Estate agent giant Sequence prides itself on providing an integrated end-to-end home moving service. And IT plays a big part in its success.
- Business description Sequence is a national chain of estate agencies
- Business challenge Develop a customer focused, process-based model to streamline the business of moving house and provide an integrated customer service
- Solution Develop a custom-made web-services based application that integrates all aspects of house selling and moving, from property details to finding mortgage and removal companies, and roll this out to all 2,000 staff
- Services Infrastructure and network design, technical consultancy, vendor selection, project roll-out, implementation and installation, project management, 24x7 remote and on-site network management, helpdesk operation and fault resolution, liaison with other service providers
The promise of the dot coms was that they would revolutionise business through changing processes, opening up new markets and streamlining interaction between customer and provider.
Although clicks failed to replace bricks, the dot com era did usher in many changes in the ways that established companies chose to work, particularly with the adoption of the web services model of full integration between disparate systems.
Looking to a future where the traditional local estate agent is under threat from a range of on-line services, which range from property adverts to conveyancing, Sequence, formerly known as Royal Sun Alliance Property Services, set out to be the first national chain to deliver an integrated, efficient and rapid end-to-end home moving service.
Designing the service called for Sequence to look at its operations from a completely customer-driven perspective and encapsulate these in a process based on the latest and most integrated technology.
After an extensive tendering process, it decided to outsource the design and provision of its branch IT infrastructure with a three-year support contract to include helpdesk support and maintenance.
Several of the world’s best known services providers answered the tender and the contract was awarded to Computacenter.
Sequence is the second largest group of estate agents in the UK. Its 350 branches include such well-known names as Barnard Marcus, Fox & Sons and Allen & Harris. Its customers range from first-time buyers looking for one-bed flats, to those seeking the most luxurious penthouses and country mansions.
“With such a diverse market you have to tailor your service to a variety of needs,” says Neil Chandler, Sequence’s chief information officer. “Intelligent use of technology allows us to set a standard that offers excellence to all our customers by taking best practice from different offices and turning it into common practice across the group.”
Turning aspiration into reality
Turning such lofty aspirations into reality is often much more of a challenge than at first seems obvious. Chandler readily agrees. “To deliver such quality across a wide breadth of service, we had to go back to the drawing board and redesign the whole process of how our people interact with our customers. It meant throwing away a lot of preconceptions and introducing some very innovative ideas.”
The re-branding of Sequence, which accompanied the complete re-engineering of its business processes was led by Charles Taylor, the company’s chief executive officer.
“Our plans are about a complete shift in emphasis in the way we go about our business. We have moved from the traditional transaction-based estate agency role to one that nurtures long-term relationships with customers. We want to safeguard the best of our local inheritance to pave the way for the estate agency of the future.
“Our entire emphasis will be about delivering the service that our research has shown customers want. This means our agents are becoming partners with our customers, acting more as consultants and guides on the whole home moving process instead of simply being a finder of a potential new home.”
Comprehensive independent services – the route forward
Although many people outside the industry are cynical about the interlinking of financial and other services by estate agencies, the management board at Sequence is convinced that future events in the industry will show the wisdom of delivering a comprehensive service.
As Neil Chandler explains: “The government is talking about putting the onus for survey and title reporting onto the seller through the sellers' pack initiative. In addition, many of the legal processes such as searches and land registry reports will be on-line within a couple of years. The whole process of buying and selling property is going to change radically.
“Faced with these changes, as well as strong pressure on commission rates, we decided that our best route forward was to redesign our processes to cover every stage of both the sales and legal side of moving home so we could improve customer service”
He continues, “This approach allows us to introduce some of the best elements of CRM and move away from the traditional estate agency model of a single transaction-based process where the customer has a brief but intense relationship, and is then forgotten until the next time they move.”
Lessons learned from the dot coms
The business process re-engineering took many of the lessons learned from internet companies, particularly about flexibility, speed of response and wider choice, and built these into a new model for the company supported by a fully web services-enabled technology.
“This application server/J2EE technology matured during the dot com period and we have exploited this for our intra-organisation application. Every detail about every property and customer is held on a single application and is available to all branches,” explains Chandler.
