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CIO interview: Spencer Clarkson, CTO, Verastar

Digital transformation and unifying customer relationship management systems are driving the business services group forward

Spencer Clarkson was recently appointed as Verastar Group’s first chief technology officer (CTO). He brings wide experience from a 30-year career, during which he has successfully overseen transformative IT projects in blue-chip organisations across the UK and Europe.

“It’s a role that I’ve fulfilled on many occasions before,” he says. “So, from that perspective, it’s sort of business as usual for me. But it’s also about working for a very exciting organisation in terms of where it is on its journey.”

Verastar is a growing company that provides eight essential services, from telecoms through to utilities and on to finance, across a range of areas to small businesses in the UK. The company has a broad portfolio of brands, including Inspire Payments, The Insurance Octopus, Clear Business and Kinex, which provide services to more than 160,000 small firms.

As Verastar continues to add more clients, Clarkson is working to ensure digitisation becomes a crucial element of the company’s engagement processes. Rather than relying on phone conversations, he wants Verastar’s customers to be able to contact the company through their digital channel of choice. Clarkson’s team will then use insight from these interactions to hone the service experience.

“If you’re running a business and you’re very busy and you’re on the go, you really don’t want to have to spend time on the phone, because that’s consuming your time,” he says. “So, the ability for them to pull and push information through that digital channel is where I’d like to see us continue to go.”

Supporting business growth

While Verastar has operated in some areas, such as telecommunications, for almost 20 years, it has added more – including utilities, insurance and finance – as it has grown. Clarkson says the company’s continued success is based on its knowledge of the small business sector and the requirements of the firms it serves.

“Verastar is growing substantially,” he says. “The small business sector is the powerhouse beneath the UK economy. We want to organically grow the customer base, to complete mergers and acquisitions, and to cross-sell our products into our growing customer base.

“We are unique in the market because we provide a portfolio of products aimed at supporting small businesses. With access to our services, these companies don't have to worry about the things they need to give them a platform for growth.”

Technology will play a crucial role in supporting Verastar’s growth ambitions. Clarkson says the company benefits from strong internal IT capability, and these specialists have built a range of applications over the past few years.

From a personal standpoint, Clarkson says his long experience in leading cloud-based computing initiatives at other organisations, allied to a range of techniques associated to agile software development, will help the IT team to make the step forward that the company requires.

“I saw this role as a great opportunity to help the technology team,” he says. “My style is to lead from the front, to be innovative and to look at creative opportunities, rather than a serving role, which the IT leadership position might have been seen as in the past.”

“We are unique in the market because we provide a portfolio of products aimed at supporting small businesses”

Spencer Clarkson, Verastar

Clarkson reports to Verastar chief executive Lee Hull. As CTO, he is responsible for managing the digital platforms used by the company’s employees and customers.

The role encompasses a range of areas, from content management to customer management and overseeing the firm’s client interactions across a host of online channels. Running Verastar’s technology means managing the full stack of IT. The company pushes some of the provision of technology services to third-party suppliers.

Clarkson says dealing with the full stack involves working across both front-end services – which means monitoring and managing the levels of provision that colleagues and customers experience – and dealing with suppliers and partners as they hook into the company’s back-end infrastructure. He explains how he has made changes to IT provision.

“The technology platform that supports our digital step forward needed to be rapidly accelerated,” he says. “When we looked at digital growth – and that’s a fast-moving market, moving more to an online footprint and a faster-paced business – we wanted to supercharge our customer experience.  

“We have traditionally been sending letters out by post, and those types of things that you had to do – maybe driven by regulation – have changed rapidly. Communicating via a choice of digital channel is now crucial to our customers, whether that’s text message, email or online portals, or having applications on tablets and phones.”

Implementing cloud services

As part of this digitisation of its services, Verastar is delivering a digital transformation project in conjunction with Salesforce, Natterbox and SnapLogic. This technology investment will sponsor the creation of single unified customer relationship management (CRM) system – built on Salesforce and Pardot systems – across all brands in the group.

