Where next for internal IT systems?

In many years as a designer and specifier, and more latterly as a developer and provider of IT systems one thing has proven time and again to be a winning IT formula: using internal IT systems to make dealing with your organisation as easy as possible. This sounds simple and probably even obvious, but there is a little more to it.

Making properties available online undoubtedly helps to market them and I am sure every agent in the land has some form of website. This is (now) very obvious, but it is not too long ago that some businesses decided that they did not and could never see a need for a website.

Most businesses have moved beyond this and we can all see that providing, for example, property information out of hours to potential buyers to browse in the comfort of their own homes has enormous benefits and it is what consumers have come to expect. There are many examples of these direct sales and marketing oriented developments and they are the easy things to identify and focus on quickly, but this is only part of the equation.

The other things which businesses can provide require a little more thought. The question we normally start with is: What information or skills does your business provide that customers and potential customers need to ask you about? For product related businesses, product information like technical calculations are very powerful and a great example of how companies can provide online information which helps customers and increases their likelihood of purchasing. Beating the competition to providing these services can significantly change a business’ fortunes and market share.

Businesses which generate their income by providing services, by their nature, will not want to provide those services freely online. But there is information that all businesses have that can be provided from internal records, including accounting, management and administrative data, which will make your customers and potentially their customers’ lives easier.

By making your business the easiest to deal with, customer loyalty is increased, you have a service differentiation from the competition and you may for a period be able to reflect this in higher margins – until the competition catch up!

Having the information is generally not the problem. The key issues are deciding what you might provide and how you can get that data out of your systems to customers without them needing to log in to say your accounts, marketing or property management systems.

If it is not appropriate to give a customer direct access to an internal system, then structured data needs to be generated from those systems which can then be accessed by a web portal. Without getting too technical, if the data is extracted as a CSV, XML or JSON data file these can be read by other systems, but because it is a separate data file it can be saved in a completely separate location. So, no direct access is being given to users to your critical internal systems.

Once that structured data is available it can be accessed by either an internally managed or external webserver with its own security systems and then be provided directly to customers online. Not just in office hours, but at any time.

So, what do your customers call you about? What can you make readily available to them online from your back office systems? It is good to talk to customers, but it is bad to be talking to customers who are forced to contact you to get something they might more quickly access online? How many times have you been kept waiting to get some information from a company, or their switchboard has closed, or they forgot to call you back? How convenient would online access have been to you? You may well have equally frustrated customers.

Of course not every customer wants to get information themselves online. But for those that do, and for those that try it and find it is more convenient, then your business wins. For those that continue to call you, your business will have more time to service their needs fully. In my experience, done properly, this is a win, win, win scenario. When your competitors don’t offer the same, customers would need a very big reason to ever want to change.

So, who are your customers (buyers, sellers, landlords, tenants, commercial property owners) and what do they need from your organisation to make their lives easier, and how can you provide it in the most cost effective and easily accessible way?

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