Inventory & Accounting ERP Software Blog

Business Process Automation – Identifying Bottlenecks

Building on the previous blog post about Business Process Automation (“BPA”), let’s now explore some ideas on how to identify processes that could (or should) be automated, and also how to evaluate the potential benefits of doing so. This is important, because there will be at least some level of cost associated with any BPA implementation, even if it’s just an initial investment of time.

Given that we’re talking automation, it stands to reason that the starting point in identifying processes that could benefit from automation would be examining manual processes. This extends beyond simply looking at activities like manually keying (or re-keying data), and includes processes like manually walking pieces of paper from the office to the warehouse, and stockpiling transactions (even on a computer screen) for a person’s review before processing. It’s important to note that some of these steps are necessary – you would probably want to retain human review of orders held for credit problems, for example – but in many instances these bottlenecks can be alleviated with thoughtful implementation of BPA.

I’ve found that a very useful tool for kicking off an analysis is to get employees to make two lists:

Repetitive activities that require very little thought process or decision making, but that have to be performed regularly
Regular activities that are time consuming and involve some type of manual data entry

In each case, I ask them to estimate the time they spend per item on the list, either daily or monthly. Those will provide a good and objective starting point, and we investigate  further from there, placing a little more emphasis on the more frequent and more time consuming items. It is important to note, however, that one person’s list can impact another’s. If Joe has a task that doesn’t take much time – perhaps just a few minutes daily, but until he completes that task, it prevents Sue from performing her tasks, that’s a bottleneck.

Here is an  example of a bottleneck that was identified, and resolved, in a simple Business Process Automation project:

A distribution company was moving from manually  individually generating and emailing invoices in PDF format, to automatically emailing PDF invoices right after shipping. In the existing manual process, the last step before printing invoices was a review of the shipped sales orders to ensure that (a) shipping charges had been updated and (b) tracking numbers had been inserted. The controller was adamant that the same checks would need to be performed (by him) before invoices could be emailed. This would result in almost no time and effort being saved.
Learn about the various automatic reports available to ERP users
The solution was to automate not just the emailing of invoices, but also the checking process. Instead of order status going directly from “Shipped” to “Invoiced”, an additional status “MissingFields” was inserted in between these. Now, as soon as an order was marked as “Shipped”, an automated process checks the order to ensure that the shipping charge and tracking number fields are populated, and if not, it flips the status to “MissingFields”. The controller has a screen showing just these orders, and he can insert the missing data and manually flip the status to “Shipped” just for those orders missing one or both of those items – typically fewer than 5% of the orders on a daily basis. So now, over 95% of the orders shipped result in automatic invoicing with no stops or human intervention.

So how do we evaluate the benefits against the costs? In the next post on this subject, we’ll explore some options for doing just that.

 

 

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Optimizing Inventory Beyond ERP: Spotlight Interview with EazyStock

Every wholesale distribution business knows the importance of proper inventory management.  Your company’s ability to efficiently buy and sell product is what dictates success.  This becomes even more important as wholesale distribution businesses begin to sell through multiple sales channels including eCommerce.  In order to properly manage your inventory, most wholesale distribution businesses turn to fully integrated ERP software.  ERP software is designed to manage all aspects of a company’s operations including:

Inventory management
Accounting
Order entry and processing
Contact management and CRM
Warehouse management
eCommerce integration and more

From an inventory management standpoint, proper ERP software will include functionality for picking, packing and shipping, receiving, replenishment and purchase orders, as well as more sophisticated inventory management tools such as landed cost tracking and lot tracking.  However, depending on the size of your business, sometimes managing inventory is not enough.  This is where advanced inventory forecasting and replenishment software comes into play.  These more sophisticated systems act as add-on solutions for more in-depth analysis of your company’s inventory.  They aid in demand forecasting, seasonality analysis to automatically find and assign a seasonal profile to each item/location record, multi-location planning, promotion management and more.

Blue Link recently spoke with Mark Grimes, VP Global Sales and Channel Partner of EazyStock, an advanced inventory forecasting and replenishment software, to learn more about the industry and how businesses can better manage their inventory.
Learn more about EazyStock
 

Samantha Hornby: “Mark, tell the readers a little about yourself. Who are you and where are you from?”

Mark Grimes: “My career spans over 20 years in software manufacturing and distribution. I started out in Dallas, Texas with an ERP company that was expanding globally. With that company, I moved to China and climbed the ranks in the sales organization till I eventually became the Managing Director for China. After 17 years I decided to move back to the USA.  That’s when I joined EazyStock. I’ve been married for 16 years and have 11 year old twins (boy and girl).  When not spending time with family I enjoy golf and fast cars. As a family we do monthly volunteer activities with Feed My Starving Children.  I believe teaching children it’s important to give back.”

Hornby: “Give us a little background on how EazyStock came to be and how it ties in with other systems being used by businesses.”

Grimes: “EazyStock is a division of Syncron. Syncron has been helping large corporations optimize inventory for over 15 years.  EazyStock developed from the idea that not only large corporations but also small to mid-size companies had issues optimizing inventory and could benefit from the same system as the big corporations.”

“Most distributors and wholesalers are seeking more from their ERP when it comes to optimization. With EazyStock, businesses don’t have to evaluate changing their ERP system anymore, which is a major undertaking financially and ties up a tremendous amount of resources. Inventory optimization software can be easily integrated into already established business operations to drive down costs and increase serviceability.  It is a win/win for both ERP platforms and the end users.”

Hornby: “What have you noticed is the main thing most wholesale distributors get wrong when it comes to managing their inventory?”

Grimes: “Thinking that their ERP system is handling everything.  Most distributors set static inventory procurement points that cannot handle the ever-changing replenishment requirements of their customers or market. Distributors are often blindsided by painful over ordering or costly stock out situations, which can hurt sales and customer retention. If not managed well, or as I like to say, “optimized” properly, these practices will eat away at a company’s profits and overall inventory performance.”

Hornby: “In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing wholesalers and distributors today with regards to inventory management?”

Grimes: “The biggest challenge we see today in the world of distribution is accurately balancing inventory levels with customer service demands.  In today’s environment, if you don’t have the product in stock when the customer wants it, they will go somewhere else and order from someone who has it readily available. In the past customers would accept back orders but that is not always the case today.”

“Distribution businesses need to keep inventory low to maximize profit margins, but they need intelligent systems to help avoid running out of high demand items. It is a difficult task for most distribution businesses to manage. Often times, these types of calculations are managed in Excel or done through manual calculation methods, but it is too costly and too risky for distribution businesses to not invest in more automated inventory management tools.”

Hornby: “You’ve touched on the answer a bit, but how can they overcome these challenges and optimize their inventory? Where does technology come into play in helping address these challenges?”

Grimes: “Distributors can leverage technology to eliminate the human error and give 100% accuracy to the inventory status at any given point in time. Inventory optimization software, such as EazyStock, further analyzes ERP data to give distributors the ability to more accurately forecast every SKU in real time. This results in inventory being in stock at the right level and at the right time.”