Clarkson says the Salesforce implementation will help the company to serve its customers through the digital engagement channel of their choice. The single cloud-based platform will allow the company to ensure its customers’ records are not held in unconnected stovepipes, he adds.

After a procurement exercise that included a consideration of both Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics, Clarkson’s team created a business case and presented the potential financial implications to the company’s board last July. After selecting Salesforce, Verastar began a full-scale platform implementation process.

“Bringing together groups of people who are used to getting exactly what they want in a shared house is always a bit of a challenge,” he says, referring to the creation of a cross-business, cloud-based platform.

“Everyone signs up for the shared bathroom and the shared kitchen, but the reality of getting there is sometimes quite challenging.”

The company went live with Pardot first to help run marketing initiatives for both existing customers and new businesses. Customers are being brought onto the platform in stages across service areas such as telecoms, water, energy and insurance. Clarkson says key challenges involve moving data to the new platform and training people across the organisation on how to use the technology.

“We’re taking it fairly steady,” he says. “It’s quite a long programme of work, where we’ve broken it down into various tranches and we’re thinking of the customer first on those journeys. We want to give our customers flexibility in terms of digital engagement. Salesforce provides a way to enable us to do that.”

Untangling the spaghetti

Clarkson says his team continues to investigate how it can improve all client engagement processes. “We are reviewing all of our letters, all of our interactions with customers and making sure that we’re getting our approach right,” he says.

Honing those processes isn’t just about making more use of the cloud. Clarkson says improving engagement often means dipping back into older forms of technology to ensure the company can improve existing processes and build a modern digital platform.

“There’s quite a lot of spaghetti when you’ve got old tech that you have to unwind,” he says. “So we’re looking at that whole platform and seeing what we can retire to make sure that we only have an enhanced customer journey. We want to make it easy for them to communicate with us.”

Read more business services CIO interviews

Clarkson says his team is also dealing with a range of internal systems related to key business functions, such as human resources, workflow management and debt management. The aim is to bring together and integrate separate packages as part of the company’s digital platform.

In other areas, such as billing, Verastar has developed a competitive advantage through in-house IT development. Clarkson’s team will be looking at ways to maintain that advantage going forward.

“Our billing platform is a piece of our intellectual property that we’re keeping,” he says. “One of our distinct unique selling points for our customers is that they can see all their services on one bill. Our customers don’t have to go through 10 different bits of paper to work out how much their monthly spend is.

“We pull it all together on the front page of the bill and then we provide breakdown pages of each of the services they’ve bought. You can see the details, but you can see the macro view as well. So, we’re investing in that platform. We’ll be implementing Salesforce into that platform to help move our approach to billing forward.”

Serving customers in new ways

Clarkson says his priority is to use the tools and development resources at his disposal to create a new, improved approach to digital delivery.

He wants Verastar to integrate the data it collects across bespoke platforms and cloud services to give small businesses a 360-degree view of the services they use.

“Whatever they’re striving to do, they should be able to see it all in one place,” he says. “They should be able to see their full history.

“Every customer should be on the platform and have the ability – through either a responsive application in their pocket, or on their laptop or tablet – to see where they are with Verastar and what services we provide. Also, they should have a clearer view of the additional services that we could provide to save them money, time or to help them reduce their energy footprint.”

Clarkson says he is in constant communication with business stakeholders to ensure the technology systems his team are delivering are aligned with their long-term objectives. When it comes to delivery, he believes it is much less important how his teams reach the destination than making sure they produce the right outcomes.

“I want our customers to feel that we’re easy to deal with,” he says. “We want them to feel that it’s very clear how things are progressing, whether they are ordering a new product or renewing an existing agreement – it’s one click, and they’re done. That’s what I want to see us providing over the next 24 months.”

Read more on Customer relationship management (CRM)

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