The progressive application of technology has allowed property valuations company Quotable Value (QV) to shrug off its roots as a loss-making government department and re-launch itself as a profitable online business, according to CIO Bryce Johnson, who spoke at the IBM Forum event in Auckland last week.
The company is now selling more than 560,000 data products a year, with customers ordering and paying online for valuation reports and other property information in a purely electronic operation.
Johnson says QV has come a long way since 1998, when the organisation formerly known as the Valuation Department was privatised. At that time QV’s processes and its technology were outdated, with “green screens, no email and very few PCs.”
When email was introduced at QV in August of that year, Johnson says, it was “a big shock for a lot of our people.”
“One manager asked how often he should check his email inbox — would once a week be enough?” says Johnson. “The look on his face was worth a lot, when he was told once an hour would be about right.”
After restructuring at the end of 1998, which reduced the number of employees from 320 to 250, QV began to update its business processes, and began to use technology to launch new revenue streams.
The company launched a Windows-based website in October 1999 and by February in the following year it was ready to accept online credit card payments. This paved the way for the launch of what turned out to be one of QV’s most successful online products, e-Valuer, which provides an instant estimate of the market value of a property based on data from sales of comparable properties in the same area. Johnson says QV is currently selling 60,000 e-Valuer reports per year, and they now are being accepted by several banks including Westpac and HSBC for mortgage approval purposes.
QV has progressively refined its services by incorporating new databases, such as property title information and Census data, and by fine tuning its technology.
For example e-Valuer and other QV products now include maps, but Johnson says it took a long time to find software that could produce maps fast enough. QV now uses a product called Map Xtreme which draws on geographical information stored on a IBM X346 dedicated mapping server.
QV uses another IBM X346 as a web server, while its SQL databases are hosted on an IBM X366. Johnson says that choosing the right software has been the key to achieving systems reliability. For example load balancing software provided by F5 has allowed QV’s servers to cope with the large spikes in traffic caused by promotions, when up to 10,000 free reports have been downloaded in one day.
“If the software is humming the hardware looks after itself. We are now getting availability rate of 99.1%, that’s 24/7, 365 days a year.”
QV has also paid a lot of attention over the years to improving the ‘look and feel’ of its web offering. For example Johnson says QV’s first website was soon replaced because it had been designed by technical people. “That meant it was great for techos, but from the user point of view it was a disaster,” he says.
In August 2006, QV introduced “delayed login”, after the company noticed that too many users were leaving the website when they were being asked to log in “up front”.
“We noticed that our conversion rate, from the people visiting the site to people actually buying something was only 7%,” Johnson says. The mandatory login was obviously a “friction point” which had to be re-engineered.
“Now when you arrive at our site you see a list of the reports available and you can drill down to get more information on any one — you only have to register when you click on a report to buy it. That changed our conversion rate from 7% to 20%.”