How do our online social care eMarketplaces stack up against the real thing? (3 of 3)

We live in a digital world where our ‘go to’ place for information is online, so why is it that so many social care eMarketplaces fail to succeed?  Affinity Works director Tom Knight takes a look at a thriving physical marketplace in India and shares his thoughts on how we could learn a lesson or two from the pre-digital world…

Part 3 of 3 – The Concierge

In part 2 of this series I suggested trying to replicate the various types of interactions that happen in a physical market. For the final part in this series, I want to focus on a special type of interaction that helps people get to the products and services that they are really interested in – the concierge.


One of the things I noticed at the market in India was that there were plenty of locals who would happily accompany people and show them where best stalls or products were for a tip. They know exactly how to navigate the market and can take you straight to the things you want, quickly and easily. I wonder why most of our eMarketplaces don’t offer the same service? As I mentioned in part 1, the scope of an eMarketplace combined with potentially unfamiliar health and social care jargon isn’t any less disorientating than trying to navigate your way through a maze of stalls in a foreign country!

The eMarketplaces we support allow any user to browse for products and services, and drop them into a shortlist which can be saved or sent to someone via email. When you’re buying something as important as health or care services however, it’s natural to want some form of advice or even advocacy to make sure you’re looking at the best products or services. An effective digital concierge can be implemented simply by adding chat functionality that is handled by people who understand the market and could be initiated by visitors that were struggling to find what they wanted.  It would open a thread and enable people to get some help or guidance that could be as simple as answering a question or two, or as comprehensive as constructing a tailored shortlist full of potential services that the customer could consider in more detail.

The higher levels of satisfaction with online chat are partially due to the efficiency and immediacy of the experience


Similar assistance could be provided over the phone but one of the main reasons customers like online chat is because they can multi-task, and as the same is true for agents, it is a service that can be provided very efficiently. The technology has been around for years but has become increasingly popular recently for the reasons listed below:


In situations where a deeper level of assistance is required, particularly over a longer period of time, a brokerage service can be invaluable. Some companies (like Salvere) specialise in this area and can help people organise, buy and manage the care or services they need through a team of independent living advisers. They are able to construct effective support plans to meet complex sets of requirements and offer an impartial voice that is trusted by both purchasers and vendors. Whilst the “tip” may cost more than a few rupees, it is usually something that can be funded as part of a personal budget and could prove crucial in identifying and engaging the best services. Could these “expert shoppers” perhaps prove to be the most critical component in moving eMarketplaces forward so they can deliver on their promise?

Throughout this mini-series we’ve looked at improving design, levels of interaction and customer support to provide an eMarketplace experience that is as close to a physical market as possible. One of the most interesting things to me is that the barriers definitely seem to be less about technology and much more about simply understanding what users want, and then having the resources to implement them effectively. It’s an exciting challenge and one we have to take on otherwise there is no incentive for users to give up the familiarity of their search engines.

On that note… I’m off to find a chat service that accepts bit coins as tips!

How do our online social care eMarketplaces stack up against the real thing? (3 of 3)

How do our online social care eMarketplaces stack up against the real thing? (2 of 3)

We live in a digital world where our ‘go to’ place for information is online, so why is it that so many social care eMarketplaces fail to succeed?  Affinity Works director Tom Knight takes a look at a thriving physical marketplace in India and shares his thoughts on how we could learn a lesson or two from the pre-digital world…

Part 2 of 3 – Maximising Interaction

In part 1 of this series I looked at the information physical markets provide to ‘signpost’ wares to users and how design impacts on user experience. In the second of the series I focus on interaction, which is a fundamental component of any market, virtual or physical. There is a huge discrepancy between physical and virtual marketplaces in the amount of interaction that takes place and how visible that interaction is, particularly at the point of purchase.

