TOMY: Crafting a mobile sales app for SAP that’s anything but a toy

TOMY - Battling robotsWhat does £75,000 (the equivalent of $120,000 or €90,000) buy you when you set out to equip an organization’s pan-European field sales team with a mobile B2B commerce app — an app that’s tailored to their specific needs, runs on laptops, iPhones, iPads and Android devices, and is capable of plugging into SAP or almost any other ERP back-end? A multi-country feasibility study and requirements capture? A design spec and a set of wireframes? The tricky middleware layer? Or maybe, if you’re lucky, some kind of ‘toy app’?

In the case of the European arm of TOMY, the Japanese manufacturer and distributor of baby gyms, battling robots, Pokémon figures and hundreds of other innovative children’s toys, it is literally the latter — but hardly in the pejorative sense of the word. In fact, the mobile salesforce application it has built, in conjunction with SAP services group itelligence, offers the kind of functionality, platform-support, connectivity and bespoke design work that would often cost 10 times that amount.

The app alone, which went live in September, has certainly won TOMY Europe’s head of IT, Stuart Kahn, plenty of fans among  sales colleagues, as well as in finance and customer service. But, as he points out, the success of the project (anecdotal evidence points to a potential 20% uplift in orders) is not unrelated to the fact that Kahn is something of a veteran of mobile application development.

A decade ago at Learning Curve, a rival that merged with TOMY in 2011 to create the world’s fourth largest toy company, he developed a web-based mobile sales application for HP handhelds designed to front-end a Macola-based ERP system. That project ended in 2007 when Learning Curve in Europe adopted SAP and then spend several years trying to realize the ERP system’s potential (it now runs SAP ECC6). But that meant that Kahn had a working model — and a keen understanding of costs — in mind when, in early 2013, TOMY Europe went shopping for mobile technology with a view to making its sales teams in the UK, Ireland, France, Benelux and, ultimately across the rest of Europe too, much more productive.

TOMY-Dinosaur trainTOMY, which grew European revenues in 2013/14 to $130-140 million, is constantly in acquisition mode, says Kahn. “We need to do more and more with the same number of people,” he says. And part of that has involved making customer service staff, as well as sales people, more productive.

Historically, TOMY agents selling to toy shops would take orders on paper forms and feed the resulting information into the company’s B2B web portal a couple of days later. However, sales teams were often short of basic information: so a significant number of the calls into TOMY’s own customer service center were from its sales executives wanting to know things like their latest sales numbers, the stock levels of particular items and customers’ contact details.

Not only did TOMY need a way to feed such information to sales agents directly, it wanted to “free up customer service people to provide service to our customers, not our sales teams,” says Kahn.

Keep it simple

As an SAP shop, one early idea from Kahn’s team was to investigate the use the SAP CRM Rapid-Deployment Solution. But when that was pitched to business management and users, the reaction was hardly enthusiastic: “The feeling was we did not need something that was either that rich in scope or as costly,” says Kahn. He talks about a cost of around £140,000 ($230,000) plus 12 weeks implementation for the CRM package — a commitment that was simply not there on the part of the business.

“The message that came back: ‘we want something simple; we need an app.’ And, in my opinion, apps work best when they do two or three things really well,” he says. With that in mind, TOMY Europe looked at a mix of out-of-the-box apps, including PixSell from Aspin and SalesPresenter from Blue Alligator, before turning back to the SAP catalog and the Sybase Unwired Platform (now SAP Mobile Platform).

But, even there, the upfront, customization and integration costs were still going to run too high for its liking. Its SAP services partner intelligence, however, hit on a solution: it suggested jointly developing the Sybase-based application to TOMY’s specific needs, but giving it the right to sell on the resulting app to other companies (including, after two years, to other toy makers). That kept the total cost of development to around £70,000-£80,000, says Kahn — an important factor, as that amount was below the threshold that would require the European company to seek approval from its Japanese parent.

User-driven design

From the start, the design was classic ‘agile and sprint,’ says Kahn, with constant iterations and TOMY’s sales people spending time at itelligence’s mobile center of excellence in Eindhoven. The resulting app’s three main elements center on customer information, including order/payment history and credit status; product lines (both listings and stock levels, with ‘traffic lights’ to indicate availability) and sales order entry, with the app sync-ing with the SAP database ever hour (or when the user next connects). The whole development took nine months, says Kahn, including tuning it to the ways in which many TOMY customers operate.

One of the reasons TOMY Europe felt compelled to go for a bespoke app in the first place was a requirement to support the taking of baskets of orders that had split delivery dates. As Kahn outlines: “A customer might order 2,000 boxing robots prior to Christmas but doesn’t want them all in one go: maybe 1,000 in November, 500 in early December, and the balance at the sales peak.”

By using  a ‘hybrid web container,’  itelligence has been able to use an identical code base across different devices, Kahn explains. To date, sales agents in the UK have adopted an iPad version and, for historical reason, French employees use the app on company-provided laptops. The app also works on iPhones but with one aspect of functionality turned off — the ability to take orders — which Kahn thought might be error-prone on that small form factor.

Any new container would take intelligence one to two day’s to create, he suggests, which means the next wave of European adoption — by the Spanish or Germany sales teams — could just as easily be on an Android platform.

Rapid ROI

Given the fact that devices hold several months of customer data — and the company operates with a mix of both agents and employees — TOMY has been keen to ensure it had sufficient control over app deployment and data security. It uses the SAP Afaria mobile device management tool to push the app and related data to devices and also to remove the app when an agent leaves the company or devices are lost or stolen. “It’s useful to be able to pull the app back from [a user-owned device] without physically having to do so,” says Kahn.

TOMY Pokémon figureDespite the broad use of SAP technology at TOMY Europe, the app is not actually locked to TOMY’s SAP implementation — or any other. “The middleware is SAP, but it doesn’t need SAP at the back-end,” says Kahn. “It is true middleware.” TOMY in the US, for example, is looking at the possibility of plugging the mobile app into its back office system, says Kahn (it current uses a highly customized legacy AS/400 ERP package but may go down the SAP route in future).

The low cost and speed of development doesn’t, however, mean Kahn is taking ROI for granted. “We are already seeing the benefits, and the app will pay for itself easily within a year or two,” he says. But anecdotal evidence points to a more rapid return — at least in some areas.

Customers like the ‘sexiness’ of viewing new products, stock levels and orders through iPads and other mobile devices, he says, to the extent that some sales staff have seen a jump of a fifth in order fulfilment. “In that case, we had 20% extra stuff in the toy shops in the lead up to Christmas – and the only thing the sales manger can put that down to is the app. By moving away from manual orders input, we have added a week of selling time per month, we get toys on the shelves quicker and we sell more.”

Featured images: TOMY

Disclosure: SAP is a diginomica Premier Partner

Kenny MacIver

Kenny MacIver

Kenny MacIver has been the editor-in-chief of highly influential and successful business technology magazines and digital media platforms, spanning global, US and UK-focused titles, including I: Global Intelligence for the CIO, Information Age, Computer Business Review and Global Technology Business. A former correspondent for The Times in Silicon Valley, Kenny previously built expertise as a software analyst at IDC and a developer at PwC.
Kenny MacIver

@kennymaciver

Editor - I: Global Intelligence for the CIO | Co-founder of @Diginomica
Kenny MacIver