SuperCups Vending: One Team Serving Customers Ever Better

Going Further with Vendmanager

SuperCups Vending: One Team Serving Customers Ever Better

Vendmanager’s Jed Fraser visits Kent to find out how harnessing data can help

“It’s ALL about One Team.”

Mark Simmonds (MD of SuperCups Vending) holds my gaze just slightly longer than normal, to emphasise his point. But not so long that it becomes uncomfortable. It’s the first time that we have met face to face. Up to now, we have only communicated via video conference during the lockdown. And today is my first ever visit to SuperCups in Ashford, Kent, with Covid restrictions on travel just relaxing.

Zoom has been good. But there’s no escaping, actually meeting like this is better. And more intense. “Who do you think our customers see the most of?” he continues. “Our Service Partners (we don’t call them operators) and our Team Leaders (whose responsibilities include auditing the machines – both technically, and increasingly from the perspective of customer opinion). The way that each and every one of us behaves – in everything we do – is hugely important. We are One Team.”

Since 1998 Mark has been the owner (along with family members). But he started with the company even earlier – 37 years ago – as an operator himself. In the meantime, he seems to have occupied every role there is at the firm, at one time or another.

He’s also the longest serving employee still on the books. Look left as you go in the main entrance, and the first thing you’ll see is a board featuring a portrait photo of each current member of staff (I counted 48). In chronological order. So, top left is Mark himself. And he doesn’t conceal his pride at holding that position. For the right reasons: he has earned his stripes.

“Specified by Mark Simmonds (MD) himself, and built to purpose - the SuperCups HQ is designed for efficiency. Before, it was scrubland.”
“One Team: with every member pictured as you enter the building.”

On the wall of his office, there’s also a company team photo, with the colours slightly faded (like the ageing effect of a Polaroid app on a smartphone). The staging is shot overhead, akin to a promo for a TV police drama, with SuperCups employees substituting for the detectives, and their vans replacing the squad cars. The hairstyles, the flares and the car registration plates bear witness however that this is an original photo (The Sweeney). Not a more modern creation artificially aged (Life on Mars).

And there’s Mark, back then, standing proudly alongside HIS van. He’s not hard to pick out (if you have met him and looked up to him, you will understand why). In the same stance as the photo I took today standing proudly in front of HIS building. It stands testimony to the ongoing commitment to the vision so far.

And there’s likely many more years to come – both longevity and long service run in the family – his mother still comes into the office at 85. A “lively 85” as Mark explains.

Along with that family commitment, come family values. It is a family business. Proud. And independent. Independently run, Mark emphasises, not “just” independently owned. That means they can offer clients the right solution – and make sure it is delivered how they see best – free from external constraints. It is one sign of their (ongoing) success in this that they still have their first customer – from 1976 – even before Mark joined. He tells me so twice during the visit, and checks my notebook to confirm that I have written the date down correctly.

You can find more about those values, writ large and loud for all to see, plus much more, at the company website.

Sitting alongside Mark is Neil Irons, promoted to Commercial Director a year ago, after joining 4 years before as Head of Finance and Admin. Of all the One Team at SuperCups, I know Neil the best – we have talked long and hard ahead of this visit, especially by video call. So I appreciate already that he is:

• extremely proud of what he has achieved so far with the company
• excited by the extended responsibilities of his current role going forward – adding greater strategic challenges, and combining with others to deliver ever more value/service, especially “cross-business”
• passionate about defining “success” not just in terms of results already achieved to date, but also as the foundation that you are laying for the future.

Neil boasts (with pride) that he has a T shirt that reads “I’m not Angry. I’m just Scottish.” But today he is undercover, and “passes amongst us” in civvies.

The longer I stay, the more I understand that Mark and Neil together make a formidable duo.

“Neil (left) and Mark: a formidable duo - better together.”