“By onboarding the right technology to support the ERP platform, businesses can lower inventory levels, drive up inventory availability for critical items, and eliminate wasteful labor costs along the way. The real challenge is getting the organization and employees on board to see how systematic change can drastically impact the business’ success. Most leaders in management, finance and operations will struggle to get the whole team on board because innovative changes “are not the way we’ve always done things.” Investing in the technology is important but getting the organization to buy into the vision is critical.”

Hornby: “Where do you see the distribution industry going in the future, and how do you think this will affect how businesses manage their inventory?”

Grimes: “There are over 330,000 wholesale distribution companies in North America. According to the Frantz Group, the US wholesale distribution industry is forecasted to grow at an annual compounded rate of 5 percent. With numbers like this, it’s imperative that the wholesale distributor stay competitive. Margins tend to be razor thin in distribution, so competitive companies will need to figure out ways to do things faster and more accurately to keep their customers coming back.”

“Additionally, Gartner released a report that the fastest growing companies are not the ones with the cheapest prices but the ones who are the easiest to do business with. Distributors need to innovate and invest into systems that keep their profits strong and their customers happy. To do that, distributors in almost every industry vertical will need to look to advanced systems that will help them better manage and optimize inventory across their sometimes very complex supply chain networks.”

Hornby: “If you were to give one piece of advice to distributors today regarding inventory management, what would that advice be?”

Grimes: “Decide if your inventory is an asset or a liability. Then take the appropriate action to turn it into an asset for your business.”

Mark is a seasoned enterprise software technocrat with a 20-year track record as a successful VP of Business Development, Managing Director, and Global Accounts Director in the manufacturing and distribution space.  Mark’s focus is to deliver consistent, profitable growth to the customer’s bottom line.  Mark leads with a passion to define and drive a clear inventory optimization vision through the use of software technology. He takes a leadership role in executing and maximizing the best possible value for the client.

To contact Mark: Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/grimes88 | Email: mark.grimes@eazystock.com

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Transitioning from Legacy Business Management Software to Modern ERP

There are many reasons businesses decide to upgrade their existing technology and business management software systems. To name a few: software companies stop supporting legacy operating systems (think Windows XP), new technology and opportunities become available, businesses change processes or hardware needs to be replaced. In anticipation of these frequent changes, many modern software vendors provide “maintenance programs” in which customers pay an annual fee to get regular upgrades. This reduces the cost of purchasing new software outright and ensures the customer is on the latest version of the system, using the most up-to-date technology. In addition, troubleshooting issues through the vendor’s support department tends to be quicker and easier when people get to work with familiar and up-to-date systems. Internal systems need to be upgraded on a much more frequent basis than other business assets such as equipment and vehicles. Therefore, keeping up-to-date with product releases minimizes the amount of downtime required to implement a new version. For those businesses operating legacy systems the upgrade process becomes much more painful.

Most software vendors charge a percentage of total license costs each year as their maintenance fee, which ultimately pays for new functionality and the upgrade process. Depending on the software tier, these percentages can fall anywhere between 15 and 22%. When speaking with vendors about maintenance fees, make sure to ask about customization work as some vendors will charge extra to have this moved over. Even when receiving regular upgrades there will be still be work involved to update your existing version and test the system, although on a much smaller scale than when starting from scratch or moving from a completely different system.

If you have not been updating your business management software on a regular basis or are looking to move to a completely new system, there are still certain decisions that you can make in order to ensure the upgrade process is as painless as possible.

Choose your data wisely.
Data migration is just one aspect of the entire software implementation process, however, after employee training it tends to be the most expensive and time consuming. The right vendor will not only move the data from your existing system into theirs, but they will also work with you to clean up and “massage” the data so that you start with the right information. For example, vendors can assist in changing product codes or categories should you decide to follow a new standard. The idea with data migration is to focus on quality and not quantity – some data may not need to be moved over to the new system and instead can remain in old databases for referencing purposes. In some cases businesses don’t want to move over any information as a way to start fresh with their data, but at a minimum you will want to move the following information:

Customers with outstanding balances
Outstanding accounts receivable balances
Vendors
Accounts payable balances
Active inventory items and pricing information
General ledger chart of accounts
Opening entries

Learn more about the data migration process. 
Map ERP to existing business processes.
When businesses don’t update their software on a regular basis, they can get stuck following specific processes which may no longer be relevant. When starting the search for new software it is important to organize workflows and processes by department and then break down why certain tasks are performed the way they are, and if there is room for improvement. There may be new technology available that can help automate processes which previously involved a lot of manual work. Finding a software vendor that becomes a trusted advisor will provide you with objective insight into how to better manage certain aspects of your business. By adapting your processes to fit with functionality offered in their software, it will save you time trying to come up with workarounds. Although this may involve more training and investment in the beginning, it will save you time in the long run.

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Blue Link’s A.R.M Contest Winners Announced

Throughout the month of March, Blue Link ran a competition open to all of our customers called the A.R.M Contest. Automated Report Maintenance, or “A.R.M” for short, is a rules based automated data and email update tool found in Blue Link Software. We are particularly proud of this feature because of the time-saving applications it provides its users such as:

 

Automatically generate daily, weekly, or monthly inventory reports on a specific date as chosen by the user
Email invoices to customers after orders are placed without any human interaction needed
Send website orders directly to the warehouse to be picked, packed, and shipped if they meet certain criteria
Automatically change the status of an order based on criteria being met such as payment received or product shipped

Despite all of the useful applications, there still happens to be one aspect of the A.R.M that we are not too fond of here at Blue Link … its name. Automated Reports Maintenance is a bit of a mouthful and frankly doesn’t capture essence of its functionality. As a result, we opened the floor to our customers to come up with names that they thought were more appropriate for this component. We had no restrictions on name length and wanted customers to be as creative as possible. We also had an incentive of a $1,000 cash prize awarded to the best name selected by our judges, just to add to the excitement.

After a month of submissions, we could not have been more pleased with the response we received. After narrowing the submissions down to our top two, our judges voted on a winner:

Automated Task Manager – Fred Pritchard, Golda’s Kitchen

As a long time user of Blue Link software and its A.R.M functionality, Fred sees it as an ATM more than anything else; “I think of ATM as a money maker.  It automatically prints pick tickets in the warehouse all day without any management involvement.  Orders are printed based on efficiency of pick walk, and labour costs are reduced.  We also use ATM to automatically transfer inventory from one location to the other based on sales needs.   Again, no one in management has to even look at what is happening, the computer does it all for you.   A true ATM in our case.”

Once we got the ball rolling with this contest idea, Blue Link decided that we also wanted to understand the many different ways that our customers are utilizing this functionality. With the help of another cash prize of $1,000, Blue Link also invited customers to submit a video or written essay explaining how the A.R.M has changed their business. We were once again very pleased with the results, but we could only choose one winner:

April Tobin – Qualifirst Foods

April had high praise for the sheer amount of time the A.R.M was able to save Qualifirst; “Thanks to Blue Link’s A.R.M technology, we have now stepped into the future of business operations. Implementing their automation into our day to day has created a seamless, productive, confident system we rely on. This has provided us with the extra time to dedicate towards sales, company growth, and employee engagement.”

