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Property software focus - Part 2

publication date: May 1, 2010
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softwareWhen you’re buying software it’s easy to focus on the upfront cost, and the functionality of the software as it is now. But in the long term, vendor support will make a huge difference. It will affect how well the software is used, how well staff are trained to use it, and whether the software stays up to date – indeed, in some cases, whether it carries on working at all.

Phil Barton of Property Intellect says, “On the whole people are wildly optimistic – they think they’re just going to buy the software and that’s it.” He warns agents that when they are choosing a software, they need to consider issues of support and development, as well as the more obvious factors of functionality and price.

Installation and infrastructure

Support starts with the installation process. Some software simply arrives on a DVD and can be installed in 45 minutes, but to capture the benefits of full integration a longer process is required. For instance, CARL software takes four hours to install for a single user; a four to five user branch can be installed in a day, including the configuration of the system to suit that particular client’s specific needs.

The more software is integrated with other systems, the longer it takes. Aspasia reckons on a three day install, with a set up cost of about £1,000, while Tim Summerley at Vebra says, “We’ve gone from order to install in two or three weeks, that’s our quickest. We have a fairly standard routine; four to five weeks is more normal.”

Nigel Parsons of Landmark Systems says “As part of our sales consultancy process we include our estimate as to how long it will take to get a new site ‘up and running’, this establishes expectations on both sides. It is very difficult though, to estimate the overall implementation time. It’s a bit like querying how long it takes a child to learn to ride a bike. Also work pressures on an individual are unknown to us. We have had instances where the boss has said that “Mavis has plenty of spare time”, but then we find that Mavis’s 38 hours per week are already full with other tasks!

Agents also need to consider the hardware costs that are involved in implementing the software. In the bad old days, a new system might incur substantial costs for new servers and high specification desktops. Now, it’s not such a big issue.

VTUK’s Gemini, Aquarius and Pisces packages can run on any network. Only Taurus, their business process automation package, needs a second server. “Taurus is polling the database continually, so it’s going to slow the network down unless you have a different server.” says Peter Grant.

Stewart Anderson, CEO AspasiaCloud computing – where the software is hosted on the software vendor’s own system, and agents access it via the web – has even lower requirements (more on this next month). Stewart Anderson of Aspasia says, “The hardware requirements for many client/server systems are relatively small, but people are still doing email on Exchange Server and running Microsoft Office, so they need a server. But the advantage of cloud computing is that everything is done in the cloud, so other than a printer you don’t need anything in the office.” Negotiators can access the system through desktops, laptops, PDAs, or even mobile phones. “All you need is a mobile phone with a Vodafone account.”
He says that by contrast, Vebra and Reapit do much of the processing on the local server, so a more powerful server is required. “They need servers and networking, so there’s a higher infrastructure cost.”

The trend towards virtual agents and home-based agencies is certainly making web based and cloud applications more popular. One Aspasia client, Davis Tate, is using virtual agents to fill the areas between their branch offices.

Wilf Lewis, of DezRez, responds that, “Even with a cloud model, each agent in the branch is going to need a PC, you’ll always have that cost – but PCs are becoming cheaper and more powerful.”

INTEGRATION – THE CHALLENGE

Hardware is now much easier to manage. However, integration with other software can be trickier. Generally speaking, the more integration with other software is needed, the more assistance with installation will be needed. Future maintenance needs are also likely to be higher, as adjustment may be needed every time the other package has an upgrade.

Phil Barton fingers the usual suspects. “Eighty per cent of the maintenance and support issues we have are connected with anti-virus or antispyware programmes,” he says. But accounting systems can also create tricky integration issues.”

Phil Barton, Property IntellectAnother area where a good implementation and support team can make a huge difference is data migration. Where an agent is switching systems, and has a huge amount of information on a database that needs porting to the new system, data migration can be a huge headache.

VTUK, with 4,500 installations to date, has seen it all before. “We bring people across from other software on a regular basis,” Peter Grant says, “so we have data transfer models that we can use.” Changing a system can be a good opportunity to cleanse the data, too.

Most of the major vendors now have generic data importing systems. Mark Howlett at Propco admits that five years ago, data migration was a significant barrier to change. But, he says, “We’ve eroded the barrier as much as we possibly can, to make it as painless as possible.” It still won’t get 100 per cent of data, and it will take a couple of passes to get the job done properly, but “it’s a lot less painful than keying the data in.”

TRAINING – THE BIG ISSUE

Training is a vital part of the support package – particularly when introducing a new system. Philip Evans, of Pex Software, believes that correctly delivered training addresses one of the big issues with changing software – getting staff ‘on side’. “Any change is tough, but the difficulty is not really technical,” he says. Staff are reluctant to change, there’s disruption, management time is taken up; this is what causes the reluctance to change.”

