In October 2014 PwC launched Nifty R&D, an online service that helps small businesses access the Research & Development Tax Incentive*. This is PwC’s first web-based service globally and represents the firm’s commitment to embracing digital change.
In this three-part series we look at the team, the technology and the approach that enabled successful delivery of an innovative online tool.
As background, Nifty R&D is a way for small businesses to claim their R&D Tax Incentive. In a traditional service environment the time taken to complete an R&D Tax Incentive can be up to six weeks. Nifty typically processes an R&D claim within one day, with less than an hour’s total effort from each user. This makes a huge difference to a small business’ time and cash flow.
What did we learn?
Creating Nifty R&D’s online offering was a departure from PwC’s traditionally relationship driven business. Here are five of the major points I learnt from working on this project:
1. It starts with delivering an amazing customer experience
In order to differentiate from existing face-to-face providers of R&D Tax advice, we needed to provide a truly compelling user experience. We wanted to take the best of our relationship driven traditional business and build upon that in our online service. For example, providing real-time response is something associated with the online world, but not so in a traditional sense. Equally, operating in the traditional environment is a highly personalised experience.
The user experience we aim for is to respond to queries within an hour if possible and if not, before the sun goes down. This is something we have mandated within the team and is not something we would necessarily mandate in our traditional model. In addition, we’ve tried to add personality to the application through photos, commenting and providing access for users to our R&D specialists at all times.
Feedback from customers has shown they really value the responsiveness of our specialists, and this is evidenced by the number of customers willing to provide a testimonial for the service.
2. Changing the way people work takes time… that you might not have
Most management books talk about ‘taking people on the journey with you’ and other such buzzwords during a business transformation. The reality is that there isn’t always time to involve everyone in all aspects of the change.
In the early phases of Nifty R&D, my focus was on getting our product live, and as a result some of the change management took a lower seat on the priority list. This is a difficult decision to have to make – and one that management must consider in terms of the potential impact of not having everyone on board with decisions.
Once live, we spent additional time going back to our teams. We recognise that we’re asking our team members to operate differently. We are changing the way we work and the way we service our clients. It takes time to help people understand what we’re doing. The important thing to clarify is ‘why’ we are doing it. Once the team realises that if we can change our own business like this, so can one of our competitors, people then start to see how the new service will fit into their working lives.
3. It also improves employee satisfaction
As evidenced above, the innovation in your business can help to provide a new experience for employees. Transforming the business with technology has allowed us to strip away time-consuming ways of working and provide tools for greater automation. Although this wasn’t our primary focus, it’s a by-product of the experience that has been very well received by employees.
As a result, a number of our R&D specialists are training their teams to ask client questions in the ‘Nifty way’ for our traditional face-to-face service. The feedback has been that employees feel encouraged to be part of an innovative product and enjoy concentrating on providing R&D advice instead of the administration tasks involved with submitting claims.
4. Do not underestimate swimming against the tide
At the start of the project I was advised that the natural inertia of a business is to continue doing the same thing. Doing things differently is the biggest challenge and to combat this, you really need perseverance.
We had to work within guidance and rules that were written before PwC had any online businesses in order to create something new. You cannot ignore the rules, but you have to work within the framework and think innovatively.
To navigate this successfully I found it extremely valuable to have a supportive R&D Practice leader and advocate in a senior role. They assisted me in bridging the divide between traditional ways of thinking and the people tasked with implementing the innovation.
5. There is a tipping point of support
When an innovative new project launches, people naturally question whether the project will succeed. Many would rather watch from a distance than get fully involved. This is a natural reaction.
As you get traction, however, there appears to be a tipping point at which others ‘buy-in’ to the proposition. I couldn’t tell you when exactly this is, or what triggers the tipping point, but you can just feel it. Suddenly everyone is talking about the project, people stop you in the corridor… and it becomes much more fun.
The best part of setting up Nifty R&D is the fact that it never stays still. The challenges change over time and the way we respond continues to improve (usually!).
*The R&D Tax Incentive is a must for any business investing in innovation. Contrary to popular thought, R&D is not something reserved for big businesses or niche industries. Many businesses undertake research and development but just don’t realise it. To qualify, a business essentially needs to be improving or creating a product or service. Our analysis showed that only 7,000 small businesses currently apply for the rebate out of 20,000 that are eligible. This gap in understanding is one of the challenges we are addressing with our R&D knowledge base.