It was the supernova of the business world, but the dotcom boom of the late 90s and early years of this century seeded life and business change on a scale that really only compares to the industrial revolution, which changed British history forever.
Just after the dotcom crash, the shake-out lurched many towards a complete rejection of dotcom strategy. But many CIOs took the best of the dotcom boom and have carved out a strong niche from understanding and acting as advocates of what the online model can do for a business. David Williams, IT director of insurance aggregator Confused.com, is today an advocate of what dotcom has achieved. The insurance aggregation business wouldn’t have existed without the internet boom and during his career he has also helped change the nature of airlines and successfully introduced IT to parts of the NHS.
It is currently estimated that four out of 10 car insurance policies are purchased through insurance aggregation sites like Confused.com. The Cardiff-based company states that it processed 11 million quotations in 2007. Insurance aggregators are, in essence, price comparison sites which introduce customers to the providers of insurance policies for car, home and travel insurance, and recently the company introduced energy price comparisons to its portfolio. Williams explains it as a single point of contact from which consumers can choose a policy, having only had to input their details once.
Confused is part of the Admiral insurance group, also based in Cardiff. New -aggregators are muscling in on the market and in the first half of 2007 Admiral rep-orted to the stock market that the operating profit for Confused fell from £19.7m to £15.6m due to heavy investment in marketing to defend its market position.
As a key member of the management team, IT director Williams is not afraid to share his views on the aggregation market and rival outfits.
“We always go to the partners’ [the insurance policy providers] sites and we don’t favour any companies. There’s more competition now. There are different models of aggregation, but not all the price comparison sites return quotes using the latest information.”
Williams explains that the systems that he is responsible for always tap into insurance providers’ sites to ensure the latest information is used for putting a policy quote together. Confused is also proud to be one of the aggregators that adheres to the regulations of industry watchdog the Financial Services Authority.
Williams joined Confused in 2007 as IT director. Since then he has completed a major rationalisation of technology at Confused with the company opting to standardise on the Microsoft .Net technology format.
“In our office we have a central corridor. As I walked down that corridor it was like walking through the parted Red Sea, with two different types of coders on each side. So we have rationalised the technology to reduce the costs. We went down the .Net route instead of Java,” Williams explains. The standardisation on Microsoft platforms includes the adoption of the Microsoft Office Sharepoint Server (MOSS) for the company’s intranet.
Williams is very proud of the move to .Net by Confused.com. A full programme of training was implemented and despite having an IT team as divided as a biblical story, as he eloquently puts it, just two members of staff left the company, “which I think is phenomenal”.
Agile project management, which Williams introduced, is being used by his team to hit the deadlines imposed by a business that has IT at its core. “We are redeveloping the website,” he says of the Confused.com shop window.
Confused.com has been a rapidly growing business since its inception in January 2003. “When I joined in 2007 there were 26 staff, now we have 110, 57 of which are in IT,” he says.
As part of the Admiral group of insurance companies it is based in Cardiff. The Welsh capital has reinvented itself in recent years to be one of the major financial services hubs of Europe and is home to many of the UK’s leading financial service providers, as well as global IT providers to the financial sector. Williams describes the clustering of financial companies in Cardiff as both good and bad for his business. When he chose the .Net platform for Confused and needed to expand his team, he found it very “tough” to find the right level of recruits and he doesn’t see it changing too much just yet, despite all the talk of recession.
As well as having held the IT director role since 2007, Williams is now also responsible for customer services, without doubt the second pillar of the Confused business after IT.
The role includes being closely involved with refreshing the Confused.com brand, bringing him into direct contact with the marketing teams. Williams says customer service is one of his passions. “Most of the problems [with customer service] can be fixed with IT,” he says of the direct correlation between the two roles.
Back to square one
In joining Confused, Williams is returning to his roots. His successful career in business and IT leadership began in the city that is now world famous for its regenerated harbour, sport stadium and for being home to the BBC TV series" href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/">Doctor Who BBC TV series.
He kick-started his career in telecommunications before joining the Gwent Health & Glan Hafren NHS Trust, the National Health Service trust for the south east region of Wales, which includes the towns of Abergavenny, Caerphilly and Newport. Arriving in the NHS from a series of commercial sector roles, he found he had a greenfield site, as Gwent NHS literally had no IT in place.
“My brief was to install the patient administration system,” he says, but his responsibilities quickly inflated to include IT systems for pathology, pharmacy, clinical workstations and X-ray administration systems. This led to a leadership role for the entire IT department at Gwent and from the off he ran the department on commercial management lines. It was a decision that was to prove its worth when the government of the time insisted that all public sector bodies market test services they used, including IT, to see if would be more beneficial to outsource. Williams’ department not only passed the market testing appointment in robust health, it became a business division of the Gwent trust and was able to then offer its services to other health trusts in Wales. “That trust was very forward thinking,” he says. Full profit/loss responsibility lay with Williams and he built the department around these core business concepts. This led to it winning Wales and EC-wide contracts for IT services and support in the health sector.
