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IT gets sales force to eat own dog food

IT gets sales force to eat own dog food

Masterpet counts the payoffs from integrating a new sales force application, mobile JetStream and a new application from an emerging provider.

Masterpet had invested heavily in automating sales processes, from point of sale to warehouse order and delivery. But while the changes delivered efficiencies, its system was crying out for an overhaul. And the need was most evident in the business processes affecting the way the organisation’s sales force worked. For Masterpet, automation meant over half of its orders being filled using portable data terminals (PDTs) and hand-helds, simplifying the order process and freeing staff to focus on selling the pet accessories and food for which the company is known.

Empowering the sales team was crucial; thirty of the company’s 110 staff are in sales, tasked with moving Masterpet’s 7500 products in supermarkets, veterinary clinics and pet stores across New Zealand.

But the Norand PDTs used by the sales staff were four years old and were no longer being manufactured. New devices such as tablet and pocket PCs, meanwhile, were beginning to flood the market.

Masterpet’s PDTs were costly to replace, required ongoing support and were expensive to maintain. Added to this were accuracy issues around data input and their short battery life. Sales reps found it difficult to find a telephone socket in supermarkets. Connecting to the ERP system often took up to an hour, delaying the uploading of orders.

Ending redundancy

It was time for a new sales force application, and Masterpet directors Brent and Wayne Wootton initiated the move.

Monib Moayyed, Masterpet’s IT manager, who reports to the CFO, tendered for a new application providing similar functionality to their PDTs. The aim was to allow sales reps to improve customer service and increase both the accuracy and speed of processing orders.

Masterpet’s need was for an easy-to-use and scalable application. Responding to the tender, and the eventual contract winner, was Wellington-based mobile application provider emPrise IT.

Initially deployed for Unilever Sri Lanka, the aVya Field Sales application was customised for Masterpet, allowing sales representatives to place orders in the field. The application can integrate with many back-end, legacy, ERP and CRM sales systems, offering various synchronisation options. Its basic functions include stock control and product availability, scheduling, invoice and payment collection, sales summaries and competitor intelligence.

Unlike the PDTs, iPAQs are solid-state units with no moving parts and which boot-up easily. emPrise felt aVya, iPAQs, and Telecom’s CDMA network would better mobilise Masterpet’s sales team.

Sales tools

The new hand-helds issued to the sales staff were cost-effective and easy to carry. “We chose the iPAQ Pocket PC over other hand-helds because the Windows CE operating system offered more functionality than a proprietary system,” says emPrise project manager, Jay Tennekoon.

Using this combination, Masterpet shortened its workflow processes and gained efficiencies in handling orders and delivery times.

Tennekoon was responsible for ensuring Masterpet’s new sales force application requirements were met and for bringing together the necessary resources. Integration needed to maximise the existing business processes, by using aVya’s middle-tier technology to transfer vital sales information between Masterpet’s ERP system and the iPAQs.

After a three-day evaluation, Masterpet found aVya was better than its existing system. However, the application required further customisation for Masterpet forms and terminology. Tennekoon says aVya is a customisable tool with the basic functions of processing orders, credits and other standard sales functions.

The system was rolled out first in New Zealand and, later, when Masterpet acquired Pets International (now Masterpet Australia) in Australia.

New Zealand operations are based in a 12,000-square-metre distribution centre in Lower Hutt, processing approximately 250 orders each day.

Prior to the new set-up, all incoming and outgoing stock had been accounted for in the company’s Navision financials ERP system. Daily data extracts were made from the ERP system by customer services staff, who performed the time-consuming task of entering orders manually.

Orders were uploaded to the ERP system several times each day, before release to the despatch office. Pickers were then directed to the orders’ precise location using a voice-directed distribution system. Priority of picking and shipping orders was determined on critical cut-off times, enabling most customers to be reached the following day depending on location.

