Terra West has a digital problem. If you don’t believe me, look at the copyright date on the user account page below.
This insufficient digital service is impeding on Terra West’s ability to provide a user friendly customer experience. Unlike healthcare.gov there doesn’t seem to be much of a foundation that can be used to improve its service. Thus, Terra West needs a different approach on its digital services.
There are three things that need to happen for Terra West to improve its digital services.
- Create a digital services department
- Redesign and simplify the UX and UI
- Cut the Mutual of Omaha Bank out processing
Current User Experience
- Difficult to find the link to login to your account
- If you have multiple properties, a new account (username and email) is needed for every property
- Transferred to a different website for making payments
- Need to create a separate user account to make payments (or fill out the long one-time payment form and pay the $14.95 fee)
The site feels as if Terra West’s management identified the need for a website and digital service, but tasked their marketing department with fulfillment. The entire site feels like I’m navigating through an endless commercial for a service that I’m forced to use. The unfortunate reality is that even though I’ve used this website every month for the past nine years, I still have a hard time getting to what I need.
I reached out to Terra West to see if I could get any more information or clarity on how the site is managed. I did not receive a response to my basic questions regarding who (if anyone) manages Terra West’s website, whether there is a department or person that decides what gets put on the site, and why they use Mutual of Omaha Bank to collect online payments. Unfortunately, this means that I am basing this analysis on a few assumptions.
My first assumption is that there is not a dedicated digital team. This seems like a safe bet considering the lack of design, lack of detail, and out of place graphics. If there is a digital team, it would go down as one of the worst performing digital teams in history.
The next assumption is that the front facing website was created in-house with a template, and someone within the organization has access to modify the site. This is based on the unprofessional graphics, logo, and dead links.
The next assumption is that whomever created this site prioritized marketing and did not get a lot of input from an experienced designer. This seems like a pretty safe assumption since you typically want to draw attention to a link. I mean, why have a link if people won’t click on it? However, this site does the exact opposite of that. The useful links to user login is tucked away in the “general information” tab. Even worse, each of the useful links are hidden as bullet points. If you didn’t put your mouse over the text, there would be no indication of a link.
Given the evidence that this was an inside job created by someone who lacked digital experience. I am assuming that not a lot of money was dedicated to creating this site. This is a huge misstep considering this is likely the second interaction between Terra West and the user (the first is receiving a bill in the mail).
I am also assuming that the website does not generate a lot of new leads. I am basing this on an overall bad user experience. For example, the site does not even have an email address listed. This means that the site is bad at doing two things: helping customers and attracting business.
I am assuming at one point, Terra West hired a web designer to create their user access portal. Moreover, considering everything (too much) going on after logging in, I also would assume that this was an off the shelf type of service.
Finally, I am assuming their lack of digital capacity is what prevents Terra West from processing their own online payments. Or at least integrating Mutual of Omaha Bank into its website.
Money. The first constraint that comes to mind is that Terra West may not have the budget to create a good website. This is strange considering they represent more than 55,000 homes, 1,000 rental properties, and have 160 employees, which would easily classify them as a medium-sized company. However, their per user business model yields razor thin profit margins, and profitability comes from mass scaling. This was likely a huge problem for them during the recession as their business relies on monthly payments from property owners in two of the hardest hit real estate markets in the United States (Las Vegas and Phoenix). This could have caused Terra West to eliminate any non-essential spending–including website maintenance.
Talent. The next thing to consider is that they don’t have the in-house talent to create a serviceable digital experience. While this is probably true, Terra West could hire a professional web designer to create a site for them, which they probably didn’t do for their front facing website, but probably did do for their user portal.
Advocate. In all likelihood, the organization does not have an advocate that is pushing for a better digital experience. With banks offering free automatic bill pay as a common service, enough people may be using this service to take pressure off Terra West to offer updated digital services, which gives them a crutch to scoot along with the bare minimum. In fact, I used bill pay until Terra West changed PO boxes for its billing address. This seemingly minor change caused tremendous headache. Automatic bill pay works well if everything remains constant, such as amount, payee name, payee address, etc. However, because the address changed, I unknowingly racked up hundreds in late fees and fines as my payments were being sent to the wrong place. This is why I use Terra West’s digital service.
My hypothesis is that 7-12 years ago Terra West felt outside pressure to provide users with a digital service. So they hired someone to create a digital service, but didn’t anticipate how hard they would be hit by the recession. As a result, they turned over their digital maintenance to a less experienced person in-house. This has continued because bill pay relieves pressure from Terra West’s digital service which only enables this poorly designed system.
This terrible digital service makes the company look extremely unprofessional. I hypothesize that a digital services team of three or four competent individuals can come in and enhance the organization’s digital capacity. This would not only provide a better customer service experience for users, but would improve the company’s brand which would attract new customers and increase overall profitability. To illustrate this point, here is a snapshot of Terra West’s ratings:
- BBB: 3.7
- Google reviews: 2.5
- Yelp: 2.5
- Facebook: 3.0
- Birdeye: 1.6
- Glassdoor: 3.1
- Yellowpages: 2.5
- Yahoo: 2.5
I have illustrated the type of model that represents Terra West’s digital capability. To get the ball rolling, there needs to be a significant commitment to improving the organization’s digital service. Similar to USDS changing digital services of different government agencies, I believe by creating an in-house digital team, Terra West can effectively get the ball out of the rut. Once the team fixes the digital services, I believe the organization will immediately reap the benefits. Better digital services means less human capital is needed to provide customer service, which results in a cost savings. Better services would positively impact Terra West’s value as a brand, which can translate to more sales and increases profitability. However, this is only sustained as long as long as there is a continued commitment to maintaining and improving the organization’s digital capacity. This continued commitment is why I believe an in-house team is the best option.
