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Enticing the Channel
Windsor Industries launches e-commerce website; tackles technology and channel-conflict issues; best practices to avoid surprises
Posted Aug 9, 2002
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Companies embarking on e-business projects had better be able to navigate around tricky technology pitfalls and jump through user-adoption hoops. Windsor Industries, makers of commercial floor cleaning equipment, knows all about the problems and promise of e-business. In March of last year, Windsor's parent, Castle Rock Industries hired John Rough as CIO, who was soon charged with implementing a Web-based ordering and tracking system for customers and channel partners at Windsor. After facing a series of challenges, Rough's e-business portal today is sparkling with users and dollars. New features are already in the planning. And now Rough is ready to share with Line56 readers some of his hard-earned best practices. It's a good thing, too. Over the past couple of years, the manufacturing landscape has become littered with the software bones of failed e-business projects. On the user adoption side, many pricey projects sit idle. On the tech side, fanciful e-business front ends still await hooks into critical back-end systems. When it comes to adopting cutting-edge technology, Windsor historically hedges its bets. And when the project arose, there was no industry uprising to follow. None of Windsor's rivals even had a transactional website last year, Rough says. But all this was about to change. As the economy tightened, Windsor began looking for a distinct competitive advantage, and turned its once-conservative gaze toward e-business. Windsor executives wanted to build a website but worried that the company's network of contractors, distributors and nation-wide buyers would balk at the idea. These channel partners feared e-commerce would cut them out of the demand chain. "There was a lot of EDP -- extreme distributor paranoia," Rough recalls. So Rough decided to put on a demonstration at a big annual tradeshow in October last year, as a good faith gesture. He brought in Comergent Technologies to show off its ordering and tracking wares, in part because the software vendor also offered partner-relationship management (PRM) modules and had a reputation for being channel friendly. "We could point to Comergent and say, 'look how they're bringing distributors into the process instead of excluding them,'" Rough says, already knowing that user adoption was a paramount concern.
Windsor had chosen Comergent because its products offered a lot of functionality out of the box. This meant Windsor only needed to make cosmetic changes to the partner-facing website. With little custom coding, Comergent claims services costs are about the same as its licensing fees, whereas services costs for rival offerings can be three to five times the cost of the software license. "We don't want to darken the skies with parachutes of consultants," says Bill York, chief technology officer at Comergent. Hooking the new-fangled e-commerce system to a legacy MAPICS enterprise-resource planning system, however, proved to be the project's biggest hurdle. Windsor saw how other companies would take an online order, run a batch load at pre-determined times, and then send emails confirming orders and prices; but Rough wanted to serve up a real-time customer experience -- a one-stop process -- which required close integration and data sharing with MAPICS. There was only one problem: MAPICS and Comergent's software didn't have the necessary application-programming interfaces. Rough decided to use MAPICS' business logic to process Web-based information. This required using offline load programs, "and basically run it as an interactive batch," he says. To Rough's surprise, he also had to buy a customer-service module from MAPICS, which acted as a front-end to a MAPICS order-management module, in order to make the connection. But MAPICS' customer-service module couldn't process certain orders, and thus needed 'workaround' programs. With the tech puzzle finally figured out, Windsor flipped the switch in February this year. The system launched with only 10 registered customers and customer-care representatives standing by to key in orders manually, in case "the machine started pouring out smoke," chuckles Rough, adding later, "We took baby steps and didn't bet the farm... we'll always have someone there to answer the telephone." The sell-side system hummed, serving up the latest product, pricing and inventory information, providing customers with 24-by-7 order status, and spewing out order confirmations in 10 seconds or less. Windsor quickly opened it up to all customers. Customers though, didn't come and dust soon collected on the system. Although user adoption was addressed from the get-go, the hurdle was bigger than most people expected. But by the next executive meeting, Rough had a plan. He asked the CFO if he could offer a discount for online purchases. The following week, the CFO told Rough that one percent would be financially acceptable, given inherent savings of an online transaction. Windsor immediately broadcasted the message to customers -- and usage spiked. Over the past six months, 15 percent of Windsor's orders passed through the system. Online order sizes are three times larger than offline orders, claims Comergent. "Marriott loves it because now they're able to set catalogs and pricing," Rough says. Of course, Walmart prefers EDI when purchasing MRO supplies from Windsor, and another big customer wants to wait for a system-to-system XML link. The success of the system has drawn the attention of competitors, and a large rival is doing something similar with mySAP. With first-mover advantage, Windsor is now in the early planning stages for phase two, centering on Web self-service. This calls for adding even greater functionality, such as enabling customers to search for various parts or troubleshoot technical problems and, critically, providing an 'available-to-promise' capability that lets customers know when to expect products rather than having to track shipping. On the heels of phase two, Rough anticipates a reduction of customer-service telephone calls, which, of course, will lead to greater cost savings. "Due to the lack of functionality today, we're not seeing the drop in phone calls to our customer-care group," admits Rough. Taking a page from his own new-found best practices, Rough will likely use a MAPICS value-added reseller to work closely with Comergent in developing the proposal and strategy for this next phase, "and avoid any surprises," Rough says.
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