In her essay, April went on to explain how some of this was achieved; “Because of this automation we no longer have to busy ourselves with emailing order confirmations, sending invoices, and following up on payments as Blue Link now does all this for us! They work behind the scenes every day to ensure our clients are contacted, so that we don’t have to.”
To Read April’s winning essay in its entirety, please visit our testimonial page.
We would like to thank all of our customers who participated in both contests, and congratulations to our winners Fred and April!

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Demonstrating the Value of Enterprise Software to Employees

Inherent in its name, Enterprise Software is a platform that will affect all aspects of a business. If you decide your company needs a fully integrated solution, the software selected will undoubtedly impact the sales, accounting, warehouse and operations departments to name a few. Due to the impact that a decision of this magnitude will make across an organization, it is vital to ensure your employees “buy-in” to the process and understand the need for a more sophisticated software system. In order to achieve this level of acceptance, you must demonstrate the overall need and value of updated software and innovative processes. Follow this general framework aimed at easing the transition for employees to new enterprise software:

Establish the pain-points of the business. The main reason for any software replacement search is to eliminate unnecessary pitfalls that employees are currently facing. If a business has no pain points and is running smoothly, there would really be no need to defer from current processes. This is vital to any software search and essentially involves taking an audit of how each business unit operates. Perhaps, an employee spends a sizable amount of their work day manually emailing invoices to customers, or maybe they spend a lot of time re-keying orders into the system, both situations represent operational issues that can be avoided if properly identified early in the search. Speak with everyone from the warehouse to the accounting department and everyone in between to ensure you have your finger on the pulse of the business.

Learn how to Eliminate Redundancies in your business with Automated Reports

Once you have established a business case for acquiring new software, it is vital to gain employee approval. Although employees have aired their grievances and shared all the difficulties they currently face, an even greater difficulty lies in trying to get employees to accept change. You will have the final say as the business owner; however, it’s your employees who will be using the software on a daily basis and you need them to buy-in from day one. In this situation, you must work closely with each department or the manager for each department depending on the size of your organization. With the information you gathered have a discussion with the relevant parties where you can outline examples of issues employees are currently dealing with and open the floor to ideas on how to alleviate these problems. By gaining valuable employee input you can establish exactly what is needed from a new enterprise software system, but you will also prepare your employees for this impending eventuality.

Now that you understand the issues the business manages on a daily basis and potential solutions to those problems, it’s now time to involve your employees in the software search. Perhaps you want your accounting and warehouse managers to see a live demo of the software you have been reviewing. Established ERP vendors will be able to tailor their demo to illustrate the solutions to the pain points you identified, providing a strong visual for your department managers who can in-turn filter that information to the rest of the team.

It may seem simple enough, but there is really no true black and white solution to gain employee acceptance when deciding to make a major workplace change. Every business is unique in their processes and culture, and each company will react differently to a transition from legacy software. However, the steps above should provide some valuable ideas on how to approach this transition. Your employees are the ones using the software every day; therefore, it’s important to not make it seem like this is something being forced upon them. Making a change to a more sophisticated software platform will only benefit employees in the long run, it’s up to you to make sure those benefits are clear to everyone beforehand.

 

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Cash and Carry Business Software

Photo courtesy of our friends and customer, A1 Cash and Carry. 

In contrast to traditional retail stores, cash and carry businesses operate as more of a wholesale distribution business, and typically cater strictly to other businesses (B2B customers) as opposed to the end consumer. However, what makes them similar to any retail store, is that customers must pay on the spot for the goods purchased. Typically this is done by cash and not on account (hence the name) and customers are then responsible for transporting the goods themselves. In addition to these types of walk-in customers, many cash and carry businesses still provide traditional wholesale services, in which customers order product to be delivered at a later date and pay once an invoice is received. Most cash and carry businesses operate retail sales from the front of their warehouse.  Product is stored like any other wholesale distribution company, but point of sale (POS) systems and check-out counters are set up near the front and customers are invited to shop the warehouse floor themselves.

In order to successfully manage your cash and carry business, proper inventory and accounting ERP software is a must. ERP software or Enterprise Resource Planning systems, are designed to manage all aspects of a company’s operations.  This includes inventory, accounting, contact management, order entry and processing, warehouse management and everything in between.   As a cash and carry business however, you also want a system that provides full point of sale functionality.

There are lots of benefits to be gained from using proper POS software in a retail setting, especially if that software is fully integrated with a back-end ERP solution.  These benefits include:

Automatic calculation of sales commissions
Inventory detail lookup including multiple warehouse locations, items on order, backorder etc.
The ability to manage multiple ‘in-progress’ transactions on the same terminal
Multiple payment types including ‘on account’
Integration with accounting system, GL, AR, inventory; commissions, booked sales reports, and taxes

POS is a necessary feature for cash and carry operations and is becoming more popular among other non-traditional retail operations.  For example, many distributors also cater to walk-in customers or provide showrooms open to the public.  No matter the situation, the best POS software will also allow users to continue to process sales orders even in the event of a network failure.  Offline POS functionality means that users can continue to process orders, with the system automatically uploading orders into the back-end when a connection is re-established.  The main benefit to offline POS is that it makes it possible to continue operations if the internet goes down – an imperative feature when you have a store full of customers.
Learn more about Point of Sale Functionality
Although POS functionality is one of the most important and obvious features to look for, other functionality may be necessary depending on the nature of the business. For example, most ERP systems will also provide functionality for credit card processing and pre-authorizations, barcode scanning and printing of barcode labels, and warehouse shipping for more efficient pick, pack and ship processes.  If your cash and carry business also deals with perishable items, lot tracking functionality is important in order to track expiry dates and specific lot/batches of product.  Proper lot tracking means that in the event of a recall, only those specific lot/batches of product affected need to be recalled.  This in turn will save your business time and money, and reduce the amount of negative impact on your customers.

 

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Business Process Automation – is it for you?

If you work for a large organization, chances are that you’re quite familiar with the concept of Business Process Automation (“BPA”). However, many smaller businesses may have heard the expression but are either not sure what it exactly encompasses, or think that it’s just for larger enterprises.

So what is BPA? It’s essentially the automation of processes using software (and software integration), eliminating and/or streamlining manual processes, in order to save costs (usually HR costs), speed up processes and eliminate errors. It’s important to note that effective BPA will often eliminate redundant pieces of software as well as reducing the need for human intervention.