Theory of Change
In a medium sized company like this where most employees are involved in customer service (many of whom are familiar with the status quo), change will only happen with a top down strategy. Thus, this idea needs to be endorsed by one–or both–of Terra West’s co-founders, Deborah Ogilvie and Katherine Matheson. This situation is similar to the Argentinian digital team (or even like the USDS) where significant change can only happen when you have support from the highest in the organization. But while this support is necessary, it is only sufficient for as long as it is endorsed. Because of the evolutionary process of tech, sustainable digital projects require continued support. If the housing market crashes and the digital team is axed, then the company will gradually slip back to its current situation. As it falls behind, more human capital is needed to make up for the lagging digital services. More human capital costs the organization more money in the long run, decreases customer satisfaction and tarnishes the brand. While this fall is gradual, its impact over time is devastating (just look at what seven years of neglect did).
So, how do I convince Deborah Ogilvie and/or Katherine Matheson that they should spend a ton of money upfront on a digital service with unproven benefits? I believe they would respond favorably to this idea if I could show them the fallout from doing nothing is far worse than the risk of this investment. Here is a quote from an HOA president in their report to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) from just six weeks ago.
“I am shocked at this company’s business practices, they are SO incompetent and deserve to be shut down. We had been making payments in their online portal (as we were not told about the automatic ACH option) and suddenly were told at an HOA meeting that we were behind on dues. My husband gave them a check on the spot, and then we received a statement saying that not only did we still owe that amount, but they’d tacked on MONTHS of late fees and interest. We call to pay it and THEY HAD ALREADY SENT IT TO COLLECTIONS without contacting us AT ALL to let us know what was going on or to make it right!”
It’s not just their online payment system that is broken, but rather their entire digital capacity. Here is a quote from a Google review.
“Terra West manages the HOA in my neighborhood in NW Las Vegas. They are absolutely terrible. If you send an E-mail and forget to put your address in even though it is not relevant to the E-mail it takes them 3 weeks to write back with “we can better serve you if you send your address.” I understand they need the address but 3 weeks just to tell you that with no answer to the question you wrote about.”
Here is another quote from a homeowner frustrated with Terra West’s payment process, “They don’t allow any Visa or Mastercard payments online, and there is a five dollar fee for the “convenience” of the situation.”
And one last quote from a review complaining about Terra West’s financial reporting and customer service.
“They actually applied my HOA dues to someone elses account, and now they wont fix it. Even though I showed a copy of my cancelled check. Trying to contact someone there is a nightmare. A complete run-around!”
The bottom line here is that Terra West has a customer service problem. I believe this starts with them having a digital capacity problem. The co-founders would have to take note if they saw these issues are linked together, and have a clear understanding of how increasing the organization’s digital capacity will improve its finances, emails, customer service, etc., would increase revenue. Moreover, the real estate market is strong which makes timing right for this change.
Honestly, what is surprising is that this connection hasn’t been made before.
The biggest challenge I can see as far as conflicting interests go is if one co-founder is against the idea. This conflict would either prevent the idea from happening, or be a constant battle where you are constantly trying to prove yourself in order to stay alive (similar to GDS in the UK). If only one co-founder can be convinced, then at least keep the other one neutral.
Another–albeit smaller–challenge is that whomever is currently in control of the digital services doesn’t sabotage my attempt at change. This could include everything from spreading rumors to completely destroying the platform. Similar to how agencies have responded to USDS coming in and taking over, I could see this conflict happening if the employee(s) feel threatened by my approach (which rips apart everything they’ve done). To avoid this conflict, simple reassurances and listening to the employee (even hearing out their concerns) would show them that their contributions, insights, etc., are valued and should help deescalate a conflicting situation.
The first part of a successful transformation would be to have a more user friendly site. With an agile approach, design the services with the user not for the user. I am guessing this starts with having a clear place to login from the homepage. Increasing digital capacity so that you can toggle between different accounts without creating a new login for each property. And, of course, get rid of third party payment processing and process the payments yourself. Utility companies are a great example of how this can be done.
A slow roll out this digital “overhaul” by community would allow me to carefully monitor and evaluate the plan. This is an ideal situation for a roll out because Terra West’s customers are geographically clumped into neighborhoods. Rolling out neighborhood by neighborhood would keep neighbors together ensuring that they undergo the same changes. An additional benefit supporting this roll out is that there are already procedures in place for Terra West to quickly spread information throughout a communities, such as informing residents about HOA meetings, community change proposals, thefts, etc. This makes it so even if the new payment method has a problem, the problem affects the whole community–but only that community–and damages can be can easily be controlled, mitigated and fixed.
Success will be measured by analyzing customer service data after implementing in a community (e.g. how many calls or emails were there before the roll out and how many are after, compare customer service issues between communities that have the roll out vs still in the old system, analyzing what types and how severe the problems are, etc.). This would provide a pretty solid counterfactual to accurately asses the impact of improving the digital services.
Measuring brand value success can be as simple as looking at the average rating of new online reviews after the increased digital capacity. Brand value can also be measured by new sales. However, other factors are more likely to play a role if using new sales as a metric.
The ultimate goal is to improve user experience with Terra West. Terra West is already disadvantaged because in the eyes of the homeowner, they are constantly asking you for money. This makes improving the digital capacity all the more important.