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They’ll Put The UK In Your Pocket

Recently I wrote about an island software house that has built a sustainable business by serving specific local market needs, but ultimately one has to accept that the Isle of Man is a small place and to grow successfully most ICT businesses need to serve off-island markets.


AFD Software, based in Ramsey, is a prime example. Almost all of their over 7,000 business customers are in the UK, with a small percentage in the Rest Of The World; the company is one of our principal exporters and epitomises how the ICT sector can drive exports unaffected by the logistics of operating from a small island. 

AFD provides both product and service - they create software packages for specific business needs, and then supply the data needed by those packages on an ongoing basis. In fact they provide their customers with up to date data every week, it’s hard to imagine an industry outside of the ICT sector that could economically ship to 7,000 foreign businesses each week from the island, so what do they do and how do they do it?

AFD is best known for providing Postcode Software - software which knows the correct address and postcode for every postal address in the UK. This is used across a huge range of industries for cleaning customer databases in CRM and Sales Order Processing systems and validating new data entry into systems both in-house and when customers provide their address whether by phone or via the web. For example if you have ever shopped online you have probably used AFD’s software when you entered your postcode and the website automatically filled out most of your address, and the publishers of the Isle of Man Examiner and two hundred other newspapers, Johnston Publishing, use AFD software integrated into their CRM system in order to ensure they get your details right whether you are placing an advert or purchasing a subscription.

So where does the address data come from? The original file of almost 30 million UK addresses is created and maintained by Royal Mail Group, but it changes constantly with up to 5,000 updates each day and somehow this rapidly changing data needs to be distributed to customers, including AFD, on a very frequent basis. The Royal Mail don’t do that bit; several years ago they invited tenders from third party companies for the work of preparing, packaging and distributing the “Postal Address File” (PAF) to the companies that use this data, and AFD won the contract. Another thread of AFD’s business therefore is supplying the PAF to other major users, including their competitors, on behalf of Royal Mail. 

AFD has also diversified from knowing where you live into knowing who you are. On top of the postal data they have sourced name data from the UK Electoral Register and other permitted sources to create software and databases of who lives where - for 42 million people and a couple of million businesses. This is extensively used in the finance sector for customer due diligence, and in the legal and payment industries for debt collection. Also supporting payment activities AFD supplies software which checks bank sort codes, account numbers and card numbers to reduce data entry errors, fraudulent account details and the risk of uncollected payments. 

Whilst the traditional deployment of this large scale customer data software has been embedded into a company’s core enterprise systems, the development of hand-held computing has enabled the company to expand into the mobile space. With hand-held computers and smartphones providing significantly more storage and processing than the desktop computers of the last century the potential to ensure data accuracy at the point of capture has expanded to mobile workers - the financial consultants, insurance agents and other travelling salespeople who visit you at home or work. AFD recognised this potential early, and have long provided versions of their software for hand-held devices meaning that some mobile professionals now carry the entire UK address database and the names and contact details of most of the UK’s population in their pockets. AFD solutions based on Ordnance Survey data are also used by the drivers of some major parcel couriers to help them collect and deliver millions parcels per day.

The core of AFD’s business is about ensuring that organisations have clean and accurate customer data - primarily for the UK but also for the USA and other markets. Almost all businesses need to know their customers so the potential for such software is huge and, as is evident, AFD is one of the major players in the UK. How can they achieve this from Ramsey? Talking with AFD’s Sales & Marketing Director, Neville Hilton, I asked him how the company has managed to establish such a robust position in the UK.

The biggest lesson is to have boots on the ground, a long term UK presence that can visit key account customers, attend exhibitions and events, and build enduring relationships. AFD currently has six UK-based sales people but is recruiting a few more at the moment. Whilst smaller customers may simply buy a software package over the Internet, the big players need nurturing, support, and quite often bespoke software developments to enable them to more easily integrate AFD functionality into their enterprise systems. Telepresence tools such as TeamViewer and GotoMeeting are useful, but there is no substitute for real face to face relationship development to back up the inevitable Internet and direct mail marketing needed to engage such a large customer base.

The  company has 35 staff on island developing and supporting its software, and continues to expand hence the recent acquisition of the Island Studios complex in Lezayre. This new site benefits from multiple fibre optic, copper and microwave Internet links and its own backup electricity generators making it an ideal location for the provision of Internet based services - directors David and Alison Dorricott aspire to include a technology innovation hub on the site where new ICT businesses can be incubated and mentored. If these take on board the lessons learned from AFD’s remarkable success then Lezayre could soon be home to the first offshore competitor for the UK’s Silicon Fen, Glen & Roundabout.


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