BPA examples include:

Document management and workflow – when a completed claim form is uploaded to an insurance company’s portal, BPA software scans the form for a bar-code that identifies the file and claim numbers, and then routes the completed form to the relevant claim adjustor’s inbox, and updates the file’s claim status to “submitted”. This in turn triggers an email to the claimant, and creates a task and due date for the adjustor.
A distributor receives orders from customers via a website and Amazon. These orders arrive electronically and are imported into their ERP Software System. BPA scans the incoming orders based on pre-established criteria, and routes them automatically – if OK to ship, pick tickets automatically spit out in the appropriate zones in the warehouse.

Many small and medium sized business (“SMB”) do in fact use bits and pieces of BPA to automate aspects of the business, but it’s not usually part of an overall business strategy. The benefits of BPA if properly implemented are clear: save time and money, reduce errors, and improve the bottom line. Seems like a no-brainer, right?

But there are three factors that typically constrain the SMB from even starting to look into business process automation as an overall strategy:

Lack of knowledge – many SMB owners are simply not aware of the potential to automate processes. Entrepreneurs typically focus on their product or service, and sales, and in a smaller organization you may not find the level of operational management experience or knowledge of BPA. These companies usually solve  bottlenecks by adding more employees to the mix.
Cost: if you do a search for BPA vendors, you’ll find that most appear to offer costly solutions – in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that can deter any SMB form even looking further. However, please rest assured there are some very affordable BPA solutions out there – particularly in comparison with the ongoing cost of hiring additional employees.
Lack of defined processes: probably the biggest practical obstacle is that many (most?) SMBs do not have well defined processes. There are often many exceptions to whatever processes are in place, and they are usually based on the knowledge in someone’s head. This is not necessarily always a bad thing, it’s just a fact of life. But you cannot automate a process that cannot be accurately defined.

In terms of the tools necessary to do the job, you may already own some fairly good ones. Do you have ERP software that offers workflow automation, but you’ve just not taken advantage of it? Do you have different pieces of software that don’t integrate with each other, but could?

In future blog posts over the next few weeks, we’ll explore some strategies for identifying bottlenecks that could be automated, with a couple of real life examples, and we’ll review some 3rd party business process automation software tools. Stay tuned.

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Your eCommerce is selling, but can you deliver?

The following is a summary of the presentation made by Darren Myher, VP Operations and Development at Blue Link ERP, during this year’s Dx3 show.  A complete recording can be found via the link at the bottom of this post.

ERP is an acronym for Enterprise Resource Planning, but what does that really mean? Essentially ERP is the software designed to manage your business. ERP is a back-end system comprised of accounting and inventory management functionality, designed to keep track of inventory, manage orders, ship product, process your receivables and payables as well as manage many other aspects of your business. So why is ERP important, and why should you care? As an eCommerce company, why don’t you just set-up a Shopify site and be on your way? ERP matters because once a product is sold on your website, you also have to think about what is going to happen to that order. How is that order going to get to your customer, and what sort of processes will that involve? When it comes to managing an eCommerce site, there are several things to consider.

The first major consideration is around data.  How do you get product information up to your website? How do you get your product catalogue populated in the first place? This is where having a proper system in place with inventory management comes into play.  You want a system that can act as a hub for all your data.  The most ideal situation is one where you can create a SKU once, and have that information populate to your website.

The second consideration is around order flow. When someone places an order online, how will that information get into your system? There are a couple of different methods for achieving this, and the best one for your business will depend on your company size, order volume, available resources and growth projections.

The third consideration is around order completion.  Once an order is picked and packed, how does it get to the customer? Automated processes within ERP systems allow you to integrate with freight carriers in order to get the product shipped and then send tracking information back to your customer online.

Lastly, what happens if a customer wants to change their order? Do you have to log into multiple systems? How do you handle payment processing if the costs change? The more orders you have the more exceptions you will experience, and this is where automation makes a big difference in reducing the amount of errors and time spent managing these exceptions.

Once you consider all the processes around managing an eCommerce site, the big question becomes; how many people do you need to manage these processes? Is that number going to grow as your company grows? How can you manage these costs?

eCommerce Workflow Options

Starting with data, there are several options for when it comes to managing the flow of information associated with selling product online.

Manual Processes

The first method is through manual processes.  This usually entails an email getting sent to your inbox every time an order is placed online, and involves multiple people entering information into multiple systems to process that order. Email messages have to be manually keyed into another system in order to process that order and allocate inventory, or you could be picking orders from the email itself.  Although this model may be fine in the beginning, it is not scalable as your order volume increases and does not give you the visibility into what your inventory levels are at any given time, which can lead to stock issues.

Batch Processes

The second method is designed as a batch process in which you export one or more files, and write an import routine to share information between systems.  In its simplest form, this involves downloading a spreadsheet of orders from your eCommerce site and then importing those into your back-end introductory system.  This is a common example of how companies initially manage orders coming in through Amazon.  The issue with this approach though is that it is only a one way pull of information – how do you send shipping information back to Amazon? You could type this information into a spreadsheet to then batch upload to Amazon, but this is a very manual process that can result in a high number of keying errors.  Although this model is slightly more scalable than manual processes, it is still very person intensive which increases the risk for error and requires a lot of resources to manage.

Web Extensions

The third method involves the use of Web extensions, where web applications are managing your inventory and sales.  However these web tools are not designed to be true ERP systems and do not provide the same amount of integration and automation as ERP.

ERP with Automation

The ideal solution is one that automates the flow of information between multiple systems and processes, for a streamlined approach.  This involves ERP software that automatically pulls orders from your website, processes those orders, sends information to the warehouse and freight carriers for picking, packing and shipping of the product, and then updates the information online for the customer. This option is best for growing companies that want to reduce the amount of human interaction needed to manage their processes.  True ERP solutions allow you to integrate into multiple warehouses for order fulfillment, send shipping information to originating site which completes the order and notifies the customer, and process payments once an order has been complete – all from within the same system. Information flows between your online orders and ERP, and your ERP and warehouse, and then back-up to your website.  It requires a minimum number of person hours which in turn reduces the amount of keying errors and resources needed.

Picture Sources: http://wallpapercave.com/us-map-wallpaper, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canada_flag_map.svg Amazon (n.d.). . Retrieved from http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?p=irol-mediahome&c=176060 . Shopify (n.d.). . Retrieved from http://bootstrappingecommerce.com/50-of-the-best-shopify-resources/  Magento (n.d.). . Retrieved from http://abtach.com/technology/magento/
Implementing proper ERP software as part of your eCommerce business, provides various opportunities for automation.  It is important to note that integration does not mean automation, and certain processes between integrated systems may still involve manual work. Automation plays an important part in the following processes:

Data flows in which “onesie” and “twosie” orders are automatically consolidated into one pick slip for more efficient picking.
Automated processes that look at different warehouses set up within your ERP and then intelligently pick which warehouse to ship from based on the location of the order and/or stock availability.
Mobile picking from an electronic device which improves accuracy by allowing you to scan items as you pick them. Handheld devices automatically notify users if the wrong item has been picked, identifying any issues at the source of error for faster and more accurate picking.
Product layout in which the system automatically generates a pick list based on bin and shelf locations of items to be picked, which reduces time spent walking the warehouse.
Integration with freight carriers so that information from the ERP is sent to the shipping system and labels are automatically generated for shipping. Tracking information is then sent back to the ERP and then to your website for the customer to see.
Payment processing automation that pre-authorizes a payment, which allows you to secure the funds before picking an order, and then automatically processes a charge against that pre-authorization when the order is shipped. This process gives you confidence that the payment will go through when you ship the product.  It also eliminates the need to credit a customer’s account if you’re not able to ship the whole order, instead only charging for what has actually been shipped.
Automated allocation of inventory received into the warehouse to an open sales order based on pre-determined criteria.