David Williams: CV
1985-88: Technical services manager, CCF
1988-89: Computer operations manager, Oracle, Bracknell
1989-91: Computer systems manager, DHL Systems, London
1991-98: IT director, Gwent Health & Glan Hafren NHS Trust
London and Holland
1999-2005: IT director FlyBe, Exeter
2005-08: IT director, Jet2.com, Leeds
2008-present: IT director, Confused.com
After eight years Williams began to think of a change. “I think there is such a thing as the seven-year itch and I wanted to be back in the private sector,” he says.
A short time contracting in London and Holland came to an end when FlyBe approached him to be its IT director. FlyBe has been climbing rapidly as a regional airline across Europe and the UK over recent years as it moved its business model away from being a regional airline, then known as British European, into a budget rival to compete with Ryanair and EasyJet.
“When I arrived it was a traditional regional airline. They were in process of starting a code-share with Irish flag carrier Aer Lingus. That meant a taking complex legacy system for reservations and the transaction log to the point where we could sell flights online.”
Williams described the legacy airline reservation systems as costly and difficult to extract information from, but they did it. Up until Williams and his contemporaries at other budget airlines managed to break down the barriers between reservation, seat allocation and retail systems, the airline industry had been bound to the travel agency sector.
“Sixty per cent of seats sold for FlyBe were carried out by travel agents,” Williams says. Having joined the legacy systems together and pushed the business into the online stratosphere, FlyBe joined the headlong rush into budget air travel that has dominated the European travel scene in recent years.
The business change was marked, according to Williams. “With FlyBe able to trade on the internet it saved money by not having to pay out sales commission to agents and they then invested that saving in marketing themselves.”
With online flight tickets taking off, Williams went on to automate the back-end administration systems at the carrier. Williams enjoyed his time at FlyBe and he describes the trend of airlines moving towards being able to sell their own tickets and trade online as the airline industry becoming a dotcom. “Airlines are not dotcoms, but they are not far off and everyone in airlines appreciates dotcoms,” he says.
Having revolutionised FlyBe, a very similar airline wanted him in the IT pilot’s seat. In 2005 Williams moved from Exeter-based FlyBe to Leeds-based Jet2.com, another regional budget airline. Jet2 serves the north of England with budget flights to mainland Europe. Once again Williams was tasked with creating a new airline reservation system and outsourcing the infrastructure and setting up new data-centres. The latter is a task he has performed a number of times in his career.
Williams is not shy about his high motivation levels as an IT director. “Throughout my career I have always wanted to work in organisations where there is more to do; the more challenged I am, the happier I am,” he says.
He points out that FlyBe, Jet2 and Confused are rapidly growing organisations that are big enough to do things, but small enough to notice the change. “I prefer to work in organisations that are of a size and mindset where you can make a difference,” he says.
He clearly enjoys his work and jokes that his wife wonders if he is having an affair – with work. “I’m very proud of what I’ve done at FlyBe, Jet2, Confused and Gwent.” he says.
Email’s dynamic design ability
Confused.com IT director David Williams is currently involved in overhauling the web presence of the insurance aggregator. As a web-only business, Williams is under no illusions as to the importance of the levels of customer experience that customers must receive.
The overhaul to the site is centred on the customer experience and in particular ensuring that if a customer is unable to find the answer to a question, that they receive help. Web customers are notorious for having short attention spans, so if a site is not working for them instantly, they are likely to return to the original search results and find another provider.
Williams went to the experts – the Confused.com helpdesk team – to find out where customers were having problems. He has also integrated Eptica, an email management system that is tied in with electronic customer interaction.
“Only one in 10 customers will email in with a problem, so we want the other nine to do so,” Williams says, explaining that the Eptica application uses a combination of search, a knowledge database and template responses to deliver answers to customers. “It has a knowledge base and from looking at these statistics we have been able to guide customers through the website. The automated emails are a way of instantly telling the customer that there is a problem with the website and we are working on it,” Williams says.
Confused created a set of answer templates using Eptica. The application’s search engine retrieves this and delivers the answer template as an automated email. Williams assessed a number of different applications and discovered that many have excellent responses times to a customer problem. Each answer template can also be edited by Confused.com customer service workers to suit a particular customer problem. “Customer service agents know what the customer wants,” Williams says.
Before beginning the current project to redesign the Confused.com website, Williams has analysed all the customer usage information from the tool to discover areas of poor user experience and ensure they are not repeated.
“To take something and start from nothing and turn it into a thriving business is wonderful. At FlyBe it was working with the business to change a traditional airline into a budget [carrier] and move from loss to profitability. At Confused, we have taken something successful and have been making it more successful, and I haven’t finished there yet.”
When Williams does step away from driving new business models forwards with technology he loves travel, a bug he admits he was bitten with while working in the airline industry. “When I worked for the airline I got to go everywhere and I love the US and India.”