SAP NetWeaver Portal Resolves Customer Service Issues
by Chris Maxcer
BI Technologies wanted to give its customers what they asked for. That meant implementing SAP NetWeaver Portal instead of the SAP Online store. Find out how BI Technologies improved customer service by making it easier for customers to do business with the company.
Headquarters: Fullerton, California
Industry: High Tech
* 3 continents
* 9 global direct sales offices
* More than 200 representative and distributor offices
Parent company: TT electronics (UK)
Revenue: $986 million
* SAP R/3 4.6C
* SAP NetWeaver Portal
* SAP BW
BI Technologies has a 50-year history of manufacturing a variety of electrical components — potentiometers, turns-counting dials, chip resistor arrays, integrated passive networks, transformers, inductors, hybrid microelectronics, and so on — basically, the little bits and pieces that make up the vast majority of the products that have electricity flowing through them.
The problem is that those 50 years of success came with an ancient mainframe-based system. Although it was highly tweaked and optimized to let distributors and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) place orders easily, the old mainframe made meeting the basic needs of a modern business, such as email notifications, Web sites, and reports, cumbersome and labor-intensive — in a word, difficult.
“We had three full-time mainframe programmers maintaining the system, and while it did a lot of wonderful things for us, we were totally dependent on those three programmers,” explains Bill Cooper, IT manager for BI Technologies. “There was little documentation, so if anything happened to one of them, we’d be in trouble. Also, we couldn’t take advantage of changes in our business; the system became a barrier to expansion.
“One interface we rewrote was 25 years old, and getting it to talk to an interface from another provider was a constant effort. Basically, every night the programmers were working two-to-three hours just to keep the system running, and month-end was a nightmare. Costs were increasing,” Cooper says.
In August 2002, BI Technologies decided to move to SAP R/3 4.6C running on an IBM iSeries machine. The company chose to partner with Hitachi Consulting for its implementation of SAP R/3, beginning a long-running partnership. In 2003, BI Technologies went live with three manufacturing plants, and the company added a sales and distribution facility in 2004. That was the first step.
“Our goal was to make it easier to do business with us and to make sure [that computers] never drove the business again,” explains Cooper. “It caused a fundamental shift [in responsibility].
“As a mainframe shop, IT owned everything: We owned the system; we owned the data; and we owned the process. The users couldn’t do much except enter data and use the reports that we handed them. The SAP software changed all that. Now, IT owns the technology, and the users own the system and the data,” Cooper states.
Using SAP R/3 4.6C was beneficial — it helped BI Technologies to run a more efficient organization — but what would come next? What did the future hold? After years of keeping up with mainframe maintenance, tweaking, and troubleshooting, there was a whole new world of possibilities. For example, how about an online store?
BI Technologies implemented the SAP Online store that was available with SAP R/3 4.6 for order and stock status, but it didn’t take off with the customers. One distributor had branch offices and didn’t want its branches to see product pricing, so that distributor wouldn’t let its branches’ employees sign in to the store. In addition, the store required double sign-ins, and sometimes, customers had to log out and back in again. “It wasn’t user-friendly,” Cooper admits. The online store “used SAP terms, and we were constantly trying to explain to customers what things meant. We wanted to tailor a solution for our customers that used our terminology.”
Enter SAP NetWeaver Portal 6.0
In 2005, SAP was promoting portals, and BI Technologies realized that a portal, rather than an online store, was far closer to what it needed. Management thought that it would be a great way for the company to approach its customers. With a small IT staff, the company tapped Hitachi Consulting with Matt Schababerle, senior architect, as Hitachi project manager, to help put together a proof-of-concept portal for its own internal use.
Choosing SAP NetWeaver Portal as the front end was easy due to the company’s history as an SAP customer, the ease with which the portal integrates with SAP R/3 and SAP BW, and the flexibility it offers in developing the user interface. Rather than using Web Dynpro for the user interface, Hitachi suggested developing it in Microsoft .NET using the SAP/.NET interoperability framework.
This choice fit with BI Technologies’ overall computer landscape because of its many Microsoft tools and skill sets. The .NET applications deployed seamlessly in SAP NetWeaver Portal, and the mixed SAP/.NET environment required no extra effort from the project team.
BI Technologies put together a special project team, which included sales and marketing executives, and brainstormed about customer-focused features for the new portal. The project team had some features that the company wanted, and then it went to its customer service group to find out what the customers would like. “We found that the customers were calling for order status, stock availability, shipment status, and tracking numbers,” notes Cooper. “That set the scope of the project.”
The company went directly to some of its top distributors. “What they wanted was simple,” Cooper remarks; “they wanted the same features the customer service team had identified.” Perhaps most surprisingly, these distributors also identified something they didn’t want.