If your software is not managing these automated workflows, than it means that you have people manually doing so, and people make mistakes.  The ultimate question becomes, how much do these manual processes cost me right now and how does that compare to purchasing software to automate them? Initially when you have a small number of orders, manual processes might be the best approach, but eventually it will become time to scale this model.  This comparison involves the simple calculation of how much time it takes to perform any one task as part of the order fulfillment process, multiplied by the number of orders.  The result is the number of hours required to keep up with demand, which in turn provides you with an idea of how many people you need to manage these orders.  The knee jerk reaction when order volume increases is to throw more people into the equation, but there are other costs associated with hiring to keep in mind, such as; benefits, training, equipment, skills transferability and turnover.  If you can reduce the headcount required by automating certain processes, that will factor into your decision to upgrade your systems.

So why does automation makes sense?

Fewer errors
Less human interaction
Reduces the rate at which you need to hire new staff
Simplified on-boarding process for new staff (less complexities)
More satisfied customers
Better compliance with partners like Amazon
Scalability

Every business will have different silos of information – from your website, to ERP, to etailers who sell through brick and mortar stores and so make use of point of sale software.  The idea then is to have this information all live in one central hub – ERP.  One place for information to be managed with full two-way integration between the other systems for streamlined, automated workflows.

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It’s Time to Replace QuickBooks. So what’s the Hold Up?

As a business owner or user of introductory software such as QuickBooks, you are fully aware that the time has now come to search for a new software system. The company has been using this software for several years and the limitations that were once unnoticeable are quickly becoming too prominent and cumbersome to manage. The company is growing substantially and new systems and processes are needed to complement and enable continued growth. So why the hesitation? There are a number of reasons why a company is reluctant to replace Quickbooks and move off their introductory software:

It’s been good to you:

QuickBooks is a sensible choice for many start-up companies trying to get a business off the ground. For startup companies looking for basic accounting functionality, QuickBooks has become a logical choice from both a cost and usability standpoint. As you’ve grown the company, QuickBooks has been by your side every step of the way and using its tools has become second nature to you and your team. However, there will come a point in time when the software will not offer the necessary tools for a growing a dynamic business. Although you and your employees have grown accustomed to the software, in order to facilitate further growth and keep up with order volume, you will need a system that can accommodate these plans.

Been burned before

Now let’s assume you and your employees have moved past the nostalgia of your first system and are willing to implement new software. Unfortunately, there’s something else holding you back. There are instances where businesses have had negative experiences in the past implementing software, making them very reluctant to do so again. In this case, owners become comfortable with sticking with the status-quo and maintaining their introductory software. It’s incredibly easy to be discouraged by one of these negative experiences, but you can’t let it deter you from ever considering new software again. Despite any contempt you may hold toward software implementations, learn from these experiences and try not to make history repeat itself. In these types of situations, you want to make sure you find not only the right software, but also the right software vendor who holds an acute interest in helping to grow your business.

Lack of time

This is another difficulty many business owners run into when attempting to replace QuickBooks or other introductory software. Many small business owners are tasked with wearing many different hats in the company. Sometimes they are part of the sales, accounting, and marketing departments and a lot of the time all at once. Now they must add ‘software search committee’ to that list. Unfortunately, searching for a new software system does not take precedent compared to the countless other daily tasks that a business owner must manage. Dedicating an ample amount of time to a software search could sometimes be the hardest – but most vital – part of any search.

There a number of different factors in play when you start to think about upgrading software. You have a system that employees feel favorable towards, you may have had a negative experience in the past, and to top it all off, you have very little time. The easy route would be to renew you license and continue on the same business trajectory you’re currently on. But as a business savvy entrepreneur, you understand that in order to grow the business new software is a must and introductory software just won’t cut it anymore.

 

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Dx3 Canada – Your One Stop Shop for All Things Digital

Dx3 is Canada’s leading technology, digital marketing and retail tradeshow event, dedicated to helping Canadian businesses get digital and remain current on Canada’s cutting edge technology sector.  Already in its 5th year, the two day event held in Toronto is always a hot topic among entrepreneurs, digital marketing professionals and businesses looking for the latest and greatest in technology to grow their business. Dx3 is more than just your typical tradeshow, and aside from the 75+ vendors that will be exhibiting, the show also boasts interactive marketing and technology zones, presentations and keynote speakers, and over 40 sessions that specifically outline ways in which to expand your business and remain competitive. This year’s speakers include representatives from eBay Canada, VICE Canada, comScore, Twitter, Marketing Magazine, Virtual Logistics and Blue Link’s very own Darren Myher.  In addition to presentations, Dx3 is also known for its detailed sessions that leave its audience with action items and real insight into how to execute their learnings.  This year’s topics include:

How To Be Ready For Business In Real Time
Connecting Your Customers To The Internet Of Things
Creating Habit Forming Products
How To Engage The Mobile Consumer (The New Rules For Success)
How The Science Of Storytelling Is Changing
How To Build Partnerships In The Digital Age

If your business lives in the digital world (and most do in some capacity nowadays), than this tradeshow provides the perfect opportunity to stay ahead of the game, learn about emerging trends and develop true partnerships with other businesses.  Whether its eCommerce, omni-channel integration, marketing, retail or customer interaction you’re interested in, Dx3 provides insight from successful businesses about these and other topics.  Not to mention it’s a great excuse to get out of the office for a day!

This year Blue Link is proud to support Dx3 along with several of our integration partners.  Visit us at Booth #316 where we will be speaking to attendees about an often overlooked and certainly less glamorous aspect of eCommerce – back-end inventory and accounting ERP software.  In today’s world, many non-traditional retail operations such as wholesale and distribution businesses, are beginning to sell through multiple sales channels in order to reach more customers.  For example, many distributors also cater to walk-in customers, provide showrooms open to the public and sell through online channels both B2B and B2C.  eCommerce provides the opportunity for any type of business to sell product online, 24/7, 365.  However, eCommerce is just one piece of the puzzle – in order to be successful online, consideration must be made for back-end business management and proper integration.  There is no advantage to selling online if you do not have the processes and systems in place to then process those orders, pick, pack and ship items from your warehouse, invoice your customers and receive new inventory to replenish what has been sold.  For many eCommerce businesses, proper inventory and accounting management can be the difference between your company succeeding and failing.  In such a saturated market, consumers will not easily forgive those eCommerce sites who sell inventory they don’t have, lose orders during shipment and are slow to respond to customer service issues.

