Stock picking at the new Hills distribution centre

Hills has shed its corporate image, unveiled a digital future, is transitioning customers to a powerful new eCommerce site, and has brought distribution inhouse as part of a move to streamline the business and improve customer experience.

HILLS has been undergoing its biggest and most important transition over the past 18 months – make no mistake, this intensification of focus is a bigger deal for the company than all previous efforts over the past 10 years. What Hills is in the process of achieving is nothing less than the task it set itself long ago – to integrate back-end functions, streamline resources, centralise quality tech support, create a brilliant eCommerce portal and back all this potential with a turbo-charged delivery mechanism. While such a plan is easy enough to construct, it requires team-wide commitment and considerable force of will from management to hammer the bluff outlines of an historical form into a sleek, modern shape.

According to Hills’ managing director and CEO David Lenz, the heart of the digital transition is a new website, around which multiple aspects of the business will gather – that includes dissemination of information, marketing, sales, technical support and plenty more.

“While this project has been a very long time in the making, it really kicked off in November 2016 when we began scoping for a new website design,” says Lenz, with characteristic directness. “We began production on the website in June last year. We’ve taken our time to ensure we got this right. There was a lot of input from customers – installers, integrators, end users, vendors – they were all part of the development. And as part of the process, we tested the site’s functionality with a handful of customers in Australia and customers in New Zealand before undertaking the full launch.”

I got an early look at the company’s new ecommerce portal out at Hills’ Lidcombe office a couple of weeks ago. The version of the site in my demonstration was a sandbox presentation (the site is now live), it had a greater part of the eventual functionality complete, being capable of taking live orders and residing in an environment where evolving enhancements could be polished into the finished product. Something that was evident as soon as I stepped into the room was the sense of confidence and excitement around this project – Hills’ people aren’t delivering a business solution so much as embarking on a journey with their digital transition.

In the past, Hills’ online presence has had a rather stodgy corporate focus, but this new site is an operational animal through and through, designed to perform multiple functions with maximum intuition. And the depth of this functionality is what’s central. The website’s capacity for hard work is so profound and so lateral that as the development team peeled away layer after layer, I began to feel it had a sort of gravity, drawing the whole Hills’ business in.

Pushing the digital transformation hard, Lenz retains that rare quality in a senior corporate officer of painful honesty in the face of past failings. When you have a reputation for looking ugly stuff in the eye, it lends weight to your positive observations.

“When it came to the website, we decided if we were going to do it, we would do it properly and we have,” he says. “We looked at a lot of other sites across banking and retail as part of the decision-making process – we wanted our site to last, to evolve, with everything in API format so it could be moved and changed. The site has a modern architecture and lives in the cloud. From the point of view of users, there’s no need to download an app – it runs on any platform with maximum efficiency.

“In support of the digital transformation we have also brought distribution in house and moved our distribution centre across to Seven Hills – it’s centralised and customer service is sped up – our new digital platform will leverage off that. At Seven Hills we’ve created what is really a super centre and we’ve used our best solutions – Genetec, UTC and Axis among others – to create an integrated security solution that is the backbone of our showroom. Seven Hills is our template for the future – we will implement the same sorts of facilities all around the country.”

Test driving the site

The front end of the site is an e-commerce platform that allows customers to see what products are available from where and to process purchasing transactions, see 24/7 real-time inventory, administer accounts, as well as raising queries and receiving response from the Hills’ team. But more than this, there’s a ton of information integrated into the site – articles, white papers, case studies, technical pieces, user manuals from suppliers. As we trawl through the interface what strikes me most is the potential of the thing. When fully actualised, this site will be as much about community as commerce.

As Rohit Agarwal, senior business analyst from Cognizant explains before my demo, the development team was still in the process of updating layers of content to fully flesh out the database of product but having spent considerable time on the live site since, it’s clear my first impressions were valid. We start out on the home page, which is what all visitors see when they arrive at the site.

Along the top line are drop down menus entitled Products, Solutions, Resources and About Us. There’s a mega menu in the dropdown tab under Products. This menu highlights core groups of products – not by division but by category – grouped as Security, AV, Comms and Home DIY. According to Lenz, this was something customers had long requested. If you click on one of these headers, a detailed product listing appears, click on a product – say IP cameras – and all the possible options appear in the column to the right. Click on bullet cameras, and you’re taken to all possible options.

As you navigate the site you find there are multiple ways to find products and solutions – you might click on a product drop-down or a vertical market – banking, finance, government, health, retail, stadiums – or a brand, or go into search – it’s almost impossible not to find what you are looking for and at all times you are likely to learn something you did not know before. Search is neat – you can search by category or by product and filter by price and specific features. A customer can also enter a SKU number and go direct to a product.

