Curtain up on made-to-measure mobile at Hillarys Blinds

Profile picture for user jtwentyman By Jessica Twentyman November 17, 2014
When Microsoft drew the curtains on its Windows Mobile OS, the IT team at Hillarys Blinds had to scramble to establish a new view on mobile and not get dependent on another supplier.

A software product gets shuttered. A previously fruitful vendor-customer collaboration draws to a close. The curtain is raised on new options and opportunities.

Puns aside, that is a brief precis of how Hillarys Blinds, a £120 million retailer and manufacturer of made-to-measure window dressings, made the the leap from its first-generation mobile app to its second.

A more detailed account would begin back in 2010, when Microsoft announced that it wouldn’t be making its new mobile operating system, Windows Phone 7, backwards-compatible with its previous OS, Windows Mobile - nor would the company continue to support Windows Mobile beyond July 2011.

It was news that Julian Bond, head of ICT at Hillarys, had been hoping not to hear.

At that time, the company’s 1,000 sales advisors relied on a Windows Mobile-based app called SAM (Sales Advisor Mobilisation) in order to sell and fit blinds, shutters and curtains, directly from customer homes up and down the UK.

They had been using this tool since 2005 and it had expanded over the years to encompass most of Hillarys product range - no easy feat, since the company offers some four million size permutations and half a million product combinations.

But the unwelcome announcement also presented an opportunity for the company to rethink a mobile strategy that, just over half a decade later, was starting to show its age, Bond concedes:

Our business was changing, both in terms of our product set and our routes to market. Trying to retrofit SAM to support the new complexities of our business was still do-able, but was becoming harder and harder. No-one in the business wanted to return to older ways of working - paper and pen was out of the question - but, at the same time, we wanted to develop a mobile strategy that gave us some future-proofing, even at a time when mobile technologies were evolving in leaps and bounds.

The easiest option, he says, would have been to port SAM to Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7,

...but when a partner has put you through the shock of discontinuing support, you’d be a brave man to say, ‘Let’s put ourselves in their hands again’.

Androids arrive

Instead, Hillarys Blinds decided to start from scratch, building a new Android app that would run on the SAP Mobile platform and be accessed by its sales advisors using Samsung Galaxy devices. This approach, says Bond, had the distinct advantage of making it much easier to tie the new app - SAMSON - into the company’s back-end SAP systems for enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management.

It’s also proved popular with Hillarys sales advisors, who are self-employed and required to buy whichever device the company dictates in order to run the app they use when measuring customers’ windows and talking them through their options for blinds, curtains and shutters.

With the Samsung Galaxy devices for accessing SAMSON, says Bond, advisors are much more likely to use the smartphone for both work and personal use. By contrast, the devices they used to access SAM were usually left in a desk drawer or briefcase outside of working hours.

It took Hillarys Blinds just six months from project sign-off to get SAMSON into a ‘live pilot’ phase, using Agile software development techniques and assisted by its SAP partner, AgilityWorks []. In fact, the company’s use of the Agile SCRUM methodology has earned it a nomination in the 2014 UK Agile Awards,  due to be announced this week.

SAMSON, according to Bond:

...maintains the DNA of the first-generation SAM app, but is hugely streamlined, making it quicker to learn and easier to use.

On the first training session that Hillarys Blinds held for sales advisors after SAMSON was launched, he adds, eight out of ten experienced sales advisors were able to enter an order for a set of blinds with no training at all. And when new recruits leave their

first training session, they are much more confident that they’ll be able to use the app. With SAM, he adds, it sometimes took them some weeks to get fully up-to-speed on the technology. The result is that new recruits are able to “sell faster and sell more.”

But most importantly, Hillarys Blinds now has a mobile app that Bond believes will give it a less bumpy journey on the mobile road, as technologies and the company itself continue to evolve.

Along the way, the project has also helped the company build up its own in-house mobile development expertise. At the start of the SAMSON project, Hillarys took on three recent university graduates, who worked alongside consultants from AgilityWorks to acquire the development skills needed and get comfortable with Agile methods of delivery. Today, two of the three are still with the company, says Bond:

We’ve built an in-house mobile capability, as well as a mobile app - and that’s been incredibly important in our success.

When you’ve got a mobile app bringing in a large part of your income as a company, that isn’t something you want to develop solely through third parties. It’s too core to your business.

We got caught out by being too dependent on a partner with our first-generation app. That won’t happen again. We’re insulated now.


Disclosure: at time of writing, SAP is a premier partner of diginomica.