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ERP Journey: New ERP System Continues Our Customer-Driven Legacy

Responding to customers is what the business and the new system are all about.

Our branches offer popcorn, coffee and, on Fridays, doughnuts. While our customers wouldn't bolt to a competitor if we didn't offer these snacks, they do appreciate them. I was in one of our branches recently watching a customer scoop popcorn into a North Coast-branded paper bag. He turned to me, smiled and said, "Drive-home food."

I stuffed a handful of kernels in my mouth and mumbled, "Lunch."

He shook his head, topped off his travel mug and headed out the door.

Since our first branch went live on our new ERP system two months ago, we've sold and collected on millions of dollars of product. And we haven't lost a customer. The worst thing our customers have experienced is a three-day delay in receiving our invoices -- not something they are likely to complain about.

What Customers Want

We call ourselves a customer-driven company, so this seamless experience with the new system was our top priority. Yet some aspects of our new system design challenged our customers, no matter how much they had matured technologically since we last implemented a new business system 20 years ago.

Back then, our service package consisted of competitive prices, stocking what customers needed, and on-time, accurate deliveries -- as well as the fresh popcorn and a fax line.

Today customers want the ability to order and pay by credit card online so they can earn air miles to Fiji. They want guaranteed pricing and adjustments for late or short deliveries. They want more than just product; they want us to share their risk of overtime and missed deadlines. And they want information.

Nonetheless, these same folks don't always embrace the changes we've made, even when they're designed to accommodate their goals. For example, when we instituted electronic signature capture to prove our orders have been delivered, some customers welcomed the change, but others criticized it as a waste of time. (Our branches, meanwhile, welcomed the convenience of simply calling up the signed image, eliminating sheaves of paper.)

Sometimes we've worried that we haven't gone far enough. Take our electronic data interchange (EDI) system. We've lived in fear that a new customer would want something other than our homegrown solution. Its developer is long gone, so every change has brought late nights of coding frustration, prayers and, ultimately, help from the original developer. In the midst of so many upgrades, we let it be.

Our customer service goes a long way back. Over the years, we've responded to many demands outside the business system: hand-entering data into spreadsheets and paying for customizations in a dying COBOL application (sometimes referred to as "putting lipstick on a pig") -- all while hiding the wizardry behind the curtain from our customers.

We will deconstruct these applications and fit them into our new application, though this will take time. Ultimately, the cost savings inherent in our new system -- through the elimination of custom solutions as well as the addition of Web-based order entry and real-time, online customer service-level reporting -- will make it worth the effort.

We can now say yes to our customers instead of maybe. Yes, we can help lower transaction costs. Yes, we can give you 24-hour access to our services. And yes, we can help you better manage your business with real-time business intelligence. One of our customers recently distributed a 200-page requirements document that reportedly had driven away several of our competitors. We were able to say yes.

Next: How the new system drives out cost.

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