In India, interaction was all around you; not just between buyers and sellers, but also, crucially, between buyers themselves. For example, it is common to hear “where did you buy that from?” and “how much did you pay for it?”. It’s impossible to imagine the Indian market with a single person wandering around in silence, yet that is exactly the experience of eMarketplace users. And by users, I don’t just mean the customers – practically every day we get requests through our helpdesk from suppliers wanting to know how many people (if any) have visited their profile page, let alone bought anything.


5 Tips to improve interaction

  • Publish recommendations

It’s really important to do everything possible to maximise the level of interaction within your eMarketplace. “People who looked at this also looked at/bought…” information not only provides potential alternative products or services, but also adds reassurance that previous customers have taken a similar route.

  • Encourage feedback

Despite being problematic to capture and moderate, reviews also provide a key interaction between customers. Amazon simply wouldn’t work without the reviews (although even they are not immune to moderation headaches), nor eBay without buyer and seller feedback. Leaving users to provide feedback unsolicited is unlikely to get great results because with care services, the demand for reviews seems to be much higher than the desire to write them. This means you will need to actively seek out feedback from consumers.

  • Add response opportunity

In-terms of customer/supplier interactions there are a number of ways you can use technology to increase visibility. You could add a “request a call back” functionality, so that the seller knows the request has come from your site (rather than relying on someone mentioning it in a phone call or email).

  • Introduce a communication channel

You could go a step further and create a communication channel within the site itself to support enquiries/responses. This becomes particularly valuable if the supplier can create a custom product based on the discussion and make it available to purchase (think Etsy).

  • Facilitate one-to-one support

Personally, I am a fan of live chat on websites. I’m always relieved if one pops up when I need a bit more information because despite being digital, it’s a 1:1 interaction with someone in real time. If businesses can commit to having someone available for enquiries or bookings, then being available to “chat” online shouldn’t require any additional resource and would greatly improve that instant interaction that people crave.

So we might not be able to reproduce the full hum of the Arpora night market, but we can definitely help our eMarketplace users engage better with one another and with suppliers, to help all parties get more from their digital experience.

In part 3 (next week) I will round off by looking at concierges and considering whether they might have a part to play in our eMarketplaces, particularly when it comes to brokerage.

How do our online social care eMarketplaces stack up against the real thing? (2 of 3)

How do our online social care eMarketplaces stack up against the real thing? (1 of 3)

We live in a digital world where our ‘go to’ place for information is online, so why is it that so many social care eMarketPlaces fail to succeed?  Affinity Works director Tom Knight takes a look at a thriving physical marketplace in India and shares his thoughts on how we could learn a lesson or two from the pre-digital world…

Part 1 of 3 – Getting there and finding what you need…

I was lucky enough to escape the recent bad weather by heading to India for some winter sun. Obviously the food and beaches were amazing, but what struck me most while I was there were the wonderful Indian markets with their huge array of buyers and sellers, and a vibrancy that we would definitely love to achieve with our health and social care eMarketplaces. But have we managed it? And if not, what is holding us back?


Knowing what’s there before you go makes a real difference

Before looking at the market itself I’m going to start with the information I was able to find out about it before I even visited. Holiday time is precious so I wanted some basic information before deciding to go. A quick search revealed all the fundamentals (location, opening times etc.), some broad information about what I would (and wouldn’t) be able to find among the stalls, all the way down to some very specific info like the pizza was amazing but there would be a long queue from 9pm! For people who hadn’t looked it up in advance, there was a huge board at the entrance explaining broadly what type of stalls could be found in each zone. It is really comforting as a consumer to go into an unfamiliar environment like that with a certain amount of prior information (and make no mistake, lane after lane of stalls all criss-crossing is no more disorientating than the maze of overlapping health and social care terms presented in most of our eMarketplaces!). It occurred to me that this prior information is missing from a lot of customer journeys into eMarketplaces – often people are transported into them with just a link and no idea about what they will find when they get there. User quotes or stories from people who have found the market helpful may offer something new visitors could relate to and a clear assessment of the information, products or services that are available will help people to decide whether it is worth visiting or not.