Training“Being able to get up and running with a minimum impact on day-to-day work is massively important and we tackle this in a number of ways,” says Martin Smith at PropertyADD. “Our staff handle the configuration of the software, tailoring it to each customer’s business and reducing their effort. Then we import their historical data from their old system to prevent any re-keying burden”.

The traditional way of delivering training was through a residential training course, structured to deliver an overview of the package; however, the old style training course looks as if it may be headed for the scrapyard, with many software vendors preferring different approaches.

Phil Barton says his firm prefers to deliver “remote control training on a oneto- one basis” – a focused session with each member of staff on the phone, using real data in the live system. That enables the trainer to focus on whichever aspects of the system that individual needs to use. “We have such a wide variation of clients that a structured course is not appropriate,” Barton says, and notes that none of his clients has ever asked him for a traditional residential course.

Martin Smith says its all down to the system’s structure, “PropertyADD is a very friendly system and delivers a high level of logic, consistency and ease-of-use in its user interface and workflow design, so people pick it up very quickly.”

ONGOING SUPPORT STARS

supportThat’s where some vendors intend to become stars. For instance CARL’s support team will be visiting every client site this year, on a mission to look at what functionalities clients are using, what they could be using given the right support, and where clients are hoping to take their businesses. Mark Quigley of CARL says the focus is on getting clients to use more of the functionality of the system – many barely scratch the surface of what it can do – and looking at how the software can best support its clients over the long term.

Glyn Trott of LetMC says it’s important that his firm doesn’t just provide technology support, but supports the business too. “A client might phone us saying we have a RICS audit, we’re out by a thousand quid, can you help us find it?” Because the software is provided through a web service, the support team can join the agent on the system to track down the data. That might not be par for the course in the software sector at large, but it does seem to be an increasingly common trend in property software.

DezRez, too, provides what it calls ‘active support’. Wilf Lewis explains that because DezRez is able to see what users are doing on the system, it can tell when parts of the software are being underused. “If we see a branch that’s not using all the functionality, we contact them and suggest how they could use it more effectively,” he says.

UPDATES AND UPGRADES

Technology moves quickly – a five year old web page, for instance, can look very dated. Software needs to be kept up to date, and to stay current, a vendor needs to have an active development process. Agents need to find out what’s in the development pipeline before they buy software – and whether upgrades are free with the support contract, or have to paid for separately.

UpdatesAt the most basic level, no software is ever going to be 100 per cent effective as shipped. Phil Barton says, “Bug fixes are ongoing.” But in addition, he says, “you’ve got new functionality going in, and changes to the business for instance from regulation – so we do one change a month.”

VTUK has a two-monthly upgrade cycle. Peter Grant believes the regular upgrades are one reason that VTUK has a 98.7 per cent client retention rate – “We keep our clients up to date.”

Thebu2iness.com goes even further. During 2009 they gradually released over 150 updates, averaging 12 a month. Charlie Wright is unapologetic, “By drip-feeding our updates on a weekly basis, the changes feel gradual, rather than an overwhelming chunk of changes in one go.”

Unusually, they only release updates that clients actually ask for, and they are released in order of how good an idea they are.
“This means that rather than the newest idea going to the back of the queue, the best ideas are always at the top of the list.”

Other suppliers have less frequent updates. Vebra issues an update every three to four months. That’s not because Vebra has less development going on – it has a healthy development pipeline, with many upgrades being created to reflect feedback from customers. It’s because, as Tim Summerley says, “You don’t want to be releasing new versions the whole time – people get tired of it.” So clients get one bigger update, rather than two or three smaller ones.

Upgrades used to be delivered on a disk, and it was then an IT manager’s job (or the office junior’s job!) to install the upgrade on the server, and even on every desktop in the branch. While that’s still the case for some of the smaller systems, most vendors are now delivering most of their upgrades over the internet. In some cases, clients won’t even know that the system has been upgraded unless they want to use that particular function.

Glyn Trott, MD LETMCMark Quigley says, “We do updates automatically over the internet – every seven to ten working days we have some new functionality, or improvements.”

It’s always difficult to tell how good a company’s support will be without actually trying it out. But the size of the support staff is probably not a bad indication. For instance VTUK has 15 dedicated staff including 6 technical support staff and three programmers. Vebra, says Tim Summerley, has “23 people on the end of a phone in support, nine or ten permanent installer-trainers, and 10 to 15 developers working on either residential or lettings.”

The only question some agents ask about maintenance is how much it costs. They focus on the software when making their buying decision. But Glyn Trott says there are five things that they should consider – software, hardware, support, training, and data integration. “You have to put equal weight on all five,” he says, “and most companies just focus on the software.” In the long run, though, it’s the support and training that really makes the difference.

Making a decision on software? Click here to see Propertydrum’s chart of key features.