A pioneering decking configurator for a national manufacturer and installer
Having joined the business as Managing Director in 2016 and coming from an industry where technology was widespread, Ben Hart identified the opportunity to improve Vinyl Solutions’ approach to specifying and quoting for the supply and fitting of their decking.
At the time, it took up to three weeks for the team to produce a quotation and given that it relied on multiple people and lots of manual input, the process was slow and error-prone. Understandably this was frustrating for both customers, who wanted to progress things sooner, and for Vinyl Solutions who could see missed opportunities.
From the outset, it was clear that Vinyl Solutions, much like other established businesses, had nuances in how they worked, some subtler than others.
For example, while they don't tend to sell directly to the public and their customer is usually the holiday park, they need to create retail and trade quotes. Another quirk is that the imperial measurement system is used on the quoting side of the process, whereas orders are processed in metric. These examples are both quite significant, but there are more minor things too that we needed to understand and account for in the software. We're fortunate that one of the skills of our Solutions Architect, Ed, is an innate ability to carefully extract and record nuances like this, so they are baked into the final product.
While on the face of it, a quoting tool could be seen as a relatively simple thing to develop, this project was laden with challenges that needed to be overcome. Here are some of the more significant we faced:
The decks that Vinyl Solutions install can be of near-infinite size and shape, and of course, the topography of the customer’s pitch will always be different.
Customers will often want more than one deck, i.e. they might have one on the front and side and another on the back, with each of them configured slightly differently.
There are many configuration options, from decking board finishes and balustrade styles to lighting, skirting and access hatches.
The product is visual, meaning that customers expect a diagram of their property, showing their deck as part of the quote.
The software had to work on both desktop computers in the office and on the regional account managers’ SIM-enabled tablets in remote locations.
Tackling challenges with spatial data
Perhaps the most forward-thinking aspect of this system is the use of spatial data, which allows Vinyl Solutions to configure decks of irregular shapes and sizes. Spatial data inherently understands geometry and shapes, making it the perfect choice for a project such as this. With a suite of specialised functions, we can create layouts, measure areas, run calculations and more, to present the Vinyl Solutions user and their customer with a summarised quote and crucially, a visual representation of the deck.
Configuring a deck: the process
At its core, the process of configuring a deck is a workflow that an Account Manager will walk the customer through. The quoting tool we've created allows the Account Managers to configure a deck and produce a quote in the customer's presence on their SIM-enabled tablets.
See how it worksThis slider demonstrates how a Vinyl Solutions Account Manager creates a bespoke quote in the new system. Click the navigational arrows to the side to see the key stages of the process.
Understandably, everyone at Vinyl Solutions is thrilled, so much so that they've just signed off the next phase of the project, which will streamline things even further.
"If we hadn't have had this tool in place at the time when we came back to work after lockdown, we would have missed out on a lot of opportunities. It's helped us with our revenue and generate more quotes more efficiently, with fewer mistakes. What's been achieved is revolutionary for this business and gives our customers a much better sales experience.
Yammayap's time, dedication and desire to want to understand what we do has been phenomenal, and I can't thank them enough. They have been like no other business partner.
They know our business better than we do because they had to get so far into it. There is always a receptive listening ear about the next thing we might want to do with the tool. They've been great, and it's one of the best decisions we've made as a business to partner with them."
Post-launch, Chris Steele at Yammayap sat down with Ben Hart, Managing Director at Vinyl Solutions, to talk about the creation of Anton.
Vinyl Solutions is a well-established business based in Poole in Dorset. We are key suppliers to the park home, holiday home, holiday park, sector. We also have a number of customers in the sports and equestrian and outdoor fencing sector as well. I joined the business back in August 2016 as Managing Director and have enjoyed the past few years here. We're one of a few companies that do what we do, but we specialise in supplying uPVC and composite decking and fencing to the sectors that I've just mentioned. We have 34 employees and a large factory premises here and we also source 99% of our product from the UK so we're a UK-homed business if you like. We've worked hard to become the most professional company in the sector and my focus since I’ve joined has been updating and improving business practices and processes where possible. And some of the things we're going to talk about have helped us be able to do that and also set us apart from our competitors.
When I joined the business, I did a lot of research. I went out and met a lot of customers, and I asked if there were a couple of things that I could improve for you within the business, what would those things be? The majority of people I spoke to said there were two things. We'd like the product quicker and we'd like it to be less expensive. And I said, 'Well, those two things don't always go hand in hand but I understand the desire for you to have it quicker.' The challenge we had as a business at the time was that we were very manual. We had lots of paper and we did lots of things in a very old-school kind of way. I came from a broadcast media background where everything was digital and everything was electronic and there were no desks, there was no paper, there were no pens. Everything was online and it was all very easy. So, for me, one of the things that I felt would help the business and also eradicate maybe some of the mistakes that we were making would be to move to more of an online tool that would allow our regional account managers, who are spread throughout the UK, to be able to provide a drawing and a quotation whilst they are with their customers.
