Smiths News shifts from introverted development to focusing on customer need

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez June 11, 2015
Head of channel at Smiths News, Michael Williams, explains that the company no longer wants to assume it knows how to solve all the problems.

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Smiths News has been delivering newspapers and magazines to newsagents and stores across the UK for the past 250 years. With a network of 43 distribution centres, over 30,000 sellers and a supply chain that relies on packaging and delivering products on a nightly bases for 364 nights of the year, it's a business that has relied on legacy and paper-based processes for decades.

And any technology the company does use, or has developed, has been based around traditional 'big bang' waterfall approaches, where it has assumed it knows what is best for the customer and the business. Which has often meant customising its back-end systems to the max.

Head of Channel at Smiths News, Michael Williams, was speaking at SAP's Innovation Forum in London, where he explained that when the company decided to launch a mobile app for some of its tens of thousands of stores, he wanted to take an approach that was more agile and focused on finding out exactly what the customer needed to improve their day-to-day selling. Williams said:

We've been delivering newspapers and magazines to newsagents for about 250 years, which gives you an idea about how entrenched you can be when it comes to development. 'We are pretty sure we know what we are doing, we are pretty sure we know what our customers want and we are pretty sure we know how we should act with them'.

Which is kind of what led us into where we are, we have had an SAP system since the late '90s which is pretty bespoke. And that kind of approach to IT and all our customer interactions has meant that we have ended up in a place where we wanted to do something different, we wanted to move away from our normal way of building and create something new, to see who could get a better result.

Newspapers and magazines are in decline, so we want our customers to do business with us and we want them to be happy.

The use case

Williams explained that Smiths News has a problem whereby there is too much pressure being placed on its four call centres. It currently gets 3.3 million calls a year and it needs to reduce or remove the need for customers to make those calls.

Smiths identified that over three quarters of those calls are from customers making transactional requests, which are largely divided into three main categories: wanting to change an order, making a claim or requesting money that had not been received. Most of the calls are from the 18,000 independent stores that Smiths delivers to.

Given the growth in mobile and tablet use, Williams recognised that it needed to upgrade its SAP system and get mobile capabilities, otherwise it was going to “miss the boat”. He added that some would argue that the business was “a little behind the curve already”.

Smiths News has been working with SAP partners Keytree to develop a mobile app for iOS and Android, to meet the following key objectives:

  • The app is something that customers would download and use
  • Customers are happy with the app
  • Wanted the app to be good, wanted to make sure it worked and needed uptime to be high
  • Delivered on the business case of reducing calls to the call centres
  • Increased customer satisfaction

The challenges

Smiths News identified that 60% of its 18,000 independent stores target owned some sort of device, bringing its realistic target market to the 11,500 mark. But even though these stores were device owners, Williams still said their were challenges ahead.

We have a demographic challenge, in that you can have absolutely anybody behind the counter, there is no age or technical ability restriction. They don't have much IT support, so we needed to create something that could work for absolutely anybody. Our supply chain is complex and extremely time limited – we deliver 364 days a year, we have 43 locations, millions of newspapers, packed by hand and delivered every morning at about 4.30am.

We don't have lots of time to make mistakes and we have even less time to correct them once we have made them. Talking to our suppliers during that operation has always been tricky, because we are a paper-based company. Finding a way of talking to them quickly, or differently, was a big challenge to overcome.

We have no mobile experience, we have not tried anything in any of the divisions along these lines. We didn't have any architecture to support the fact that we didn't have any mobile experience, good blank slate to start with.

Although in the past Smiths News has focused on a waterfall approach to projects and has assumed

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specifications of what the customers want, Williams wanted to make sure that this time what they were delivering was going to be a long-term success. He was going to do this through agile development, iterative delivery and constant feedback from users. Given the geographic spread of the company's target market, it was, however, impossible to speak to and be with every user. Williams said:

We had no agile experience, we were very much a waterfall company. We build things until we think they're right and then we launch them. There was some nervousness about launching something that wasn't 100% right first time round, it was about getting over that technical challenge. And taking the business along with us, that was a challenge.

Williams was convinced that this old approach to development wasn't worth pursuing, as the company also has an online portal, which was built using waterfall methodologies, where usage has absolutely dropped away. He is convinced that this is because Smiths News never invested in understanding the customer requirements.

If we created something in mobile that failed, then we were on a hiding to nothing.

What does the user want?

So to do what he could to avoid failure, Smiths News conducted 250 telephone interviews as a sample of the target audience and asked them how they operate. Williams said that this gave the company a good idea of the things it needed to do and allowed them to establish five or six key deliverables from which to work from. From there, the design team also went out to select shops in the early mornings to see how the process worked.

In addition to this initial research, Smiths News has also adopted the approach of feedback from pilots and ensuring it has advocates within stores that are invested in making the mobile app a success. He said:

We wanted people on side so that when we launched we already had people using it and it wasn't a surprise when Smiths News launched an app. We got key people in the independent arena, whether they were key news agents, or members of the national federation, or their president, and we got them involved. Got them making decisions, which meant they were vested in the project. Dead simple stuff like do you want a square button or a round button? What colour do you want it to be? They start to see their input make a difference.

We also wanted to make sure that the app was simple and intuitive, so that if you were 16 or 80, it's intuitive enough to get round. This meant that we didn't have to do much in-house training.

Smiths News began rolling the app out in September of last year, first of all to one man, then 10 stores, then 20 and finally via its distribution centres that have been rolling it out in waves. It was delivered to everybody by the end of last October and it manages the claims, the orders and receives messages.

Williams gave one example of using customer feedback, whereby he asked stores if they would like to receive messages only when things were going wrong, or would they like push notifications every night to let them know everything was fine too.

They all said they wanted a message overnight saying everything is fine. It just tells them they don't need to make anymore decisions that day.

Williams said that on that day the app had 3,100 customers using it, so over a quarter of the initial target market. Not too bad, given it has been available for less than a year. The success has meant that his team is now also working on a HTML5 version of the app, so that the larger stores, such as Tesco, can make use of functionality on their Windows-based desktop systems.

He added that the key to the project's success and growth is both understanding what the customer wants and ensuring the business is on-side. Williams said:

Learn from lessons. Ask them what they want. Keep it as simple as possible and talk to them in their language, don't put it in your finance team's language. Don't let the technology dictate the direction, we set ourselves up to make sure that it was all about what the customer wanted and we were never going to accept that we can't do that.

We also made sure we got a steer from as hire as possible within the business. So the exec signed off on the approach, we got advocates there, we made sure the steering committee had an unusual amount of execs on there. We also made sure that the business understood what we were trying to do throughout the process, we didn't lock ourselves in a room and come out with an app six months later.

My take

A good use case showing what a paper-based business, with decades-old bespoke legacy, can do to make themselves a little more digital...just by understanding their customers.