Thoughtful design enhances user experience

Once inside the market, the immediate appeal to all senses – colour, smells, sound – all made me feel like this was somewhere I really wanted to be. That sensation was by no means a happy accident, it is carefully designed to have that effect (add lighting here… put the food upwind… place the band centrally). You can design your site in exactly the same way but it’s crucial to place your user’s experience at the heart of the design process. There is no magic formula for that; “design is simply the rendering of intent” (Jared Spool), so focus on the ultimate outcome for your users and make sure everything you do moves you closer to achieving it. I’m not suggesting you furnish your site with funky sitar music and as far as I know “click and sniff” hasn’t been invented yet but that makes the site design even more crucial because you have to work within a single medium – make sure you use it wisely!

Help users understand products and services they can’t ‘touch and feel’

In the night market there were a huge array of products all laid out neatly for inspection. For comparison purposes, I’m going to treat health and social care services as products because there isn’t a huge difference apart from the fact that services tend to need more interaction before purchasing (but more on that later). Obviously a physical market has several advantages over a digital one, particularly when it comes to actually handling a product to get a first-hand impression of it. As with my point earlier about design, rather than accept this as a limitation, this should challenge you to see how close you can take users to actually touching a product in your eMarketplace.

Untitled1 (1)A couple of years ago I trained a national healthcare provider in how to configure their eMarketplace profiles. At lunch they served an incredible curry made by their in-house chef who catered for their residents but was nowhere to be seen in their profiles. Afterwards, this picture of their food appeared on their Marketplace pages which gave them a great USP and a much greater insight into the service they provide.

Pictures, videos, user stories, recommendations, dimensions, interactive 360°s, floor plans etc. can all be posted online and in combination are definitely a good step closer to a digital “touch and feel”  which is crucial when making purchasing decisions, particularly when the product is as important as personal care.

Part 2 (coming next week) contains a few more thoughts on how to learn from a hugely successful physical market, particularly in-terms of the level of interaction between buyers and sellers.


Written by Tom Knight (Affinity Works Director)

How do our online social care eMarketplaces stack up against the real thing? (1 of 3)

Local Authority Collaboration in Response to the Current Financial Challenges

Alder Advice LogoThe 2014 Autumn Statement plans imply average annual departmental spending cuts of 3.7% between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Were spending on the NHS to rise by £8 billion over the course of the next parliament the minimum NHS England believe is plausible then, under Autumn Statement plans, the average annual cut for other departments would reach 6.1%. [1]

With recent announcements that education would be protected and with political leaders all pledging additional spend post election on the NHS, its clear to even the most optimistic that local government will be in for some very tough settlements from April 2016. After allowing for those areas ‘ring fenced’ within a typical council then the majority of these cuts will almost certainly fall on social care, predominantly adult services.

For several years now councils have been urged to do more or the same with less, and recently published analysis of Adult Social Care spend over the last 10 years certainly evidences the less. A BBC report (28th January 2015) states that:

“spending on care for people aged 65 and over has fallen by a fifth in England over the last 10 years.”

The research – based on official data [2] – showed £1,188 was being spent in 2003-4 per person over the age of 65. By 2013-14 that had fallen to £951 once inflation is taken account – a drop of 20% – prompting experts to warn that vulnerable people were being failed.

This prompts the question are the experts right or have councils been doing as asked by the Department of Health in for example, their ‘Use of Resources’ (October 2009) publication authored by John Bolton, and achieving more or same for less?

There are certainly examples of councils making radical adjustments to the way they conduct their business, and inter council collaboration is one strategy that is already demonstrating substantial benefits.

My own experience in working at a London Borough and being in on the ground floor of the West London Alliance (WLA) Adult Social Care initiative (approx 2008) is that collaborative working has not only achieved significant savings for the partner Boroughs but has also enabled more effective monitoring of standards through a unified approach.