So when they're standing in front of a customer, the customer can describe exactly what they're asking for and they can give that information right away. The old process used to be they would take a photograph, they would take lots of measurements, they do a little sketch and then they would feed all that information back into our business for someone else to translate and someone else to draw it, someone else to ask them lots of questions, there would be some back and forth, it was complicated. An awful amount of time was lost and errors were made by following that process so, for me, it was about, 'Can we streamline it? Can we make it faster? Can we provide a much better customer experience?'
Like many people, I've seen lots of configuration tools out there. For example, if you go onto a new car website, you can build the car with exactly all the functionality and all the features, and you can change the wheels, and change the colour, and all that kind of thing. I thought, 'Well, our business is not that complicated. We should be able to do something similar to that.' So, I suppose, in the background that I come from, I thought, 'Well, developers would write this kind of stuff in a less complex way overnight and they would turn stuff around pretty quickly.' So, I was confident that it should be pretty straightforward. I suppose what I didn't take into account was the complexity of the dimensional challenges that come with a product such as ours. And, actually, after I thought about it, I didn't really even consider buying something off the shelf that was, if you like, a ready-made piece of software. The only route I thought that would give us the best customer experience was to start from the ground up and really design something that was designed around our products.
For me, it's all about what are we giving to our customers. So, it's about exceeding their expectations. They would typically have to wait for 2 to 3 weeks for a drawing, somebody to process that and then maybe there was a situation where someone would start the sketch in the office then they'd be off sick and someone else has to pick it up whereas by moving to the tool that we now use, our delivery time of quotations for about 98% of the quotes we deliver are same day, same hour, which is absolutely perfect. Which is what the world has come to expect. And I think some of our are customers are quite surprised that actually we've been the pioneers in having what is a totally bespoke tool that was written just for us, just to work in the way that we needed to work. We've received nothing but great feedback and praise for introducing this and has made the whole process much more seamless and fewer mistakes are being made.
There have been multiple wins. With the UK staycation market being so buoyant when we launched it, due mainly to holiday parks opening up again, demand went suddenly from zero to flat out. We didn't design it to be like this, but we were fortunate that, actually, the timing was incredible because my team in the office say to me, 'If we hadn't had this tool in place at the time when we came back to work, we simply wouldn't have been able to cope with the number of enquiries’ and actually, we would have probably had a lot of very stressed-out people and we would have missed out on a lot of opportunities. So it's really helped us with our revenue and also our ability to generate more quotes, more efficiently, with fewer mistakes. It's been great.
We're very fortunate, we work with a great IT partner. Someone who I inherited when I came into the business back in August 2016. We've put a lot of trust in them and we build a great relationship with them. So it came by way of recommendation. I did say to myself, 'Hold on a minute. Should I be going out to the market and getting 3 independent quotes and going for the one in the middle and thinking that's the best route to go down?' But, actually, when I was introduced to the guys at Yammayap and when I started talking to them, it very quickly felt like a relationship that had been going on a lot longer.
It progressed quite quickly, and before we had even committed to spending any money, we began to feel like a valued client, so it was that level of desire on their part. The fact that they were genuinely interested, they were incredibly honest with us and also were able to, I guess, reset my ambition in a polite and professional way. I think it gave us great faith that if we put in the right amount of effort, then, actually, we could create great things between us. The credit for the great work that has been done by them really falls at the door of Ed, Phil and Richard. They've all played a part in that and, at the end of the day, they're all nice guys and they care about us as a client. Whilst that might sound like a glib, throwaway comment, it's absolutely not meant to, because if I ever need to ask them anything, there's always a good receptive listening ear about maybe the next thing we might want to do with the tool. But they've been really great. It's one of the best decisions we've certainly made as a business to partner with them and we look forward to the ongoing development that the tool can have.
I think initially I was quite apprehensive about that approach because when anyone tells you that there's going to be a fortnightly review meeting, it's going to take up this amount of time, and you're going to need to be at every one, and we're going to alternate the locations where we have those meetings, you do think, 'Oh, my gosh, that's a real drain on my time.' But, actually, you have to also remember that the time that we're putting in is giving them so much of a greater opportunity to deliver what is a better tool. I think the fact that we did get together with them so frequently meant that we felt very much part of the design and development process. We were lucky that some of the development work went on during lockdown, where, actually, we could afford the right amount of time to sit and critique and question things. I think it worked well. We've continued on with that, with the second phase of the development now. So, we've got a meeting scheduled for tomorrow. I'm excited about it because I'm keen to know what are they going to show me.
I look back on the time that I invested in the creation on Anton, fondly thinking, 'That was a really good use of my time.' As the managing director of this business, that was a really, really good use of my time because, actually, what's been achieved, forgetting the financial part, is revolutionary for this business and really does give our customers a much better sales experience in what is a tense and frenetic environment.
As I say, I can't say enough, it's been phenomenal, and I think the fact that we feel especially proud of it because it's like a toddler now. It's like it's growing in its development and we've already signed-off the next step to take it to the next stage and to see even greater benefits that it can bring to the business. Their time and dedication and their desire to really understand what we do have been phenomenal and I can't thank them enough for that sort of aptitude and that desire to understand it, to deliver what has now become a great tool and a great business asset.