“This contains pictures of each property, reports about people’s requirements, reactions to viewings and progress of a sale through to its completion. It can be browser accessed by anyone in the company, regardless of their location, and has been designed to link to lawyers, mortgage providers, local authorities and the Land Registry as their technology catches up.
"It is a complete online estate agency application, designed in-house, that will build on the individual local expertise of each office to deliver a better and more comprehensive service to our clients.”
Sequence decided to start with a clean sheet in technology terms. It prepared a four-part tender for the different aspects of the service it wanted to give its offices. The first part covered the application, which was awarded to a joint team made up of in-house staff from Sequence working with Scient, a systems integrator.
The second covered the hosting of the application, which was won by Cable and Wireless, the third was the networking infrastructure and the fourth covered the branch IT infrastructure which was to be supplied as a managed service.
The infrastructure contract was awarded to Computacenter after an extremely competitive tender, as Chandler recalls. “One of the first tests we set was to determine the level of service that companies were able to offer in terms of providing us with a fully managed service. We were looking for a tier one provider, so our initial list included companies such as EDS, IBM Global Services and BT.
"We were pleasantly surprised to find Computacenter more than capable of holding its place in such company, and in fact its whole approach played perfectly into our culture. Eighteen months later I would have no question about placing Computacenter on a level with the best-known global names, and ahead of a fair few of them.”
Chandler is a firm believer that outsourcing needs to be selectively managed to work effectively. “The danger for many CIOs looking at outsourcing their IT operations is signing themselves into deals that look good today, but will be hopelessly wrong in a few years' time.
"Of course you can’t do it all yourself, you have to make intelligent use of a team, which can be a mixture of your own people and those from an outside specialist. In any organisation it is vital that you retain the management and architecture of your application, especially if you consider it critical to the way you do business as we do.”
Choose your partners carefully
Chandler also believes CIOs follow a path fraught with danger when choosing partners. “One lesson that the industry should have learned from the dot com bubble is the need for financial stability in the companies on whom you allow your business to depend.
"This is always going to be an issue with smaller companies – they often have sexy technology but this is of no value if they disappear after you’ve bought it and you can’t get the support. Conversely smaller companies bring a flexibility and freshness of thinking. Once you’re used to that you don’t want to give it up, so when we set out to find partners we wanted the best of both worlds.”
“When we chose Computacenter we felt it was because we could work with the company very well, and that its approach to selective outsourcing would give us everything we needed, “ he continues.
“Our brief to it was to give us an infrastructure that would handle our legacy applications as we migrated to the new application and run the new application when it was ready to be rolled out. “Computacenter had to design the infrastructure, advise on the technology, develop the management architecture, physically build the infrastructure, including branch cabling, install it and then provide both remote and on-site support for a three-year period, complete with a full helpdesk service for any technology or application related calls.”
Simple concept – powerful result
Computacenter’s design was based on a Microsoft Windows 2000 platform using both Active Directory and SMS. Alan Evans, one of Computacenter’s Microsoft Technical Architects explains the set up.
"The concept behind Active Directory is simple – wherever you are physically located in an organisation you can log on and your own desktop will appear, complete with your own e-mail, personal documents and system preferences.
"It embodies all the best principles of hot desking with an exceptional level of security for distributed and mobile workforces. One of its strongest features is that it allows vital data on each local branch server to remain synchronised throughout the entire network.”
The implementation of SMS allows all aspects of management of the network and hardware to be handled from the data centre, in addition to being able to download software centrally and thus guarantee that everyone uses the same version of the company’s business applications.
This naturally helps to bring down support costs, but an even greater return on investment comes from its remote network management and fault reporting.
This allows most fault fixing to be handled without the need to call out an engineer. Often potential faults are noted and fixed before the user is even aware that something might be about to go wrong.
In the case of severe problems anywhere on the network, from domain controller to desktop unit, the helpdesk can take over the operation of the unit across the network and fix the vast majority of problems without having to send in an engineer.
