With an increased need for companies to provide services which are not only personable, but able to incorporate a multitude of functions to accommodate a variety of client needs, emerges an array of challenges.
FirstPort’s CIO Gary Thomas has been behind the company’s successful streamlining and transformation of IT services, developing key infrastructure to provide greater client engagement. With three portfolios: retirement, property services and bespoke services, FirstPort is the UK’s largest residential property manager, delivering services for 180,000 residents within Great Britain. With over 30 years’ experience, the company delivers a diverse range of services in order to provide key support, with the vision to be the leading residential property services, creating communities where residents thrive and flourish.
Former roles with Affinity Water (previously known as Veolia) and Oracle emboldened Thomas’ passion for leading IT teams and delivering essential IT integration projects within the UK and the US. Completing an MBA at Cranfield University in 2014 has fully strengthened his resolve, alongside an ever increased focus on customer service, with the use of technology to improve customers’ lives.
Thomas acknowledges that FirstPort has gone through periods of significant change in the last couple of years, such as “refreshing their infrastructure, including the replacement of two data centres to create a private cloud, with a focus to ensure colleagues in the organisation have the tools to deliver great customer service.” For modern consumers, the use of technology in daily life is normal, but Thomas reflects that “sometimes it is not age related; generally, it is about people’s willingness to adapt and use technology, and as you can imagine some people are quite fearful of that change.”
Adopting key standards
Whilst FirstPort incorporates these three diverse areas, the company ensures all properties are maintained by adopting a four pillar model – strong health and safety, high site standards, great customer service and healthy estate finances. Technology is key to ensure all properties under FirstPort’s umbrella are compliant alongside continual changes in legislation. Thomas explains this is important not only from a compliance perspective, but also to assure customers that where they are living in a welcoming place.
Property Managers at FirstPort ensure the upkeep of outside communal areas to the various sites, creating positive environments, with any potential maintenance undertaken by the company when required. Throughout these assessments, potential feedback is gained alongside surveys and interviews. Thomas stresses that for the company to continuously improve, it is imperative to understand whether customers would recommend them to friends and family - if not, to focus on areas which need the most attention. To ensure all services paid by residents deliver value, alongside the management of customer finances, FirstPort negotiates frameworks surrounding key service contracts, in turn producing statutory and client accounts to ensure they are maintained.
Technology has been utilised to support both colleagues and customers to drive FirstPort’s goals to provide a quality service and improve the lives of customers. “The biggest challenge is for technology to be an enabler for our people and for our customers and for that technology to make things as easy as possible and to deliver a service consistently”, Thomas adds. The company has invested in 1,500 Windows 10 tablets and incorporated the use of Microsoft Yammer to enable colleagues to deliver essential services and break down any potential barriers. “Whether it’s inspecting a property, doing health and safety inspections, raising an order and relating to work on one of the sites of one of our developments, it’s about effectively making lives easier and streamlining business process”, Thomas explains.
Through a device valuation, the company has now also adopted Lenovo Miix 700 tablets which will provide access to services such as email, collaboration and procurement, but also complement the other parts of FirstPort’s technology strategy. For example, as Thomas describes: “The move to Microsoft Office 365 will provide basic tools around email and collaboration, while the roll out of SharePoint will provide a much better platform for collaboration and information management.”
We have implemented HPE Proliant Bladesystem servers with HPE 3PAR StoreServ storage at both of our data centres.
Providing digital support
To support and encourage customers to utilise technology, FirstPort has become the first UK customer of Barclays Digital Eagles Initiative. The programme is aimed at strengthening the digital awareness of stakeholder champions, seconded from within FirstPort in order to provide essential training and support to colleagues and residents in areas such as internet banking and online transactions. Thomas adds: “It’s easy to forget that you could have a 60-year-old lady that lives on site at a retirement property – how does she relate to FirstPort as an employer because her world is within that building, and that is why the Digital Eagles and new technology is important.”
FirstPort’s Digital Eagles have visited developments and reached out to residents by providing vital support and guidance, in turn increasing client engagement. FirstPort is also set to develop ‘code playgrounds’ (a concept first introduced by Barclays) which are interactive workshops designed to teach the new generation vital coding skills to help bridge the digital skills gap.
Since the program was launched, customers have connected with relatives who live abroad through the use of Skype and been set up on email. Thomas explains: “Of the thousands of residents who are retired that we deliver customer service to, some of them are very savvy but others aren’t. For those, actually sitting down with them and helping demystify a lot of this stuff is helpful.”
Thomas acknowledges that although the industry is regularly overlooked, when things go wrong consequences are high. “We don’t always get it right, but that’s important because that takes us through a journey, reflecting on what we’re not doing as well as we could do, what we are doing well and that’s driving continuous service improvement,” he adds.
FirstPort’s motto “more than just bricks and mortar” is clear to see through Thomas’ passion to deliver a robust service which puts the customer first. Although the company has had to overcome challenges, this has been possible because it has a strong, highly engaged workforce with a ‘can do’ approach and continual desire to improve the lives of its residents. By utilising technology for colleagues to provide an efficient service and increase customer engagement, FirstPort is putting clients at the forefront of all decision making in order to create positive environments.