They Wanted BlackBerrys...And Then What?
The path an idea follows is always interesting — sometimes, I feel like an explorer piloting a sailboat in uncharted waters, knowing how the journey will likely progress, yet somewhat unclear about the length of the voyage or the final destination.
The project in this case study initially looked to be an application development project for the BlackBerry platform. This company's CFO knew my firm had experience developing BlackBerry applications, and likely remembered the one we had developed for ourselves to look up detailed information from our main Contact Management database (see: Turning "techspeak" to "business use": Using Web Services to Deliver Information to Mobile Devices, July 2006). So the original idea was to use a BlackBerry application to allow the outside sales representatives to lookup key inventory and customer information — pricing, availability, purchase history, and other information — on the main business system.
Our custom application development projects always include one or more client sessions to assess the current state of things — in terms of People, Process, and Technology — and to envision the desired future state. Such sessions bring together the various stakeholders of a project — the targeted users, their managers, persons from Finance and Information Systems, executives, and others who have a stake in the outcome of a project.
For this client, we brought together the relevant parties in various configurations — some small group, some full group — for a total of 7 hours in 3 sessions. We used various techniques to ensure all stakeholders contributed ideas for consideration, and then shared opinions and rankings on the ideas compiled. These structured discussions produced many outstanding ideas, jotted on sticky notes and doodled on chart paper covering their conference room walls.
In these sessions, we helped our client explore the implications of their choices — and our frequent follow-up question to do this was "And then what?" Our client originally wanted to use BlackBerrys to lookup information from their business system. "And then what?" Well, it would be nice to use that information to prepare a quote. "And then what?" We'd like to send an electronic version of it (in PDF format) to the customer. "And then what?" Once a quote is sent, we need to flag it for followup and track its status and ultimate disposition.
In short, our client quickly realized the BlackBerry solution would only address a very small part of how they really envisioned their future state. The end result of these sessions was a true "ah-ha" moment — what was initially desired was only the start of what they really wanted to do. Our client decided what they really wanted and needed was to overhaul their entire quoting process, standardizing disparate processes and introducing technology to improve efficiency and effectiveness.
How much did our client value the ideas from those early sessions? They affectionately termed the sheets of chart paper "The Wall of Knowledge!" What a great name — and what a testament to how much they benefited from the clarity achieved through structured thinking.
Our client initially envisioned a certain destination. And, in plotting the course — holding "The Wall of Knowledge" meetings — we jointly decided on a new destination. The application featured this month commemorates our client's maiden voyage in overhauling their job quoting system.
Todd L. Herman
Case Study: Overhauling Job Quoting with Process Standardization and New Technology
This commercial construction supplier has inside and outside sales representatives, and a highly functional business system to take and process orders, using both customer-specific and contract-specific product pricing.
The outside sales representatives did not have a way to access current pricing, contract pricing, pricing history, item details, or inventory availability when they met with customers or prospects. They could not quickly respond to questions, putting them at a competitive disadvantage. Furthermore, once asked to quote, the outside reps largely prepared these quotes on 2-part paper — manually accessing data in the business system, which required them to be at a branch office — then sent one copy to the prospect, and the other copy to their regional branch for filing and possible conversion to an order.
The inside sales reps service not only walk-in customers at their Contractor Sales Counters, but also take calls from the outside sales reps and convert accepted quotes into sales orders. In reviewing and keying these quotes, the inside sales reps frequently found discrepancies between quoted pricing and applicable customer or contract pricing, often resulting in gross profit percentages below standard.
We reviewed the processes used by the outside sales reps to prepare quotes, identified several areas to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of multiple tasks, standardized the quote process, and then designed and developed a laptop-based mobile quoting system to:
- Import information on inventory (current cost, pricing, and availability) and customers (contact information, order history, customer pricing history, and contract pricing) from their business system nightly.
- Allow outside sales reps to prepare quotes quickly and accurately, notifying them of items needing special handling or not meeting gross profit goals.
- Permit internal review and approval of quotes requiring special pricing.
- Allow sales reps to create reusable quote templates for various customers and jobs.
- Prepare a PDF version of the quote and email it to the customer.
The software used for this project, IBM Lotus Notes and Lotus Domino, provided the strict security, disconnected usage, and ease-of-use needed by this client.
|Internal (includes cost and gross profit information) and external (for customers) versions of the quote can be automatically stored to PDF and emailed to the appropriate parties.||Highlighting shows special handling considerations for the inventory item — blue indicates an item which freezes, and red designates a hazardous item.|
|"Templates" allow saving and reuse of a standard configuration of inventory items for certain types of jobs. These can either be company-wide (for example, all items for a particular contractor), or for a type of project, such as a school.||When a sales representative selects an item covered by contract-specific pricing, yellow highlighting in this field indicates the contract price took precedence over the normal sales price.|
|When a job is awarded, and the quote needs to be updated, this button quickly refreshes all costs, prices, and other details to their current values.||This button brings up the "Item Details" dialog box, as shown.|
|The user can select from values representing the appropriate step in the bid or quote process.||Double red lines indicate a gross profit percentage significantly below the targeted level.|
Results & Benefits...
Information available to the outside sales reps is now always less than 24 hours old. Furthermore, the application identifies those outside sales reps who have not connected with the application in over 2 days and restricts their usage until their laptop has received current information.
In less than 6 months, the 20 outside sales reps have prepared over 2,100 quotes using this application, serving customers and prospects on a more timely basis. The inside sales reps can now focus on the counter sales business, and knowledgeably respond to customers of the outside sales reps whenever they call the branch directly.
Managers and executives can now assess the effectiveness and productivity of the outside sales reps, helping them identify "best practices" within the company, or highlight those reps or customers needing extra management attention.
Preparing and sending quotes to customers and prospects is now more efficient and effective. The process and technology improvements have been well-received, enabling better service to customers and prospects in the field and at the sales counter.
For More Information...
To discuss how technology usage and business process improvements could be applied to the issues facing your business, call us at 336.297.4200 to schedule a no-obligation consultation, or click here to contact us online.