Dx3 is a great place to interact with businesses from all parts of the supply chain.  eCommerce agencies and platforms such as Demac Media and Shopify are attending the show to share their insight on how to successfully sell product online and remain competitive.  Virtual Logistics is onsite as an omni-channel data integration service provider to discuss proper integration between multiple systems and channels, including eCommerce and back-end software.  Blue Link is onsite to discuss the importance of having back-end systems in place to manage online sales and to successfully ship product to customers, and Canada Post is onsite in order to answer all your shipping questions.

For more information on Dx3, visit their website or register today! Tickets are only $25 for access to the show floor, or you can grab an All Access Pass for entry to the sessions.

 

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Target Canada: Mistakes Made from a Software Perspective

It was a sad day in Canadian retail history when, just over a year ago, Target Canada filed for bankruptcy protection after months of struggling to gain a foothold in the marketplace.  A highly anticipated launch seemed to face issue after issue from the get-go and consumers continuously felt let down by the retail giant.  No doubt this story will be used as a business case in schools across the country for years to come – a perfect example of what not to do when entering new markets. Canadian Business recently published an article detailing the failed launch after speaking with close to 30 of the company’s former employees from the US and Canada .   They tried to answer the question that is still on many people’s minds; how could one of the best retailers in the US have failed so badly in Canada?   The list of issues that contributed to this disaster are endless, and include everything from bad management decisions, lack of communication and poor market research to internal system and data failure and unrealistic timeframes.  Despite the success of Target in the US – it is among one of the biggest US retail success stories, a $40+ billion company with roots extending as far back as 1902 – its entry into Canada was seen as a bold move, and was certainly not without its fair share of risks.  Any such business trying to enter into the Canadian marketplace would face extreme competition from rival retailers.

The Beginning of the End

To say that Target had unrealistic and highly optimistic growth plans would be an understatement – in 2011 the company had plans to open 124 locations by the end of 2013 with the expectation that the Canadian company would be profitable within its first year of operations. Not to mention that they also had plans to build 3 new distribution centers in less than two years – a feat that typically takes a couple of years per center.   The end result was that Target Canada filed for bankruptcy, wasted billions of dollars, tarnished its reputation and left approximately 17,600 people without jobs.  In most cases, this would have completely destroyed a company’s chances of surviving and Target has been lucky to continue to see success among its US stores.

The reasons behind this devastating failure have been discussed and analyzed endlessly by the media and other businesses, as well as by those employees and people directly affected by it.   Although many can agree that specific decisions and actions collectively attributed to its failure, there is no reason why the launch couldn’t have been successful.  Target had long been hinting that it was considering entering the Canadian market, and this had consumers excited. Not to mention that with Zeller’s’ real estate up for grabs, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to make the move.

By March of 2013 however, it was clear to most employees that the launch into Canada was not going as planned and that continuing to open new locations could prove disastrous.  According to one former employee, “Nobody wanted to be the one person who stopped the Canadian venture.  It wound up just being a constant elephant in the room”.

One of the earliest and most important decisions that Target Canada had to make was concerning technology.  It was necessary to find an ERP system that would allow the company to order product from vendors, process goods through multiple warehouses, and get product delivered to store shelves efficiently.  Target’s US counterpart was already benefitting from such a system, however, that technology was not designed to manage specific Canadian requirements, such as the ability to deal with foreign currency and French-language characters.  With such a tight timeframe, it would have been impossible for Target to customize its existing system to manage these new requirements and so the company opted to find a new, out-of-the-box solution.  This was the first in a series of misguided decisions, and thus began the many software issues that contributed to the company’s decision to abandon the Canadian market.

Software Problems

Finding the right ERP software solution is a difficult and resource-laden task for any company, and with Target’s tight timeframe, successfully implementing a system within 2 years was next to impossible. The decision to upgrade existing systems versus purchasing something new has its fair share of pros and cons to weigh.  For Target, its existing software did not include features specific to the Canadian market, however, it was a familiar system for employees and had proven successful for managing US operations.  Successfully implementing a new system in such a short time frame should have been the first red flag for Target management.  Proper implementations are hard enough without adding an unrealistic timeframe to the equation.  This is also something that should have alarmed the software vendor in question – implementing a system quickly should never be at the expense of doing it properly.  Although the company’s logistical and software problems were exacerbated by a short timeframe, other issues such as bad data, poor inventory management and inadequate training are also to blame.

Bad Data

Months prior to the company launching its first set of stores in March of 2013, there had been major data issues within their system, and it quickly became clear that this was the underlying cause of Target’s logistical issues.   Inventory items had incomplete or missing information, long lead times were stalling deliveries, landed cost factors were not being accounted for and product was not fitting in containers as expected.

In order to decrease implementation timeframes, many companies choose to start fresh on the data front. This was exactly the case with Target; there would be no historical data to migrate over, only new information to input.  However, even though only new information was being inputted into the system, it was still riddled with errors.  Users experienced product dimension errors, the system was calculating costs using the wrong currency, inventory items had vague descriptions and there was a lot of missing data and typos. In addition, no features had been developed to notify users of data entry errors at the source, and so many of these errors were not discovered until much later in the supply chain.   When it comes to software implementations, the data migration aspect typically represents one of the largest sources of system implementation costs and time.  Even for companies that are starting fresh like Target Canada, it is important to receive training on proper data input and to set up specific guidelines for employees to follow.  This ensures that information is entered in the correct format and with enough detail every time, regardless of the employee doing the entering. The data issues experienced by Target were so bad that eventually the company shut down its entire merchandising department for two weeks to fix them.  During that time, every employee was responsible for verifying each piece of data in the system and then fixing any issues.  Although this process did remove most of the bad data, it greatly affected employee morale and was a costly way for Target to realize the importance of maintaining accurate data.

Inadequate Training

To add to the problems of bad data, new employees hired to work at the Canadian Target offices did not receive the same type of training as those in the US.  Once again because of the tight timeframe mandated by Target executives, the company was able to hire people with the right personalities, but did not invest enough time in their training on procedures and software.  This lack of training would come back to haunt the company and directly impacted some of the data and supply chain issues Target experienced.  Right along with data migration, there is a reason that software training is one of the other more costly aspects of software implementations, and that is because it is also one of the most important. It goes without saying that the better trained employees are, the more productive they will be.  All things being equal, when employees feel confident using software they will rely on it more in order to perform their responsibilities. This in turn can help automate previously manual processes, therefore reducing the instance of human error.  If Target Canada employees had been better trained on the system and business processes, many of the data and supply chain issues could have been avoided. Training should first and foremost empower employees to continue to be productive doing their everyday tasks, and then provide additional benefits by way of new features and opportunities. If employees feel confident using the system they will be able to identify other bottlenecks and opportunities – something that would have greatly helped Target.