Neil does not lay claim to past expertise in vending. But admits that he is learning more every day. Systems and finance are his specialities. In setting up this visit, Neil has been the “fixer” – ensuring that it runs smoothly, with the right people, forewarned, prepared, and on hand.

Now that I am actually on-site, he checks that I have everything I could possibly need or want, before leaving me with free, efficient, access to his colleagues. I am grateful – it makes my life easier, and improves the access to information. It also means that I get more done.

And that’s no happenstance. It echoes the way that Neil has worked with SB Software on the challenges (of far greater commercial significance than my visit) getting Vendmanager commissioned, implemented, useful and up to speed.

Neil is adept at providing the conditions/environment in which (the most) success is (most) likely. Sooner (and preferably yesterday.) After setting up the necessary pre-conditions with SBS, he has kept a watchful eye on progress. He’s not afraid to intervene if necessary. And he’s equally at ease allowing things time to run their course if necessary – when that is best for the project overall.

My own smaller scale experience on this visit maps onto the way that Neil has been introducing the new system that monitors, harnesses and controls the data – ever more the life blood of the business. Neil’s involvement with SBS and Vendmanager has been intensive. Detailed. Exhaustive.

He also serves as the ambassador between the two companies, representing each to the other. Dealing with Sheffield (where SBS are based), he is a master of prioritisation and scheduling – what will be delivered next. How. And when.

Here in Kent, I further get a glimpse of how he also demands clarity of purpose. When a potential new report is proposed internally for Vendmanager, he is intense: “Why?”

He is not tolerant of “Just because we can, it means we should.”

“Why do we want/need this report? Really? Who is going to use it? When? We need clarity of purpose.”

And throughout he is pragmatic: “Does Vendmanager do what it says on the tin? Yes. And more. Will it do even more for us still in a year’s time? Yes it will.”

At a recent SBS internal video conference, just before I set off, our own help deskers Tom and Paul, who have continued staffing the phones from home during the C-19 crisis, described him as “an ideal customer – challenging and pushing us and the system ever further – but always for good reasons.”

“Neil Irons. Commercial Director.”

I share this with Neil.

He doesn’t comment, and changes the subject, saying that it is time for me to move on and meet Asiya. But a glint in his eye makes me believe this is how he would indeed like to be judged – whether he is wearing that T shirt or not.

Asiya Khan is the Finance & Systems Administrator. Now well along the path to becoming the Vendmanager “super-user”, she chooses her words thoughtfully – taking care to get across insights that are well honed before they see the light of day.

As Neil had advised me beforehand: “We don’t just value Asiya’s opinions, we need them.”

The one time when she does shoot from the hip – an answer that is more of an involuntary snort than verbal – is when I push her to quantify just how fast is “fast” after she praises the speed of running a new bespoke report on Vendmanager.

With the move away from cash that everyone is seeing over the lockdown, SuperCups wanted this report on all machines across the estate – spanning diverse clients – that have cashless.

It turns out that the snort signified that it took an insignificant amount of time to specify, generate and run the new report. So short that it merited only a noise, not an actual number. Eventually she agrees that I can translate it as “less than a minute” in my notes.

“Asiya Khan: I love systems.”

Reviewing those notes later, key themes recur when it comes to Vendmanager. But it’s hard – and not particularly fruitful – to prioritise them. They intertwine. And each grows more potent when combined with the others. They include (in Asiya’s own words):

• ‘Power(and speed): the system can do everything I have wanted (so far),and because it’s so responsive, there’s no barriers to trying things out. Since I don’t need to wait for results, I am encouraged to experiment,running what-if scenario’s.

• Integration. Everything is in one place, including wholesale and history. Before, everything was “all bitsy” (it’s not a technical term that I have come across before, but it is definitely the right word). Now it’s all together where it needs to be.

• Visibility & efficiency: now that we can see so much more of what is going on, and our analysis is clearer we have opportunities right across the board to improve things.