In operation, Neil Chandler reports that this approach is working extremely well. “We have been running with the system now for about twelve months, and I would say we now get an average of three or four helpdesk calls per branch per month. That’s less than half of what I would have expected.”
Robust, reliable and good to look at!
Having settled on a Windows 2000 solution, the next step was the choice of hardware on which to run it. Chandler recalls this was an interesting exercise. “We worked on it jointly, but gave Computacenter a brief that we wanted a system that would be fit for the job, without too many bells and whistles, because our core application is entirely web-based.
"It had to be what we described as ‘fit for the purpose’. Obviously we demanded reliability, so we were not looking for the cheapest option, but we also had to bear in mind that the desktops would be very visible to our customers, and with a complete refurbishment of every branch, we needed them to portray a clean, modern image.”
The final choice was a complete suite from Compaq. At the desktop the chosen model was the iPAQ desktop, matched to black LCD monitors. Additionally within each branch a Compaq entry-level server was installed to provide Active Directory domain controller and SMS control services.
All branches were connected to the data centre in Swindon through Sequence’s existing Frame Relay network, and within the data centre the AD/SMS server choice is again Compaq.
Here, ProLiant DL380 and 580 enterprise servers provide full connectivity and active directory management. These have been configured to allow a high degree of resiliency and fault tolerance, so that if one is out of service, the system continues to function for all the active directory domain.
Hard to the deadline
One interesting aspect of the project was the implementation timescale. The project formally kicked off in March 2001 with an initial go-live in the first branches planned for November 2001. This required a very aggressive roll out of the branch infrastructure.
Charles Taylor had made a promise to his staff that half of the company’s branches would be refurbished by Christmas 2001, so, as Rob Turner, the Computacenter project manager recalls, the pressure was on his team to deliver.
“We faced some challenging moments, not least in integrating the delivery of practically all Computacenter’s service offerings to 350 branches whilst they were in the process of being refurbished. These included installation of network cabling at all branches, logistics services, installation of servers and desktops, and the migration of legacy applications and data at the time of installation.”
Prior to delivery and implementation, all system units were configured by Computacenter at its Hatfield facility. This reduced sharply the time taken by the installation teams on site and made a major contribution to helping Charles Taylor’s promise be met.
Managed support 24x7
As each branch went online it began to enjoy the benefit of Computacenter’s managed service for the support of its operations. This is a comprehensive package with Service Level Agreements that place the onus for achieving rapid fault resolution onto Computacenter, even if it occurs in a part of the infrastructure not implemented by them.
Computacenter Account Manager Chris Ellis describes the service. “We provide the first point of contact for any technology issue encountered by any member of Sequence staff.
"In the vast majority of cases we can resolve them with first line support, especially if they are minor technical issues, and often we can resolve these remotely. We also manage the third party calls, whether it concerns the data centre, WAN or applications, until the issue is resolved.”
Chris is also keen to point out that the helpdesk is a very proactive service. “Our role is far greater than just reacting to calls from users. We continually monitor the servers, measure utilisation of processors, memory and storage, and help resolve potential issues before they become a problem.
"Using the tool suite in our operations centre, we also provide analysis of server outages, ranging from simple hardware failures to the WAN dropping its link.”
The remainder of Sequence’s branches were refurbished and their infrastructures updated between January and March, with the last branch being signed off in April. Since then the system has delivered on all its promises, and Chandler is happy to report its success.
“What we set out to do was a massive undertaking, and has completely re-written the rule book for estate agency. We started from the view point of embracing change, and looked at how the technologies that were leading edge for the dot coms of two years ago could become mainstream for us today.
"There is absolutely no question that we could not have built this business model without the technology we have deployed. It does not just underpin our organisation, it is integral to every aspect of the way we work.
“Because of that our in-branch infrastructure has to be very reliable. We chose Computacenter to deliver this piece of the jigsaw because we had confidence in its ability to work with us to make the right choices, to build an industrial-strength solution and make sure it keeps us in business day after day.
"It has fulfilled that promise and I am confident it will continue to do so as our relationship grows over the coming years.”
This article was part of Computer Weekly's managed services business channel, sponsored by Computacenter.