by Mark Chillingworth

William Hill CTO Finbarr Joy’s priority bet on Shoreditch R&D hub

Jan 21, 2016
IT Strategy

“It’s about an immediate customer experience, getting that winning experience straight away,” says Finbarr Joy, CTO of William Hill, the betting and gaming business. Joy and I meet at the latest outpost for William Hill, not a high street betting shop, a research and development centre in trendy Shoreditch in London. Joy set up part of his technology operation here as the CTO and William Hill became increasingly aware that the information they were generating about their customers was in fact turning them into a technology led business.

Sat on, as you’d expect, a brightly coloured sofa in a warehouse style office in Shoreditch, Joy tells me how William Hill has a history of embracing technology, challenging its own business and using technology to innovate its customer service. He believes this has helped William Hill remain a leading brand in the ever congested gaming and betting market.

Many incumbent high street betting organisations heavily outsourced their technology in response the digital disruption that has been dicing with the betting industry since the internet became mainstream.

“William Hill’s response was to identify that we must own the customer experience. To own the customer experience, you need direct control over the technology that delivers the experience to them,” Joy says. It’s a story echoed along the high street, with retailers that opted to outsource their online business to the likes of Amazon losing the opportunity to own the customer experience. Those retailers, to this day, are struggling to gain back the customers lost.

“The old view was to own the front end and outsource the back end, but you cannot satisfy increasingly sophisticated digital customer needs that way, you need significant chunks in your own hands,” Joy says. He’s not zealously against outsourcing and in fact has a portion of outsourcing at William Hill. “We have ended up with a mix, with the balance towards ownership where it affects our customer experience and can sustain market differentiation. Some of the “routine” online games are white label products from specialist creators and operators of such games.

“The great thing about this industry and this approach is that quickly get to the revenue realisation,” he says of having a rapid product development team in Shoreditch. “There are parts of our business where the more revenue you realise, the more revenue you realise!”

One recent example was the creation of the Priority Access Card, a partnership between William Hill and payments organisation Mastercard, which was launched just a month before our Autumn interview. Priority Access Card gives customer instant access to their online winnings, which may sound simple, but had to meet strict governance and functionality requirements to satisfy customers, regulators, partners and William Hill.

“There is a high talent pool,” Joy says of why he set up shop in Shoreditch. “You can’t move these people to our facilities, it is easier to come to them.” William Hill has operational centres in Leeds, Gibraltar, Tel Aviv, Sydney, Las Vegas and the Philippines.

William Hill has been a staple betting shop on the high streets of the UK for 80 years and is the number one business in terms of scale, with 25% of the UK market, as well considerable overseas operations as far and wide as Australia; a nation where gambling and betting is almost core to daily life.

“There’s a level of loyalty to William Hill as the organisation is about trust, but it is a fickle market and it does come down to keenest price,” Joy says of the market competition. “Convenience is one of the most significant aspects,” he says of how to compete in a “fickle” market and how a business need drove the creation of the Priority Access Card.

“There’s a lot of security and legislation in our business. If a player wins there is an amount of time to make the payment, normally. But, by building real-time customer intelligence and verification inth the systems we can automate the process you can give them their winnings and then that incrases loyalty. It has made a major difference to the customer experience,” Joy says of the power of the information William Hill is managing and using to dual benefit to lower the odds of customer churn.

“It’s about creating a branded, enjoyable and memorable experience that users love and trust and that drives everything that we do here,” Joy says of his technology team. In developing the Priority Access Card Joy and his team worked very closely with the Director of Innovation and Customer Experience Jamie Hart. “It was a very healthy dynamic and I personally enjoyed it,” Joy says. “What can we do for the customer and is what we are doing making it harder or easier for them?” Joy says these are the daily questions the technologists he leads ask.

Despite the close collaboration and desire to develop the Priority Access Card between technology and the Customer Experience teams, Joy says there were parts of the organisations that “made sharp intakes of breath” at the proposal, but together the teams have won the organisation over. Innovation is critical just a day before these words were penned, fellow high street betting chains Coral and Ladbrokes were cleared by shareholders for Ladbrokes to acquire Coral, a major consolidation of the betting industry.

“We work at a scale and breadth of channels to distinguish ourselves and our product. That means we have the best of retail and online,” Joy says. By online the CTO, like many of his peers in a multitude of sectors, is focusing on the mobile web.

“Our sector jumped quick to become web enabled, but when mobile happened it wasn’t first in class, compared to the rest of the web, the immediate response to mobile was not good and was surprisingly clunky.

“So creating this facility was to be ahead of the curve so we have the capacity to react to the next wave of technology change,” Joy says. Interesting, the CTO explains that the bulk of William Hill revenues are still generated on the high street, but the growth is definitely via mobile channels. “We are finding there is a healthy overlap between online and the physical,” Joy says.

The Shoreditch facility not only allows William Hill to be ready to react to technology led change, it has also enabled CTO Joy to reconfigure the way technology operates at William Hill.

Joy and William Hill engaged Fluxx, a thinking consultancy to help with the development of the Priority Access Card. Fluxx has a heritage of enabling organisations to unlock ideas secured in team member’s minds, or for helping organisations unpack themselves and see how they could enhance their services. CIOs at the Royal Opera House, LV=, JLT and RSA Insurance have created new customer focused services through collaborations with London-based Fluxx.

“There’s no such thing as an IT project, especially with the speed and digitisation of the gaming sector.

“In an 80-year-old corporation there is complication, products, legal processes and you have to get the organisation to like new ideas, that cannot take two years. For me, creating the Priority Access Card wasn’t about alignment, it was about a convergence of business needs,” he says of how the new loyalty scheme has broken down long held barriers and silos across the business. As the head of technology at William Hill Joy has eradicated the IT team and instead has product teams that include technologists that report to him. “You cannot spot the techies around the business. But it means a hell of a lot of floor walking. There’s no two ways about it, co-location is very powerful. We are tending to find that we have centres of excellence so co-location has been very beneficial. It is not about IT alignment, it’s about technology team convergence, so you end up with a digital business. It is about a blending of boundaries. What we are seeing with gaming is that is so fast paced its smashing the boundaries and we are seeing a natural convergence as now there are so many instances of digital conversations.”