• Flexibility: there’s so much extra that we can do now, it becomes even more important to understand fully what we really want to do and why.’

The last point chimes so strongly with Neil’s own unyielding insistence on clarity of purpose that it is clear that he and Asiya are on the same page. She actually joined SuperCups two years ago, but they had worked together before, so the mutual understanding runs deep.

Now, after spending a lot of time and energy on data cleansing (before Vendmanager), and improving actual processes – speeding things up and removing paper – she seems happy with the way things are going.

Asiya is a person who speaks openly of “my love of systems” – and how she is on her way to being the “systems person” not “just the data person.” With Vendmanager on hand as a tool, to help her make things how she wants them to be.

Out in the yard, the members of One Team that I meet next are actually holding their own Vendmanager tools physically in their hands already – prepared for the photos they have been warned about. These are the Datakeys that plug into vending machines for fast error-free exchange of data.

Operators are known as Service Partners here, remember. And Team Leaders’ roles include auditing machines (including appearance, technical and client opinion). So, when I greet them, gathered around their vans like military cavalry alongside their horses, I am keen to understand what it has been like actually putting Vendmanager into action on the “front line” like this – removed from the comforts of the office environment.

I am neither expecting, or wanting, them to wax lyrical. I’d rather hear their views direct. Is it useful? I am not disappointed: “Datakey: it does what it is supposed to do.”

“And it is easy to work with.” “It helps the team.” “Now can we do the photos, so can we get on with our jobs? We’ve got things to do.”

I don’t actually need any more words. I have already heard what I wanted to hear – in direct endorsements that are convincing. But I can’t resist flipping things around: “How would you feel if we took the Datakeys away, so you went back to the old ways?”

I don’t get any extra (useable) words. But their expressions are worth far more. And the photos are fun too. Datakeys are designed to be robust, with milled aluminium bodies, so they have some heft to them. And feel premium. With the sun bright in the sky, and a bit of coaching, soon it feels closer to Southside LA than Ashford, Kent as they strike their poses next to their vehicles. The vans become more like rides, and the Datakeys become more than Datakeys.

I may be straying off script, but I know that they would not behave like this if they were not happy with Vendmanager – and Datakey in particular.

They find both useful. And easy to work with. And that’s important. Neil had earlier let me have sight of the thorough analysis that he wrote to inform the company’s decision to go with Vendmanager (after Simon and Robin from SBS had presented to Asiya, Mark and Neil).

And Datakey was the “Game Changer” that persuaded SuperCups to switch to Vendmanager. Having made the decision, SuperCups then went for Datakey full on, from Day One. There were no half measures.

So, now photographing the people who take Datakey out on the vans day-in day-out like this, and seeing them not just willing, but happy to take part, is a pleasure for me. And I know that Neil is happy too. After all, he has a certain Scottish pride in getting what he’s paid for. (Plus a bit more.)

Before returning to the offices, I call in on Michael Truman, Warehouse Team Leader. Opening off the yard, the way he describes his warehouse, it’s akin to an “engine room” – everything (and everyone) passes through, to get their jobs done. And his comments are positive – without exception – because the new system helps his engine room to run smoother.

“The best thing about Vendmanager? The whole thing. It’s all there on one system. Integrated and user-friendly.” “It’s easy. Fast. Reliable. And integrated.” “And now we are doing things that we couldn’t before. Take automated stock issuing to vans. We tried it numerous times on the old system. And failed.”

“Now, with Vendmanager, it just works. It’s successful – as long as we input the right data, and tick the right boxes, it does what we want. Simple.”

“Michael Truman, Warehouse Team Leader. With Vendmanager, the system just works.”

“Beforehand, people were spending a lot of time doing their own ordering.” “Now, the system gives them what they require.” “So, nowadays they are just in and out as fast as they can be, which is how they like things – they want to get on with stuff.”

And with that he’s away on his fork lift, to get on with stuff himself. So I head on indoors.