A key part of the home page under the top banner is space to give Hills suppliers an opportunity to promote new products – this takes the form of a slider, with suppliers able to book space to highlight their latest releases to Hills customers and visitors. At the moment Axis, Genetec, Ruckus and SonicWall are sharing the space. Underneath is an area that promotes exclusive deals (you have to be registered and logged in to see deals and prices), and below this, partner business assistance. Next, there are special product promotions, then maps showing nearest branches and finally a detailed site layout in the unlikely case you couldn’t find what you wanted above.

Something Lenz points out is that many distributors only allow access to product information to registered customers, but he says Hills will not do things that way. Instead, anyone will be able to see the product (but not the trade price or SOH information) and to view its specifications, download any information and request contact for more information or support – it’s a different approach, he says.

“Some feedback we got was that users would search the site, find we sold a solution, click on a link and be taken to a third-party site that denied them the information they needed for their research,” Lenz says. “With our new site, if you’re a government department and want to know about the latest Axis cameras, you can find out about them and if you like what you discover, we can also redirect your enquiry exactly where it needs to go.”

Next, Rohit runs through the Solutions drop-down, which highlights the end-to-end solutions capabilities across a wide range of industries including banking, finance, government, health, retail, stadiums and more, then points out the partner programme section, which tells potential customers what training they need to undertake to access restricted product ranges.

“Something that’s neat is that when you are looking at products to buy you can see all details, specifications, as well as the price, right down to how many units are available at each Hills’ location,” Rohit says. “In the cart you can select delivery options, delivery addresses, or pickup options. There’s a profile section that allow editing and the addition of license information that allows access to restricted products.

“Here, I can update my delivery address, go to account payments, view open invoices, select invoices and pay using a credit card. Customers can see what is outstanding and there are multiple authorised roles with different capabilities – this latter came from customers who want some staff to be able to order, others to be able to pay.”

At the heart of Hill’s digital transition is a vast distribution mechanism

Information is going to be a key element of the new website.

“The resources section will include all the information about every product, all its specifications,” Lenz says. “We will also have a supplier portal in future that allows suppliers to funnel content straight onto our system – that’s been a bottleneck – soon we’ll just be approving content uploaded by suppliers and it will go straight onto our site. A lot of the big suppliers want this sort of electronic handshake – they don’t want to be dealing with sending images and then you’re loading them one at a time – now they will be in control. It will also allow us to set standards on things like image quality.

“We will not be stopping here – the site will evolve,” Lenz says. “There will be support tickets, warranty and order memory – those are things we are working on. We could have done a generic site but wanted a solution that will expand and grow with our customers and suppliers. It’s next generation – we think customers who use it will be surprised how enriched it is – it’s not just a product website. This changes the image of Hills online – we have been a corporate entity – that information is still there but it does not define us. We are a solutions provider.

“The feedback from staff – they were surprised – it was a lot more upmarket than they realised. Vendors are very excited about it, too. They see the site as offering another way to promote their newest products. And just the general experience on a mobile platform – it’s very slick. We really wanted a clean mobile platform. For us this is a transformational time. Having customers being involved, getting a sense of what pleases our customers has been instructive. It’s been a project ever since I joined the company – now people are saying; ‘At last! This is fantastic! Not just a functioning site but a great site’!

“And we keep reminding people we are also live in NZ – they are very excited about that change over there – the excitement is across the company,” Lenz says. “Having this repository of information and support with its automated functions is going to free Hills people and our customers up from a lot of tasks they have been doing manually.”

“We really feel it’s out with old, and in with the new. The road we have been on as a company has not been the easiest but getting our distribution in-house, getting the website done well, getting the Seven Hills distribution centre up and running with the integrated security solution we’ve built, having sales and technical support combined, 86 carparks, customer service and tech support side by side, the mechanisms for freeing up the team and improving its productivity – these are all really big changes we think will have huge impact.”

Conclusion

From an observer’s point of view, the Hills website is very slick, considering the huge amount of functionality baked in. And despite the layers of functionality, navigation never gets unwieldy. This balance is very hard to find. After the demo I spend a lot time on the live site by myself, prying into almost every nook and cranny – it’s immediately and always clear that users will never have to drill too far in to find what they need, make a purchase or get support. Important, too, the site is a SAS solution and lives on AWS cloud to ensure performance is fast and consistent – and I can also confirm that it looks good on mobile devices – functionality is retained, and the visual experience is pleasing.

In a very real sense this new Hills’ website is an umbilical cord between the company and its customers. It melds a commercial system supported by gateways that ensure orders are tracked, with a product information system supported by a high standard of documentation, and a whole lot more besides. Hills has a big range and this site manages to present that range in a way that is at once informative, appealing and open to evolution.

Lenz is correct when he stitches Hills’ new distribution centre into position as the beating heart of the company’s digital transformation. I took a tour of the site – stand by for that story shortly – and it’s an impressive operation. At its heart is the maxim that every order received by 4pm that day should ship that day. For installers used to waiting a week for deliveries, such lightning quick response times for purchases made on Hills’ powerful new website are going to be seriously appealing.