Home Solutions has been set up as a separate business unit from the £11 billion retail giant John Lewis, with the intention of providing trusted tradespeople for customers that need work done around the home.
Richard Ambler, head of business development at John Lewis Partnership Ventures, who first pitched the idea to John Lewis, told Computerworld UK: “Customers increasingly want access to reliable people to do stuff in the home and customers say they trust us, so we asked how far can that trust extend?”
By leveraging modern cloud technologies like Twilio for communications and Stripe for paying tradespeople with flexible infrastructure from Google Cloud, Home Solutions has been built by a team of just ten front and backend developers, and is currently underpinned by a team of three customer service staff.
In just a year this team built the Home Solutions website, customer and trade facing mobile apps for iOS and Android, and a bespoke backend admin system. Home Solutions came out of beta in May and is currently live in Cardiff, Newport, Bristol, Bath, Taunton and Gloucester for services like painting and decorating, plumbing, TV installation and plastering.
A key part to this new business is getting the communication between independent tradespeople and customers right, while making sure that these interactions are brand appropriate for John Lewis.
All of the communication capabilities in the apps are built on the Twilio platform, which gives Home Solutions the flexibility to contact customers via the relevant channel at the relevant time.
As Ambler explained during Twilio’s Signal event in London this week: “For notifying a customer that your tradesperson is turning up, SMS is obviously fine. Then for discussing the details of the quote you were given you will want a human interaction, so it is about the flexibility at different stages of the journey.”
Then there is the risk of disintermediation, disputes and security when you connect independent contractors to customers. Fortunately, Twilio has been working on facilitating secure communication between mobile workers, like tradespeople, with customers using its new Proxy tool.
Proxy sits between parties in a session to manage phone numbers and “once that is in the middle you can do content filtering and redact credit card numbers or profanity”, Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson explained. “Making sure that communication is secure and owned by the company is a whole new set of challenges.”
Protecting the brand
Home Solutions takes a rigorous approach to finding and vetting the sort of tradespeople it is happy to let represent the John Lewis brand.
“Approving tradesmen is the most important part of the proposition, because of the brand,” Ambler explained. “So we run a really in depth, six stage process.”
This starts by “fishing in the right pond”, as Ambler puts it, by contacting select trade associations. “Then we also do tactical stuff like having people sit in trade suppliers car parks and identify people that look like they take care of their business, so do they have tidy and clean vans, are they well branded?” Ambler added.
“It sounds a small thing but it is as much about how they care for their business as it is around their technical skills. We then do phone and face to face interviews so that we are happy that this is the sort of person we can see in our customers’ homes.”
Finally the business will run the checks on right to work, criminal record and public liability checks before allowing them to join the Home Solutions network.
Ambler is also leveraging modern technology to make Home Solutions an attractive proposition for the tradespeople. “We have also thought carefully about why the best tradespeople want to come and work for us,” he said. “So we have done stuff like paying them automatically four days after the work completes, through Stripe Connect.”
“Our view is that really good tradespeople want to be doing their trade. So we are bringing customers to them and then we take care of the admin they don’t like doing, and make sure they get paid quickly.”
Testbed for the business
All of this plays into the wider strategic role of John Lewis Ventures as a testbed for modern technologies that may be adopted by the core retail business in the future.
Take the decision to use Google Cloud infrastructure for Home Solutions for example, which is ”part of our thinking around how we are going to move our infrastructure more widely in the business in the future", Ambler said.
“That has been part of our mandate and what we are not going to do is just things for the core business, it has to be in service of a new proposition.
So with something like Twilio, for example, Ambler is looking at "what are the use cases which we can take to the business and help with that digital transformation?"
Ambler admits there have been envious glances from other parts of the business already, saying: “The thing they are most envious off is the speed and flexibility to make changes.”
“They would feel like even a relatively simple change around when we send text messages out that will feel like they have to spin up a small project. Now I don’t want to get that out of shape, it may be a few weeks, but it is still a few weeks to change the frequency of delivery of a text message.”
In short: "I don’t want to give the idea that the unit I am part of is solely tasked with transforming the core business, which is a super tanker we have to turn around, but it is one of our areas of experimentation that allows us to try these things and make sure we are connected back in to the main business, so that if we find something interesting, how can it solve problems that we have back at the main business?"
“What we are building can be a business in its own right, we are convinced of that, but we want to get more than that.”