Management / How The Apprentice winner Joseph Valente brought his business into the 21st century

How The Apprentice winner Joseph Valente brought his business into the 21st century

Nearly a year after winning The Apprentice, Joseph Valente’s plumbing business ImpraGas,  thanks to a £250,000 investment from Lord Sugar, has grown from a small firm in Peterborough  to a nationwide company – largely thanks to digital transformation.

After leaving school at 15 to work as a plumber, then a gas engineer, London-born Valente read Sugar’s autobiography – and felt ever since that one day that he would work with him. Appearing on the show in 2015, Valente beat 60,000 applicants to the prize, and Sugar is now his business partner.

ImpraGas has grown substantially since Sugar’s £250,000 investment, and Valente tells me that the most effective way to expand the company has been through technology. “We made the decision to rid the company of manual processes and paper-based systems that created inefficiencies and limited our potential,” he says. “It has been revolutionary over the last five months. It is improving the efficiency because we are able to log and track all of the details.

“Instead of having to do stuff manually, like emailing quotes and writing them up, it auto-links everything together. You put the information in once and it populates itself in a number of different areas.

“What it means from an engineer’s perspective is that when they are on site in a customer’s property, they are able to streamline their paperwork activity because everything is done on the tablet rather than having to use a number of different notepads, potentially making mistakes and having to rewrite everything.

“It allows you to capture all of the information – from pictures to customer satisfaction forms to safety legislation forms – all in one area. It basically means it improves the time the engineers spend on a job.”

The system ImpraGas decided to use to undergo this digital transformation was by using an app called JobWatch, which helps planning, managing, scheduling and tracking mobile workforces. “If we hadn’t implemented these changes into our business model, this would have impeded on our growth potential due to the inefficiencies and inaccuracies of traditional procedures,” Valente says.

The JobWatch system developed by BigChange allows customers to be able to book jobs as well as receive live updates confirming the estimated time of arrival for the engineers, and electronic job cards, including certificates related to the job performance.

Introducing the new technology has allowed Valente and Lord Sugar to concentrate on growing the company as quickly as possible, from a team of just seven engineers to a nationwide firm.

Valente says: “Streamlining areas of the business gives us time to focus on improving other areas of the business. It means that while competitors are still using manual processes and paper-based systems, we are a step ahead of them – booking jobs on the go and instantly receiving feedback for our service so we are able resolve issues quickly.”

The system has also enabled ImpraGas to deliver faster response times and better quality of service to customers, as well as improved fleet management, helping to reduce mileage and CO2 emissions. Bookings using the system have increased to more than 3,000 in the last six months.

JobWatch is not the only system ImpraGas is using to transform the business digitally. Valente is also using Skype and FaceTime to give quotations and surveys in a person’s home, without the engineer having to be physically present. He says: “It is working very well for the new-age customer, who is time-poor and does not have time to book an appointment. We can get the same amount of information from that survey. Also, we are using video animation to get points across social media – from pitching our products, to understanding customer benefit and which products are used.

“Rather than having a person pitching a product, we are putting together the key information into a short animated video. That allows the customer to [be aware of] the benefits of using ImpraGas in their home before they have one of our surveyors come around.

“We are trying to get away from the old send-in-a-guy-with-a-notepad-and-dirty-van-type thing and try to streamline the business and bring it realistically into the 21st century. We are looking all of these ways to innovate and to grow using technology.”

It’s certainly a way to ensure that customers have an understanding of the products and have done all their research before someone comes to their home. “It’s basically all about reducing the amount of time it takes to get the installation booked in,” says Valente. “It is also something that our competition isn’t doing.”

Valente and Lord Sugar are also looking at introducing video customer feedback. Instead of a customer writing something up online, Valente wants to see video reviews which show customers sitting next to the finished product from ImpraGas and talking about the installation process to try and bring it alive a bit more.

“Technology is very important, and we incorporate it into our business in as many ways as possible,” Valente says. “Gone are the days of going around to a customer’s house with a notepad, then sending them a quotation two weeks down the line from some old scrappy plumber. That is not what we are about.”

Plumbing might not be seen as a typically glamourous, tech-savvy industry, and Valente is taking steps to ensure it does not get left behind by the technology revolution. “There are a lot of clever little ways that we can bring in technology to support us and help us grow quite quickly, without having to put a lot of money into resources,” he says. “We have seen the business grow substantially. It has been taken on board by our customers very well. They like the fact that they have that option.

“They do not have to go the traditional route of having a person around to quote. It has streamlined our whole operation – it is probably the most important thing to be able to give you a quote as a whole.”

Valente believes technology is the future when it comes to keeping our houses nice and warm. The digital transformation taking place at ImpraGas is not just about improving the company’s paperwork management and logistics – it is also about keeping customers up to date with the latest technology. “We are doing a lot of smart technology too,” he says. “A lot of different techniques from a control perspective. It is allowing customers to have smart technology installed so they can control their central heating system and hot water from a distance. They do not actually have to be at home – they can use their iPhones.”

Valente’s business has certainly gone from strength to strength since the investment from Lord Sugar. The show is about to return to screens again in October, at which point another group of candidates will vie to become Lord Sugar’s next apprentice.

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