Poor Inventory Management

For Target, the issue was never on the consumer demand side, but instead on sorting out their supply chain.  Consumers who were shopping at Target would frequently find empty shelves and “out of stock notices”.  This lack of inventory availability had consumers flocking to social media sites to post comments and complaints, another factor that hurt the company’s Canadian launch and brand reputation.  It got so bad that at one point in time almost every single item on the front page of a printed weekly flyer was out of stock. Even after the big two-week data blitz, the company was still struggling with data quality problems that were negatively affecting the supply chain.  Because the company didn’t have time to address these issues before the next set of new stores opened, the problems multiplied, causing even more damage. From the distribution side of the business, it appeared that there were no supply issues at all, as vendors were overwhelming shipping yards and warehouses with product.  So much so that eventually Target was forced to rent more warehouse space.  In some instances supply became so overwhelming that distribution centers were overflowing with product and delivery trucks were stuck waiting to unload in parking lots.  Even when inventory was being unloaded, the process of shipping items to stores was rushed and disorganised, which led some stores to receive too much inventory and others not enough.  It can be easy to neglect the inventory management process when sales and demand are high, however, as Target discovered, without proper inventory management those high sales numbers will quickly fall.  When evaluating software systems, and during implementation, it is important to thoroughly assess the inventory management process in order to avoid such issues.  Proper software will allow users to set up minimum re-order levels, taking into account lead times, so that employees are notified when new product needs to be shipped, track backorders in order to easily allocate new shipments, manage multiple units of measure for easy picking, packing and shipping, calculate landed cost factors in order to quickly process and receive shipments and track inventory across multiple warehouses.

Other Issues

As if Target did not have enough problems to deal with, other issues kept arising throughout the company’s distribution centers and retail stores. There were problems with the company’s back-end ERP solution communicating properly with the company’s warehouse system, and the point of sale software used in-store at each retail location was not working properly.  According to one employee, the Canadian division did not do their due diligence when selecting its point of sale software, and they further explained that, “In the US, this never would have made it off the launching pad.  There would have been a robust process for testing”. Having a tight timeframe meant that the solution was not adequately tested for its fit, and as such employees were stuck dealing with long boot up times, incorrect change, and the system constantly freezing.

Improper training and bad data also skewed the information that management was seeing and made the situation at each retail location seem better than it actually was.  Only after the company had been experiencing continued supply chain issues for several months did a group of employees discover that some of the new hires were purposely turning off a key feature in the system – the ability to notify distribution centres that more product needed to be

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3 Common Employee Complaints During ERP Training

Implementing ERP software into your business is an impressive milestone that highlights the fact that a business is experiencing favorable growth and is primed for future success. If only all your employees felt this way. No matter how helpful you deem ERP software to be, there will always be hesitation among employees and an unwillingness to adapt to these new processes. Perhaps the three most common complaints from employees during ERP training is that they are too busy and the training process itself is too complex and long:

Too Busy

There is no denying that in order to train employees on a new software system, it will require their undivided attention. Unfortunately, there is no button to put the business world on pause to allow your employees to give their full attention to understand the breadth of an ERP platform. The phones will still be ringing, orders will still be coming in, and inventory will still need to be picked, packed and shipped. This creates difficulty and stress among employees who need to juggle their everyday activities all while learning (and hopefully absorbing) the new information being provided during training sessions.

As a business owner, you must be conscious of this difficulty and ensure that employees have enough time to manage their daily tasks in addition to the training. This could involve taking breaks during peak business times or creating a training schedule that ensures employees are in the training sessions that apply directly to their role in the company. For example, a warehouse worker might not find much use in a training session for building high-level sales reports.

Too Complex

In addition to the time being spent on ERP training, many employees will find the new software too complex. For many employees and companies using outdated business processes, there is often a level of hesitation and reluctance to adapt to new technology. A strong ERP platform is essentially a web of interconnected processes designed to connect all aspects of a business. Understandably, many employees have difficulty learning the new processes being taught, especially when many are already ‘set in their ways’.

The best way to deal with this situation is to educate your employees about the need for an ERP system and why the company decided to implement software in the first place. The owners understand that they must streamline processes in order stay competitive in an ever-changing marketplace. It is important to make sure employees know that the software is there to help them and to grow the business. Tedious processes that may have taken hours before can be automated by ERP software, and it is imperative that employees understand this reality. Once they understand that the software is there to make their lives easier, there will be more of a willingness to learn.

Too Long

Even once your employees ‘buy-in’ to the training process and are willing to learn about the system, the process will still be lengthy. This is just the reality of an ERP system. There are so many intricacies involved that it will take a great deal of time to train every employee to feel truly comfortable on the system. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix solution to deal with this scenario. Since you’re paying for the implementation, you would hope that the software vendor is being thorough in their training so that your employees don’t find themselves too overwhelmed when you go-live.

Implementing software is a difficult but worthwhile process. No matter how much you may need new software, there will always be employees who are not willing to make the switch. However, if you take the time to educate and explain to your employees why software is necessary and how it will benefit them, they will be more willing to adapt.

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Moving from Legacy On-Premises ERP to Cloud ERP

For many companies, deciding to implement a new ERP software stems from company growth and a lack of integrated software. However for those businesses that have been around longer, the need may stem from using outdated legacy systems.  In certain instances these systems are no longer supported or being developed which can leave the company stuck, or the business has changed and its existing software is no longer appropriate. No matter the reason, an important decision to make is whether to implement an on-premises solution or a cloud-based solution.  As a relatively new technology, many companies running legacy systems did not have the option of implementing via the cloud when first searching for a back-end ERP system.  In this situation cloud software can represent new opportunities, so it is important that all businesses consider both options before making a decision and be open to making the switch.

Simply put, on-premises ERP systems involve the software being implemented and managed on-site, on the company’s own internal servers. Alternatively, a cloud implementation involves the software being implemented and managed on the vendor’s servers, with data being accessed and managed via the cloud (over the internet).  Keep in mind though that a cloud solution does not always imply a browser-based system, instead the software can be accessed via remote desktop protocol or VPN setup.  Although there is no “right” answer when it comes to choosing an implementation method, for those moving off of legacy on-premises solutions, cloud software provides a new way of operating which may not have been considered in the past.  Below we outline some of the implications of switching to cloud ERP.

Personnel and infrastructure changes.

Traditional on-premises solutions require internal or outsourced IT personnel in order to manage technology and software upgrades, data back-ups, IT maintenance and configuration support.  In small, owner-managed businesses – where employees tend to wear many hats – this often comes in the form of an employee with an IT background taking on this responsibility, even though it was not part of his/her job description.  With cloud software, IT management becomes the responsibility of the vendor, leaving internal employees to focus on other core aspects of the company such as customer service or sales.  Cloud software not only frees up human resources, but also physical space.  Depending on the nature of your business, eliminating the need for in-house servers can mean more warehouse, showroom or retail space to store product.

Technology set-up.