Together the participating WLA boroughs spend well in excess of £300m a year purchasing Adult Social Care for residents. This programme, approved by the WLA in autumn 2009 and in 2011/12 in its second year of operation, focuses on collaboration to address the two highest areas of adult services expenditure – residential care (circa £200m pa) and home care (circa £57m pa). Through working together the Boroughs achieved significant financial savings or avoided upwards cost pressures. Aggregating the cash savings and cost pressures avoided the total comes to £10.6m. A simple calculation on the return on investment of £423k gives a ratio of £25 saved/cost avoided for each £1 invested.

Was it difficult? VERY. Imagine 6 finance, commissioning and contract managers from 6 different Boroughs in the same room tasked with drafting a single specification and associated terms and conditions. Chances are they would all be in need of enhanced residential care before they had even agreed the title page!

But the rewards are worth the effort and certainly from my limited contact with suppliers, were welcomed as they also had a uniformed approach across a large geographical area whose tender values were akin to the largest shire counties. Added to the basic unit prices achieved this approach also enabled volume discounts to be negotiated at values greater than any individual Borough could have achieved on its own.

In addition to the single specification challenge was the need to pool all the relevant data to enable a starting position to be confirmed. This was essential in order to measure the tenders against a base line which determined the savings that could be achieved. In addition there was the need once the contract was live, to monitor the volumes across the Boroughs effectively to ensure that savings were being achieved, and volume discounts were calculated. All else being equal this also enabled managers to target their commissioning to maximise these volume discounts.

My personal view is that if neighbouring councils are not already undertaking collaborative tenders across their region then the funding reductions post election will be significantly harder to find resulting in real and unnecessary cuts to services for vulnerable people.

Steve Cross
Alder Advisor

[2] Source: BBC research, ONS, HSCIC

Steve is an advisor with Alder Advice, an independent advisory service that specialises in helping adult social care “make ends meet”. Steve has 38+ years of experience in Local Government; the majority of which (26+ years) have been in senior financial management in Social services. His particular strengths lie in Adult Social Care (ASC) financial management including exchequer functions being fully integrated within the accounting systems; and the planning, performance, efficiency, and effectiveness of financial monitoring and strategy of ASC. The latter being achieved by effective financial modelling of Adult Social Care demand thereby assisting Councils to meet their statutory and financial obligations.
Local Authority Collaboration in Response to the Current Financial Challenges

Why Affinity Works

Affinity Works is a brand new company, established to offer a life-line for local authorities facing the twin prospects of further cuts to their social care budgets and rising demand for services. Add the continued pressure to deliver better services into the mix and it starts to sound like ‘Alchemy Works’ could be the only feasible solution.

However, our long experience in the sector and some impressive ‘real world’ results have led us to conclude that there is indeed a way to achieve better services at lower cost. In short, by taking our fresh approach, local authorities or public health bodies can collaborate to share data, highlight best practices and implement them alongside their neighbours.

That’s why we say Affinity Works. A dictionary definition suggests ‘close resemblance or connection; persons who share the same interests’, which is what led us to our name – and our service offering.

We create that key connection between public sector organisations who share the same interests, enabling them to share vital information, and as a result, achieve greater efficiencies – thereby improving services and saving money.

We’re not talking about cuts here, but saving serious costs through collaboration. To find out more about how we do this, take a look at our website – and at our results so far.

Affinity Works through transparency and co-operation. We’re ready to tell the world about it and we’re keen to hear what others are saying about – or doing about – collaboration too.

We’ll be hosting guest blogs here at Affinity Talks, sharing news and views from the sector, so please subscribe and let us know what you think. We’d love to hear from you. Contact us with your own experiences and insights – and if you like what you see, please share our blog with colleagues too.

twitter: @AffinityWorksHQ

Why Affinity Works