Featherstone Leigh: Revolutionary Road

3rd April 2013

Any agency director worth their salt dreams of being able to view every aspect of their business, for all negotiators to have easy access to client and property details and for landlord clients to be able to manage their accounts online at the touch of a button and irrespective of location.

This dream is a reality for Joanna Hamilton, a co-director at Featherstone Leigh, having recently had a new, fully-integrated IT system from Eurolink installed into the business, which boasts nine sales and nine lettings offices across South West London and Surrey.

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With Eurolink’s Veco™, users have single client and property records, be clients a property owner, freeholder, applicant, tenant, contractor or all of the above, hence the system being otherwise known as the Veco™ onesystem. These records are stored in a central database that can be accessed by different departments wherever they are based.

Search

Hamilton claims to have been looking for a new IT system for four years before appointing Eurolink, but not with any seriousness due to the demands on her time created by the firm’s flat hierarchy. The senior management structure comprises just Hamilton and Featherstone Leigh owner, Robert Leigh, which means that, like many small businesses, she does not have the luxury of time to concentrate fully on the firm’s IT infrastructure.

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It was only when the business had grown to the size and breadth where it required a more bespoke and innovative IT system for its needs that Hamilton initiated the change in provider.

Until then, Featherstone Leigh had been using P2Gold Software from Artisan Brandt for property management and subscription-based technology services firm, The Bu2iness, which she appointed to replace Vebra-owned Estate Craft four years ago.

She says: [The Bu2iness] was a very, very good system on lots of levels and I wouldn’t want to say it wasn’t. It suited us very well at the time and improved enormously as time went by.”

Hamilton oversaw a beauty parade of IT providers, which included Eurolink. As part of its pitch, the firm undertook a number of demonstrations of Veco™ to each of Featherstone Leigh’s departments, in addition to Hamilton and Leigh.
The track record of Veco™ helped to seal the deal for Eurolink. Hamilton explains: “We wanted a front office-back office operation that was tried and tested. A business our size and with our reputation would not intend to go onto any new product for property management and accounts until it was several years down the line; I’m just not that brave.”

Relationship

The Eurolink team was also instrumental to the win. “One of the problems you’ve got in this field is that the products keep developing. They keep leapfrogging each other in terms of development and you have to slightly take it as a writ that they can all do what they say they can. After that, it comes down to working with people who you feel work like you.” explains Hamilton.

“Featherstone Leigh”, she says, “needed to work with a provider that was responsive to its needs, that understood estate agency, that grasped where the firm was coming from and, above all, that understood that the needs of the business, rather than the IT system, come first”. She adds: “I had a relationship with Nigel [Poole, a Eurolink director] and he knew what we had been through in 1989 when we introduced the original IT system into Barnard Marcus [where Hamilton worked until 1992]. It was epic stuff. Nigel came up and put it in, and it was a labour of love and a very steep learning curve.

“Paul [Chappell, a Eurolink director] and Nigel were together then and they still are. I think that says a huge amount about a business. If you’ve got two people who’ve stuck together through the market being good and the market being rubbish, they’re not bad people to put your money on. Ultimately, I think we accepted that their package could do what we wanted it to. That’s the nature of software; that you can manipulate it to do what you want it to, but you’ve got to be sure you’ve got a relationship with the people who are doing that for you.”

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Ariana Louis, client director at Eurolink, has also known the Featherstone Leigh team for some time, which she agrees helped with the project.

“With any client, we spend time listening to what they want and looking at what can be done. We have to make it clear to the client what’s chargeable, which helps them decide what’s essential and what’s not and can be implemented in six months’ time. With Featherstone Leigh, I was able to pre-empt that in advance because I’d worked with them before, so it was a relatively easy process.”

Hamilton’s IT system requirements were simple: she wanted an IT system with a comprehensive search facility. She explains: “We wanted to be able to select anything by any criteria we ever wanted.” And Hamilton’s wish was Eurolink’s command. She says: “We can select anything by anything, such as if someone expressed an interest in an area with a particular school. The potential is amazing.”

Data

Eurolink’s starting point for all new client system implementation projects is to understand their client’s data migration requirements, in terms of the type of data they have and what is required to migrate this to the new system that they are designing. Training requirements are also key, particularly the identification of any bespoke elements necessary for the programme. Louis explains: “We consider how a client approaches the business and identify all their reporting functions and the procedures needed to implement the data.”

Hamilton accepted the learning curve involved in implementing a new system, hence her decision to keep things simple from the outset. “I made a strategic decision early on to go in at entry level, keep it simple and develop it as required. If we went out with every possible tweet, bell and whistle on it and hundreds and hundreds of automated this, that and the other, I think people would disengage straight away.”

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Hamilton also took the decision to implement the new system in three tranches to ease the workload, with accounts kicking off the process over Easter and sales finishing it in July.

