With over 1,000 branches across the UK, Co-op Funeralcare is the largest provider of funeral services in the United Kingdom – “providing professional, caring support, information and advice to families in their time of need”.
As such, Funeralcare staff organise over 97,000 funerals around the country each year.
The Funeralcare business has a relentless focus on customer service – customers who for obvious reasons need a lot of support. It identified an opportunity to free up its funeral directors to spend more time with clients by introducing a seamless, end-to-end digital service to support the running of the business.
Equal Experts was brought in to facilitate this digital transformation of the Funeralcare business, and has helped the organisation to design and build the digital service now being rolled out around the UK.
With Funeralcare being the market leader, this work has the potential to transform the entire industry – and was chosen as the winner of the Best Large Enterprise Digital Project in the 2017 Computing Digital Technology Leaders Awards.
How we helped
Equal Experts consultants worked closely with Co-op’s own digital staff to design and build a service to meet the needs of Funeralcare colleagues, who are responsible for the day-to-day operation of running funerals.
Prior to this service, the process of arranging funerals was heavily dependent on paperwork and manual administration. For each funeral, staff needed to fill in over 20 paper forms (enough to justify a new lever-arch file) and deal with a range of bespoke software. What’s more, different regions and branches had developed their own (manual) ways of doing things over time.
To go from this to a single, completely joined up digital service was a significant challenge, and we worked closely with staff from multiple offices to ensure we designed the service to meet their needs. An early part of our work was to set out our aims:
“A simple, thoughtful funeral arrangement service that lets our staff spend more time face to face with clients, and less time filling in paper forms.”
The service facilitates this by managing a host of activities – including handling calls relating to a death, arranging the funeral service, booking a hearse, allocating staff and tracking the deceased throughout their care.
Designing a new, digital funeral arrangement service
Throughout this work we’ve followed a user-centred approach, thoroughly researching the existing ways of working to understand the processes, pain points and underlying goals.
By distilling this into a set of user needs for the staff running funerals, our team was able to sketch out the beginnings of the digital service – a ‘thin slice’ of end-to-end functionality. This alpha service was tested by some 40 Co-op staff, and allowed them to track the details of the first customer calls, view a mortuary dashboard to track the deceased, arrange funerals via a shared calendar, and manage inventory and logistics.
This was a significant step forward. The alpha service was used to run around 150 scenarios, providing the confidence that we were moving in the right direction.
Rather than iterate on a design to make it perfect before starting to code, this ‘thin slice of functionality’ approach ensured we captured feedback from users on the real system, as it was developed over time. As a result, we gained invaluable feedback from trial users that provided real, concrete feedback on the design of the service.
Moving into beta, we looked to build upon the initial service. This time, the focus was on the processes surrounding the first call, tracking the deceased, taking the client’s wishes for the funeral itself, and sharing diary information.
All this takes place within a particularly user-friendly and intuitive interface – we cannot assume a high level of computer literacy for every user, nor did we want to create a service that required weeks of training to operate.
New ways of working
Another major goal of the project was to work with the Co-op Digital team to demonstrate and introduce new ways of working to the Funeralcare business. Crucially, we were able to demonstrate how to combine user-centred design with agile and iterative delivery – ensuring that we only built the functionality that was genuinely required.
Our agile software development methods morphed and adapted over time, as the delivery progressed. The project started with rapid one-week sprints, demonstrating our progress to key stakeholders early on. These sprints were instrumental in getting buy-in from senior stakeholders to this way of working, since they could see the software evolving in front of them each and every week.
After two months, the team moved to two-week sprints, easing the pressure to deliver a polished demonstration every week. As many senior stakeholders would attend our end of sprint demonstrations, moving to two-week sprints meant there was more time to prepare a holistic story for the new features added in the previous sprint.
Following a successful demonstration of the alpha version of the system, the team then moved to a Kanban style approach, with fortnightly demonstrations of progress. This allows high priority feedback to be received from the live trial funeral homes, that we could prioritise and implement with minimal ceremony – and faster turnaround.
Cutting-edge tech for an ancient ceremony
While funerals have taken place since time immemorial, Funeralcare’s new digital service is built on a very modern technology stack.
We implemented complete end-to-end deployments of not just environments, but entire environment stacks – dev, test, pre-production and production – all from a single button press.
Tear-down and rebuild of our environments is automated and happens each night, so that new improvements and features are continuously added. And by working closely with our client’s own IT team and existing infrastructure, we ensured the Co-op can take full ownership of the new service once ready.
“Equal Experts consultants were professional, highly experienced, and a great “cultural fit” within the organisation. Together we’ve designed and built a service that has the opportunity to radically transform a very traditional business.”
– Andy Pipes, Head of Product Management for Co-op Digital
The initial alpha service was well received during the summer of 2016, with the Beta going live to a set of funeral homes in early December 2016. The service is being gradually rolled out across all Funeralcare funeral homes across the UK in 2017, and is already helping staff to manage their workloads more effectively. So much so, it’s set to help the business make over £3m in annual savings thanks to operational efficiencies – and free up valuable time to serve customers at their time of need.