Usability feedback

Coders were flown in from Colombo by emPrise in order to scope Masterpet’s requirements. They had to set up a product database and customise aVya for 450 VitaPet products distributed exclusively in supermarkets. Enhancements were made to the application, allowing sales information to be entered directly into the ERP system from the field and vice versa.

The new system notified sales reps of price changes, informed them if stock was unavailable, and issued stop-credit alerts for unpaid creditors. Other features included weekly messages for product specials, access to historical sales data, demand predictions, credits and returns, and enhanced product search functionality, similar to the PDTs.

In March 2001, 16 VitaPet sales staff began using the new sales force application with Kyocera mobile phones and data cables over Telecom’s CDMA network. Its launch was three week late; but this worked to Masterpet’s advantage, as the sales reps had more time to familiarise themselves with the application without being forced to use it from day one.

Four months later, Telecom launched its new CDMA 1X service (mobile JetStream) a broadband service transmitting data at speeds up to 153 kbps. Sending an order and synchronising with Masterpet’s server now took less than 45 seconds.

Invoices were automatically generated and sent to customers and consignment notes with freight details electronically forwarded to Masterpet’s logistics provider.

Usability feedback suggested further software enhancements were required, to confirm an order had been sent.

A new version of aVya was released in 2003, to handle 4500 Masterpet Australia products and 7500 products for Masterpet sales reps.

Moayyed and Masterpet’s directors were concerned with the performance of this version of the application, despite emPrise having made it 20 per cent faster.

It was later discovered the problem lay with the 5450 and the way the 3630 iPAQ’s Pocket PC2002 operating system and the X-scale processor interacted. All performance issues have since been resolved, with the introduction of the 5550 iPAQ, which uses Pocket PC2003.

A variety of partners

Masterpet’s rollout required a number of third-party providers, integrators and mobile data experts. “It’s unnerving spending all this money and not knowing whether the results you’re trying to achieve will actually work,” says Moayyed.

Tennekoon feels the most challenging part of the implementation was putting the hardware, software and network together. It was difficult for his team to trace and identify the source of a problem, whose responsibility it was, and how to rectify it.

“It’s a matter of knowing where your limitations lie and partnering with the right people to call on to overcome the issues. It was new territory for everyone. So when an issue arose, we had to determine whether it was with our software, the CDMA network or mobile phone, the iPAQ, or its operating system. We would QA aVya’s code and eliminate ourselves before farming the problem off to Telecom, HP, or Microsoft. When we came to a point where we could say ‘It’s definitely not us,’ people like Telecom and Microsoft didn’t shirk their responsibility,” says Tennekoon.

Masterpet had some problems getting data through to its server, but overcame this by increasing bandwidth and optimising the SQL server. A further problem arose when the product database became corrupted if the reps turned off their iPAQs during synchronisation. It was also discovered they could not have email and aVya working simultaneously on the iPAQ when connecting to the server. Microsoft provided several patch fixes, improving hardware compatibility and connectivity. One was installed on Masterpet’s SQL server, improving the hand-helds’ database performance, while the other fixed connectivity problems between the iPAQs and Kyocera phones.

Memory losses

Eighteen months after the VitaPet implementation, the 3630 iPAQ with 32MB of inbuilt RAM was beginning to run out of memory when the more active reps began to accumulate sales histories.

Moayyed progressively upgraded to faster units, but these were unable to accept add-on memory. Further problems developed with the inbuilt battery, resulting in lost orders.

Consequently, Masterpet now has a number of redundant iPAQs with batteries that were unable to hold a charge, yet worked perfectly well receiving DC in their cradle. These issues were overcome with the arrival of the 5550 hand-held.

Adding to the hardware problems was the type of mobile phone needed for use with the iPAQ. Telecom initially supplied Masterpet with the Kyocera 3035 phone, which had some compatibility issues when paired with the chosen hand-held.

