaS email as a non-Microsoft platform and as an MS-hosted environment, and on balance we decided to do it in house. There wasn’t a lot bet-ween the two but we felt more comfortable with a capital-maintenance-support model rather than rental,” he explains.
“We also had to ask ourselves where we stood with respect to Microsoft. We made a decision that we felt would serve our best interests in the longer term centred around Microsoft’s Active Directory.”
Software-as-a-service has also entered the equation as the firm’s systems come in line for a revamp, although Brooks admits he prefers to keep systems in house.
“The software that we use in estate agency and conveyancing has been in use for some time so we’re considering an upgrade cycle and seeing if there’s a opportunity to use SaaS. The reason we like to keep application platforms in house is because we’re quite a bandwidth- and -image-intensive organisation with quite a lot of data flowing in and out of branches.
“Data is our business – we’re using it to help people buy houses. That’s a big factor when it comes to considering cloud computing. I’m thinking about bandwidth and speed, and whether I want to cede control of that to someone else is a big decision.”
Of course, it’s no good smartening up the office only to neglect the shop window, and with most property hunts now starting online, having your wares available on the internet is vital for any estate agency. Countrywide’s dedicated online team has developed its site at Propertywide.co.uk.
“The internet is enormously important to people considering a property-related transaction. We have strategic relationships with third-party portals, but we also thought it was important to develop a site for ourselves and to push the boundaries of some of the things we saw on other portal sites that we thought had room for improvement. We’ve very proud of our mapping tools and very proud of the way we’ve worked on the usability of the site.”
The new site debuted in September 2009, and while customers may not notice the difference the new pipeline has made just yet, Brooks believes that increased reliability is only the first benefit of the new data network that could transform customer-agent relations.
“Customers could come into a branch and we would get the property online, but what we’ve got now is more reliable with a lowest time to market – it’s much more of an assured service. It was pretty good before but we’ve underpinned it with something a lot better. It sets us up to have a different sort of relationship with sellers and buyers. This could be through text messaging or the web, but if you’re dealing with Countrywide’s conveyancing services, you naturally want to get electronic updates. We see that area as important to us in managing customer relationships.”
Brooks plans further improvements to customer care, using Virgin’s data network to host IP-based telephony and provide round-the-clock telephone support.
“Our telephone system tends to operate on an individual branch basis, so if someone calls an agency at 9pm, it’s going to ring out or go to answerphone. Our ability to divert around the network estate is a huge customer service opportunity.
“I’m excited about what we can do with voice – computer-telephone integration is vital for estate agents, and linking customer and property data with our telephone system is a huge service proposition. It’s about giving people more than they expect to get.”
Countrywide’s surveyors have long been using tablet computers to draw up valuations and home reports which most rival UK organisations still process using dictation, pen and paper. Introduced before Brooks came on board, the in-house system with wireless submission cuts down the time it takes for a report to submitted from as many as five days to just one.
The property market has suffered as much as any during the economic downturn, and like most CIOs, Brooks is charged with reducing costs through IT where possible. On top of the 20 per cent cost reduction achieved by reducing duplication between the five IT functions, he sees further opportunities for reduction through business process engineering and outsourcing.
“We looked at how branches were operating, saw manual processes that were similar and sought to consolidate them in fewer locations,” he says. “By changing the way the organisation operates you gain greater quality in terms of administrative effort and ultimately lower cost as well.
“Back-office processes are partnered with a company in India, and any branch which is connected to the network is linked to the partner in India. “None of this would be viable without having the data network in place.”
Although Countrywide’s information now resides in a single Servo datacentre, there are further cost reductions to be made there, and Brooks is already considering reducing the amount of rack space and power the firm consumes through a process of virtualisation.
“What opportunities do we have to do things differently? Do you virtualise the servers? What about the desktop? And to what extent can you do both and what’s the architecture plan for the endgame?
“The bigger play is making systems more reliable and cheaper to own at the point of use. But we have to watch the basic things that concern all IT departments – how many calls are coming into the service desk and how can you cut them out?”
During his time at McDonald’s, Brooks rose to vice president and CIO of the UK division and is credited as the man who put WiFi into its restaurants.
There were surprising similarities between the burger chain and the property firm, he says, but ultimately, it was the chance to consolidate Countrywide’s siloed IT function into a single unit that sealed the deal.
“Both firms have multi-site operations and business-critical systems at the centre and at branches. You’re ultimately providing customer-facing applications that allow the business to make money. But Countrywide is a more complex operation as there are more lines of business.
“The main attraction for me was IT consolidation and the idea of creating something that wasn’t there already.”
At Countrywide, Brooks reports into the commercial director, but doesn’t see the extra tier between himself and the CIO as a barrier to fighting IT’s corner.
“I’ve never been too hung up by that sort of thing. There’s a lot of debate about the relationship between CEO and CIO, but whether you report directly to him or her is not the main determining factor, it’s about mutual respect and the ability to get on and do your job.
“Demonstrating that you know what you’re doing and that you’ll do everything it takes to be successful is the main thing the CEO is looking for, whether they’re your line manager or not.”