Back in the office I visit Customer Experience – Simon Finch (Manager) and Jo Williams (Co-Ordinator). Their roles straddle (or combine, depending on how you look at it) both the clients and the operations teams.

Simon explains: “I am happy when all the customers are happy, and our operations are running well – that spans all the Team Leaders (TL’s) and all the Service Partners (SP’s).”

The full muster of SP’s is 17, and Jo phones each of the four TL’s just after 8 each morning – as an efficient way to get the day rolling in the right direction.

Sometimes she likens her role to glue – holding things together – and sometimes lubricant, smoothing things along. Either way, her days of late have been intense – helping clients to weather the commercial storm of Covid, and ensuring that SuperCups continues to deliver expectations too.

On both fronts, she sings the praises of Vendmanager (and the SBS support team) in helping things run as smoothly as they possibly could – especially adapting to unavoidable changes caused by the virus lockdown, such as routing and staffing. Some sites such as fruit farms have remained continuously busy, whereas others are very quiet.

And she’s pleased to be doing ever more with the system: “Certain companies require certain reports. At the outset, Paul and Tom (on the Vendmanager Help Desk) helped with generic reports, answering my enquiries about whether it is possible to do X, or Y or Z. Now I am tailoring and building my own reports as I want.”

“And Visit Viewer (in Vendmanager) always tells me exactly what I need to know.” “Vendmanager definitely works really well for me.” It’s pleasing to hear this – especially because I know that Jo only joined SuperCups shortly before the virus struck. She has been learning about both the company and the system amidst the crisis, and is still so positive.

Simon on the other hand has been with the business longer – he started off as a Team Leader himself. This means that he is no “Vendmanager native” – he knows how things were beforehand.

So, his comment is especially potent when he says: “Thank God we already had Vendmanager in place before the virus struck.”

His key reason is flexibility. The company was able to adapt routes. Implement staff changes to reflect furlough. Experiment with options, before settling on the best choice, and then forward plan effectively as best as possible, even in these most extreme of circumstances.

Of course I would prefer it if we weren’t in this situation of global crisis – both viral and economic. But now that we are, it is gratifying to hear that Vendmanager is proving as useful as this. Helping SuperCups to help their own clients in this time of need.

If you have read this far, you will know already I trust, that I enjoyed my visit to SuperCups, and thinking things through, then writing them up afterwards. Thank you to everyone in the One Team there (and all at SBS) who made this possible.

It was a long intense day interviewing on site. Interesting. And most rewarding. Afterwards I escaped to the nearby beach at Dungeness where the sun was very low in the sky, but still strong. It was good to relax there off duty, out of lockdown for the first time, with that feeling of a proper day’s work done. The fish and chips helped too.

“Mark: proud of what’s been done so far, and with plenty still to do - the writing is on the wall.”

The linear structure of a report like this brings its own inevitable constraints. It needs to start somewhere, then progress through a middle to an end.

But in reality, I could have started the account at almost any touch point then expanded out organically, in any direction.

I think that’s largely because of integration. The integration that SuperCups value so highly with One Team. The integration that Vendmanager strives for throughout.

It’s also because the people I met on the day (all for the first time face to face) were so helpful – eager, not just willing, to explain what they were doing and why. It helps when people are proud of what they are doing.

The report has ended up long. I already knew it would back when I was driving back to Sheffield.

But it could (should?) be endless – in that there is no end, per se. That’s because it deals with matters ongoing by nature. As Mark explained to me: “If you run out of ideas and things to do, the business itself has run out of steam.”

Before I left, Mark and the One Team had shared plenty of such ideas that are not included above. Both short and long term.

Remember that first customer from 1976, still on the books nearly half a century later?

At SuperCups they like winning contracts, making their clients happy, and then hanging onto them like that. And hopefully Vendmanager will be one of the tools helping them do just that.

That gleaming building is not up to capacity. Not yet …