Nevertheless, she says the process was tough, due largely to the quality of the firm’s data. “We tried to get all our data as clean and accurate as possible, so we weren’t just migrating crap to crap. It was very interesting for us because with Veco™ everything is visible and it’s brilliant; you can see the mistakes so easily, whereas on The Bu2iness you had to pull up each record and search for it. We’ve got 398 people who haven’t even got names, and all of that kind of stuff. With Veco™, it’s a bit like going out without your clothes on; you’re visible, which from my point of view is fantastic because I can identify the training needs; I can see who’s not doing things right.”

Louis says Featherstone Leigh’s data migration experience is not uncommon, hence why the Eurolink team spends so much time preparing clients about the work involved well in advance of system implementation.

“One of the most difficult things to make clients understand is that there is so much involved in data migration. A lot of clients are misled into thinking that it can be done at the click of a button. We spent weeks looking at their data to understand exactly what would go in our system – we looked at every single field – and how it will work.”

As part of the preparation stage, Louis created a working group comprising staff from each of Featherstone Leigh’s departments to help test their data. “A client needs to spend a lot of time understanding where their data will go. We can only do so much and put in like-for-like data, and there are things in our system that are mandatory, so once the first set of data is in we need to be sure it works with any system rules.”

In spite of the data challenges, there was only one issue during the implementation process, which was a result of Featherstone Leigh providing old data for testing the new system. But the Eurolink team quickly rectified this oversight by working through the night and re-inputting new data to ensure the project remained on track. Louis says: “We factor in a certain number of development hours, so there’s a margin for things like this.”

Eurolink’s project costs typically include system implementation and set-up, training and consultancy to identify any bespoke functions and reports.

The Featherstone Leigh team is now in the throes of honing its proficiency with the new system. Hamilton explains: “Staff are using the system with varying degrees of proficiency, but on day one they could all find their applicants and ring them up, and that’s what it’s about. We are still in first gear and I am not asking people to run before they can walk. What we’re trying to do is get people set up properly now, and then as time goes on we will develop how we use it.”

Benefits

Hamilton cites the ability for her landlord clients to view and manage their accounts online, from wherever they are, as one of the biggest benefits of Veco™. She also raves about the transparency, functionality and efficiency that the system allows. “The front office can now see what’s going on in the back office. They can be on the phone to a tenant, for example, and quickly go into their file and see if they’re in arrears and ask what’s happening. It’s just brilliant and how it should be, but we haven’t had that before.”

She adds: “It’s the transparency of information; there is no hiding. I can see every single day whether people are using the system properly and, for example, if we’ve got a deal under progression, but it hasn’t been processed.”

From a management perspective, the transparency of Veco™ provides Hamilton and Leigh with a real-time, bird’s eye view of the business, enabling Hamilton to troubleshoot where and when necessary. “I have access to the whole business and I love it! My job’s hugely improved. If I get a complaint, dare I say it, I can sort it all out without having to ask anyone anything; it’s all just there. All our documents are automatically found and attached to any record that has that address in it. Everything is just so accessible without anyone having to look in their drawer or on their desk. We don’t have to run servers in the offices at all.”

In addition to Featherstone Leigh having installed Veco™, the firm has implemented Cloud infrastructure across the whole of its business, which uses remote data storage, rather than traditional, cumbersome office-based servers.

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The benefits of cloud computing include reduced costs because of the removal of server hosting costs, increased storage capacity, which means that business owners can store more data than on their private computers, real-time updates and flexibility, due to employees being able to access information wherever they are, rather than having to remain at their desks. Moreover, the lack of server-based system enables businesses to concentrate on strategy rather than server updates and other computer-based headaches.

Hamilton believes her involvement in the project, from start to finish, was instrumental to its final success. “I never got involved in the others at my level, and I would say I don’t need to. And Robert, interestingly enough, doesn’t think he needs to either, but it is wonderful to know how it works, and I will be encouraging him to do so. You have to make so many decisions about how your estate agency works. What sort of estate agency are you? Do you want people getting lots of auto-emails? What do you want them to say? How do you want to track how people work? What’s compulsory and what’s not? You need to work out what you want the system to look like and how you want it to work.”

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Hamilton advises fellow agents not to underestimate the amount of management time involved in implementing a new system, but insists it’s well worth the investment. “We’ve got as close to a bespoke system [as] you can get without being a bespoke system. We can pretty much make it how we want to without starting from scratch.”

She adds:

“I think what we’ve got is something we know is tried and tested and that we know complies with ARLA [the Association of Residential Lettings Agents] and all the audit stuff. They’ve [Eurolink] been doing that since the year dot, and that’s important.”

Louis reiterates the importance of client preparation: “You need to be aware of what it’s going to take and consider that it will affect every member of staff. You’ve got to be committed to it.” She adds: “Understandably, there’s only so much an IT provider can do, so you’ve got to be really clear with us about what and why you need something, so we can tailor the system to exactly what you need.”