“We repeatedly asked them, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to do online order entry?’ ” Cooper says. “The answer was, ‘No, it’s too expensive.’ ”
Lean and Mean
“We wanted a site that was clean, flat, easy, and fast,” Cooper explains. “[The electrical component] industry is very cost-driven. You try to wring cost out of everything you can, and ‘hands touching things’ is just cost, so we followed that philosophy. Of our distributor customers, 100% use EDI [Electronic Data Interchange] for orders. They can go online to the portal, check stock status, and then generate a purchase order from their own systems.”
The key was to not break anything that already worked. “Nothing comes in via email, fax, or phone calls. It’s all EDI,” Cooper notes. “We’ve got everything set up to respond so quickly that they don’t need to call — even for emergency orders.” To get it right, the project team worked with three distributors on beta testing. “One of our big goals was to make [the portal] intuitive,” he says.
BI Technologies went live with its new portal in July 2006, announcing the portal to all its customers at once. Then, to encourage the portal’s use, the project team launched a formal rollout process. “Each week we added a few more companies for training and personal attention,” Cooper explains. “As they continued to call in, we would remind them that they could use the Web site, which was faster, easier, and available at any time.”
By the end of August 2006, BI Technologies had 20 distributors and 40 sales representatives using the portal — an amazing 100% uptake rate. The reason? Ease-of-use! With the new portal, distributors had everything they had asked for — order status, stock availability, shipment status, and tracking numbers — easily accessible with a fast and intuitive process.
This screen shows stock availability: how many of which items are available and in stock, as well as other stock
information about those items.
The top half of this screen shows order status, including order quantity, scheduled ship date, and more. When you highlight a particular item on this part of the screen, you can see the shipment status: shipping address and details.
By double-clicking on the tracking number on the shipment status portion of the screen, the tracking number window pops up and shows you tracking information on this order.
“The distributors don’t have to write things down and then type them in,” Cooper remarks. “If you’ve ever seen a waybill, it has a hideously long number. If they click on the waybill number on our portal, the customers can see exactly where their packages are.”
Because the volume of calls coming into BI Technologies has dropped, the company has been able to reallocate resources to other areas of the business that can drive value. For instance, BI Technologies now does a better job of preparing and turning quotes for its customers and potential customers.
Still, there’s more work to do. The very nature of a portal invites the creation of new features and enhancements. Although BI Technologies has no current need to set up online ordering, “We want customers to be able to order samples online,” Cooper says. “Right now, product samples are still ordered on the phone or via email through a salesperson. At this point, it’s still very much a manual process.”
Online sample ordering is a new feature that could be just as easy on customers, if not easier, through the portal. With workflow processes attached to it, online sample ordering would also benefit the company with a more efficient solution.
In the electronics business, where prices change all the time, fast and accurate quotes are critical. “When a customer needs a price quote, there’s a specific timeframe for getting that quote back to the customer. If we don’t respond on time, we could miss out on a sale,” Cooper states. Mostly, however, it’s about reducing the amount of manual labor at BI Technologies, becoming a more efficient organization, and lowering the company’s cost of doing business. This is a long way from the direction in which the company’s old mainframe system was pushing it.
“One of our largest distributors said that the reason it is doing business with us,” Cooper comments, “is because it’s easier to do business with us.” That’s exactly the kind of customer comment that BI Technologies wants to hear.
BI Technologies Timeline
2003 Went live on SAP R/3 4.6C on IBM iSeries machine
2004 Added sales and distribution facility
2005 Launched proof-of-concept portal
2006 Added order status, stock status, shipping status, and reports
July: Went live to customers
August: 100% of customers using the portal
3 Lessons Learned
Sometimes less is more. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should do it, Cooper says. With so much commotion surrounding e-commerce and online stores, it seemed as if online ordering would be important to BI Technologies’ customers. That was not the case. Rather than change an older EDI process that already worked well, the company listened to its core customers’ needs, which came down to stock and order status, and delivered what the customers wanted. Not a lot of glory, but simple features that were used well gave them powerful results.
Know your scope. Even big project teams can benefit from BI Technologies’ development and adherence to its project scope. “We’re a small company and don’t have a lot of personnel resources to throw around,” Cooper says. “We keep it reasonable. We do small steps.” In addition, he adds, “You can make decisions very quickly when you know your scope — you know when you have to reject features, no matter how attractive they are.” At the same time, understanding your scope, budget, and timeline also lets you add features when development goes better than expected.
Err on the side of available resources. BI Technologies didn’t want to head down any path that might lead it toward a bottleneck of IT expertise. Hitachi suggested the use of Microsoft .NET tools to develop the interface rather than the standard Java tools. Availability of resources was one issue, but also BI Technologies was primarily a Microsoft shop for desktop and current Web applications. Using .NET tools meant resources could be brought in that could work on a variety of applications, as opposed to Java resources that could only be applied to SAP’s portal environment.
Chris Maxcer is a freelance writer who focuses on the business side of IT. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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