ERP vendor vetting: On and off the road

Someone once said, "You are never as well fed as when you're an ERP prospect," and I have the increased waistline to prove it. I feel like the fatted calf.

After listening to ERP vendors extol their virtues in canned demonstrations and fine restaurants across America, we desperately needed to talk with users who could tell us the real story about the vendors and products. We had narrowed our candidates from 22 to three and then to two, as the third talked itself out of the running. It was time for site visits.

We had defined the ideal site to visit as an electrical wholesale distribution company that resembled us in size and product offerings. We would know their managers and identify with the way they did business. We asked six such companies to spend some time showing us how the software supported their operations.

Back when I had been in the industry just a few months, I received my first request to host a site visit. I was apprehensive about opening our doors to a stranger, but I asked some senior managers and was amazed to find that we did this all the time. Now it was our turn, and each company we visited was just as generous.

And we're off

Thanks to our rental car's GPS, our small expedition arrived at our first site visit on time, greeted by our ERP sales rep, a bevy of vice presidents and breakfast platters. After a couple of hours talking about how our hosts used the software, the sales rep excused himself. Our host's vice president of operations was excited about the potential benefits of our buying the software. "If you get on board, we'd have a better chance of getting our modifications done," he said.

This scenario repeated itself at each stop. Our hosts spent the whole day making sure we got answers to our questions. In addition to seeking information about basic functions of the software, we focused each visit on a specific feature, like warehouse automation or advanced reporting. The team we brought along varied according to those objectives.

One member of our team is a buyer who is very familiar with our current purchasing procedures. He came on board during the on-site demonstration phase of the project. His grasp of new concepts and openness to change led us to select him for our site visit team over more senior employees. He sees this as a high-profile opportunity and has volunteered to be on the implementation team, as well.

Spending time in our peers' operations made us ask some basic questions, like "Why do we use two-part forms while they use only one-part?" or "Is random item placement a better warehouse practice than organizing by manufacturer?" While we haven't changed any procedures, we are now more open to modifying how we do business.

Longtime practices often have mysterious beginnings, as the following anecdote illustrates:

Eight-year-old Suzie was watching her mother prepare the holiday meal. Her mother plopped the ham on the cutting board, cut 2 inches off each end and then placed it in a roomy baking pan. Suzie asked, "Mom, why do you cut the ends off the ham?" Her mother paused then said, "I don't know." Mom turned to her mother and asked the same question. Grandma didn't know either and in turn asked her mother. Great Grandma said, "So it will fit in the oven." Ovens have grown over the years, but not Suzie's family's hams.

Now I'm off the road and on a salad and exercise routine.

Next: We'll take all of our lessons learned and decide how to decide.

Les Johnson is CIO at North Coast Electric Co., a wholesale electrical distributor in Bellevue, Wash. Write to him at ERPJourney@ciodecisions.com. This story originally appeared in the May issue of CIO Decisions magazine.

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