They proved to be fiddly for the reps when connecting the phone with the iPAQ using data cables. Moayyed had considered infrared capable phones but none were available through Telecom dealerships.

Most of the time, the CDMA network worked well for Masterpet’s new sales force application.

Telecom technicians were doing their best fixing network problems as fast as Masterpet found them. Some spot-coverage problems were experienced in Auckland and remote parts of Canterbury.

Telecom later upgraded the Kyocera to Samsung N105 mobiles to coincide with the mobile JetStream launch. Because of further compatibility issues, these were upgraded yet again to the Kyocera 2235, using different cellular sites, which resulted in improved coverage.

Moving across the ditch

The team had to deal with a new set of concerns when the project was rolled out in Australia. Masterpet Australia made use of Vodafone’s GPRS service on Nokia Bluetooth phones, eliminating the need for data cables. However, similar connectivity problems to the VitaPet rollout were experienced, with error messages appearing on the 5450 iPAQ.

Tennekoon believed this was being caused by a number of things; ranging from connectivity to the GPRS network (where the signal strength was weak), to timing-out problems on the SQL server.

The rapport between Masterpet and emPrise had been strong, but the late arrival of aVya for a Masterpet Australia sales conference had strained the relationship. Tennekoon says emPrise ran out of time to customise the new functions and to quality-assure the implementation, attributing this to a delayed start date imposed by Masterpet.

It was obvious the VitaPet and Masterpet Australia rollout required more time for staff training at sales conferences. Moayyed accepts sales staff members were not ready to support the product and the amount of training was insufficient.

“We allocated two hours to train our VitaPet reps before sending them on their way and I knew they’d leave not fully knowing how to use it. For the next two weeks, we were constantly on the phone talking them through it,” says Moayyed. After a month, Moayyed felt the sales reps had became more familiar with using the new application.

Like their New Zealand colleagues, Masterpet Australia sales reps had a steep learning curve with the new sales force application. “Half of them were struggling to quickly adjust because they’d never used a computer before. It was difficult for some to accept the change after so many years of doing their job a set way. One rep couldn’t adjust and decided to leave,” says Moayyed.

Two months after the rollout, reps were still finding it an effort to use, but orders slowly increased and the units began to pay for themselves.

Beneficial cuts

Having emPrise coders based in Sri Lanka made for a cheaper overall implementation. However, Moayyed thinks it would have been beneficial for the implementation team to have had direct access to them, in order to discuss issues once they had returned home.

Time zone differences often meant the team had to wait until the following day for the responses to their requests for changes. Moayyed would have liked the work to have been done locally but accepts he had no control over this aspect of aVya’s implementation.

On reflection, Moayyed believes the training could have been better, had more time been available. “We didn’t have the luxury to trial aVya in Australia, and that’s one of the reasons I felt we could have done it better,” says Moayyed.

Both were disappointed with the Masterpet Australia rollout and agreed it did not go as well as expected. In hindsight, Moayyed wondered whether it would have been better for the Masterpet rollout to have taken place in New Zealand, instead.

However, despite the setbacks, both Moayyed and Tennekoon consider the overall rollout to have gone well. All parties had a vested interest in making the new sales force application work and combined forces to resolve any problems quickly. Moayyed says the application empowered sales reps to do more than just take orders. They now have customer information while they are on the road, and this enhances their productivity.

Moayyed and Masterpet’s directors were pleased a return on investment for the VitaPet rollout was achieved in less than nine months. They had saved on maintenance and reduced their costs on double handling of orders, which provided significant savings in employee time.

Accuracy in order taking improved, with fewer erroneous orders (costing approximately $60 for return freight) and a reduction in indecipherable paperwork. Moayyed was satisfied the total cost of ownership was now much lower.

The decision to continue with and deploy a mobility application in Australia was a business decision based on the savings and returns from the initial rollout in New Zealand.

Stephen Patience compiled this case study for his Masters of Information Management at the Victoria University of Wellington.

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