Even cloud solutions that are not browser-based require a consistent internet connection to run.  For those businesses that work in remote areas where this is not possible, it could make the decision to switch to cloud a non-issue.  However, for those with a reliable connection, switching to a cloud based solution will allow users to connect from anywhere in the world.  Keep in mind though that this type of access availability does not change the nature of the system – just because you could access the system from a smartphone while out of the office, does not mean you should.  For the most part, cloud solutions will operate exactly the same as their on-premises counterpart in terms of the functionality offered.  If you’re interested in remote access via a phone or tablet, make sure to ask the vendor about these options and whether their system is designed to be accessed in this manner.  Many vendors provide additional functionality or integration with other systems in order to address this need.

Regular upgrades and vendor relationship.

Implementing a cloud solution typically involves more interaction with the software vendor on a regular basis.  With on-premises solutions the software is purchased upfront and managed by the company using it – for some companies this means very little interaction with the vendor.  Some on-premises solutions provide maintenance packages which include regular upgrades, but at an additional cost. However, not all vendors provide this and even for those that do, some businesses may choose not to participate in these services.  With cloud based software, regular upgrades are usually included in the cost and therefore require ongoing communication with the vendor.  Although it is recommended that you maintain contact with your software provider on a regular basis anyways, upgrades provide a great excuse to review processes and functionality.  A good vendor will be able to make recommendations to its customers on improving processes, providing efficiencies and making the most of the software system.  In turn, a good customer will be able to provide valuable insight into opportunities for improving the software and reaching new markets. In order to be most beneficial, it is important that both sides understand what to expect from the other.

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A New Year Means a New ERP Software Search

Now that the champagne has been polished off and you’ve rung in the New Year, it’s time to make your return to the office and attempt to shake the holidays from your mind. As your business returns to its normal operating activities, you may start to remember some of the inefficiencies you escaped and pushed to the back of your mind during your vacation. This is frequently when many companies start to proactively think about implementing new software to improve their outdated processes. As you prepare your company to search for new ERP software, here are 3 important questions that you will need to answer:

Cloud or On-Premises Installation?

A question as old as time itself (if time started 6 or 7 years ago), it’s a question that has plagued business decision makers tasked with finding a new ERP software system. Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not black and white, and is rather dependent on a number of different factors. We see a lot of companies select cloud hosted software as opposed to on-premises for convenience. By choosing software hosted over the cloud you avoid having to purchase new servers in addition to eliminating the need to employ the resources required to maintain those servers (i.e. IT staff). For many smaller start-ups or growing companies, the monthly hosted license fees associated with cloud software, are often more ideal than a large initial investment needed when purchasing the software outright.

But just because the cloud option makes sense for one company, doesn’t mean it will make sense for every other. Perhaps you are a large company with both financial and IT resources readily available. In this situation it may be more ideal to make one large investment and implement the software on-premises to reduce the ongoing monthly fees. Available financial resources, in addition to other factors such as poor internet coverage, may make on-premises a more suitable option.

Whatever option you select, it is important to note that there is no cookie cutter solution to this problem. Each individual company will need to sit down and assess their processes and current situation to arrive at a conclusion of what is the most ideal installation method for them specifically.

Customizable or Out-of-the-Box Software?

This is another difficult question that businesses must answer. For the most part, Out-Of-The-Box software will contain the basic features that drive most businesses to search for software in the first place. Basic accounting, inventory, & contact management features will come standard in many ERP packages, making out-of-the-box software particularly attractive. Unfortunately, just as when deciding between cloud and on-premises software, it is important to keep in mind that no two businesses are alike. Similar businesses may share similar processes; however, there are always unique traits to every business. This is where the flexibility of customizable software is very helpful. Although it will almost certainly be more costly, some software developers will work with your business to develop custom components to meet your unique business needs. These packages will offer both the standard features as well as the more unique components to provide a complete solution, albeit at a higher price point.

Once again the answer to the debate between customizable and out-of-the-box software is a situational problem. If you believe all your needs can be met with the features contained in an out-of-the-box software system, then that is the right decision for your business. Whereas another company may have additional features that they need, making a customizable software package the better decision for that business.

Should You Purchase from a Small Vendor or a Larger One?

Some people feel safer choosing a big vendor because of their large user base and seemingly plentiful support staff to handle any inquiries. Others stray away from larger companies for fear of being ‘a little fish in a big pond’, in that they won’t receive the personalized support that many smaller vendors are able to provide. The answer to this question seems more black and white. Whether it’s a smaller vendor or larger one; choose the one that cares about growing your business as much as you do. You want a vendor that will take the time to learn your business, specifically what drives your success and any areas for improvement. If you can find a vendor who cares this much and acts more as a business partner than a software vendor, it shouldn’t matter if they are small or large.

As you begin to think about new software, keep these questions in mind as they will most certainly come up as you start the ERP software search process. Although some of the questions are not so black and white, to answer each question you will undoubtedly have to sit down as a team and assess every aspect of your business. It will be time consuming and at times frustrating, but when it’s complete your business will be set up to reach unprecedented new heights.

 

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Simplest Way to Maximize Return on ERP Software Investment

When investigating a possible ERP Software purchase, some companies try to use the anticipated return on investment (“ROI”) as a tool to justify the project, select a vendor, and / or measure the project’s success. One sees this more with larger companies and projects, though, and in the SME space ROI is seldom discussed. In many ways this makes sense, as it can be difficult to quantify some of the expected benefits, particularly when the ERP project is part of a strategic plan to aggressively grow the company. I have had many discussions (OK, disagreements) with other accounting professionals over the validity and usefulness of trying to build the ROI model for an ERP Software implementation that results in an annual spend of, say, less than 0.5% of revenue.

There is however one simple way to ensure that a company maximizes its ROI on its investment in ERP software, assuming the implementation was at least moderately successful. Use it properly. Seems rather obvious, but it is in fact surprising how many companies implement new software, and then continue to use old methods and work around the new system. Reasons for this are manifold, and include inadequate involvement of management in the project, insufficient internal project management, training gaps, and perhaps most of all, lack of follow-through after the initial implementation (more on this later).

Here are some examples of how companies may not use the new ERP system properly, taken from my personal experience:

Continue using printed reports instead of interactive online / on screen data – such as performing collections using printed aged listings and handwritten notes instead of the purpose-built collection tools embedded in the new system (this one seems to be commonplace in the SME arena)
Continue manually keying data (drawn from the ERP system) into Excel spreadsheets, rather then spending the trivial amount of time required to learn how to link Excel sheets directly to the ERP data
Use external, non-integrated software for functions that the ERP System can (and should) handle – areas such as Contact Management and B2B eCommerce

In the SME space, there are usually one or two main triggers (pain points) behind the decision to implement ERP software, and much of the focus during implementation tends to be on those triggers – quite rightly. For this reason, following up on other areas of efficiency 2 – 3 months after you go live on a formal, scheduled basis, with a focus on using the system properly, will be the simplest way to maximize your return on investment.

 

 

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