Help Your Employees Embrace Technology
People need proper education if they’re to be expected to accomplish the majority of their work. Nowhere is this more evident than with technology. After a distributor researches, prices, and agonizes over a decision to acquire new technology for their business, employees are expected to embrace it wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Once new technology is acquired, distributors often overlook the essential second step: training employees to use it effectively.
“You could have the greatest system or software in the world, but if your employees don’t use it you won’t get your money’s worth,” says Travis Brady, vice president and chief operating officer of Las Vegas-based jan/san distributor Brady Industries.
The Decision to Purchase
Decisions to purchase new technology must be carefully considered. “Many distributors may think that they need a new system, and that once they get this new system all their problems will be solved,” says Rick Johnson, managing partner of Melbourne, Fla.-based Indian River Consulting Group, a consulting firm that specializes in wholesale distribution. “But this isn’t true — technology is only a tool, and it doesn’t replace effective management. Often, distributors may think they need new technology, but aren’t even using their current technology to its full potential because their employees haven’t been properly trained in its use.”
Michael Sheldon of Sheldon Supply Co., a Detroit-based jan/san distributor, makes purchasing decisions differently for his internal sales support staff than he does for his external sales force. “If I’m buying technology for our internal sales support staff, my main consideration is what’s better for our customer,” he explains. “When I’m buying for our sales force, I look mainly for ease of use and simplicity.”
Improving Your Bottom Line
Johnson advises distributors to consider the total cost of ownership (the initial purchase price, ongoing costs for employee training and support, and the incremental value that may be lost if the system is not used to its full potential by employees) before purchasing new technology.
“One question a company should ask itself is, ‘If we had no corporate information technology (IT) budget, could we pay for this technology directly through higher sales, better margins or lower expenses?’ Technology should improve at least one, if not all three areas, if it is going to improve the bottom line.”
Greg Hareland of Montana Broom and Brush Co., a janitorial, paper and restaurant supply company based in Butte, Mont., realized his company needed technology to maintain sales margins. “Our inventory software was difficult to use, and it didn’t handle product-cost price increases very well,” he says. “When the cost on one product went up, we had to go in and manually change the cost of that item for each customer. With 800 customers and 5,000 item numbers, this task never really got done — and so every time a product cost went up by 5 percent, we lost 5 percent on that sale.”
Hareland decided to purchase new technology to solve this problem. “Our new software is much easier to use,” he says. “When costs on one product go up, the new software automatically increases each customer’s buying costs, in order to ensure that we are selling our products at the same margin we were before. This feature alone means the software has paid for itself.”
Technology’s Full Potential
If technology is not used to its full potential by employees, incremental value can be lost. “Several years ago, we invested in laptop computers for our salespeople worth several thousand dollars that had all sorts of complex applications, and would allow them to do all these great things,” Brady says. “Later, we found out that most salespeople were only using their laptops as order-entry terminals, which could have been purchased for only $200.”
Brady has since realized the sales force was equipped with technology that went too far beyond their capabilities. “In retrospect, it was probably just too big a jump to go from a paper price book right to an expensive laptop for the whole sales force.”
Richard Lawit, of Accommodation Mollen, Inc., a Philadelphia-based distributor of janitorial and safety supplies and equipment, makes technology acquisition decisions very carefully. “We obviously want to be cautious as to what our company will invest in — we don’t want to buy something that will just sit on the shelf,” he says.
Johnson advises top-level executives to become knowledgeable enough to make good technological decisions. “Without a basic understanding about how this new technology works and how it will benefit the company, executives are often held hostage by the IT department, whose technological knowledge may fly right over the heads of all the employees,” he says.
In With The New
After the decision to purchase the technology has been made, it is time to focus on implementation. It is essential to understand the factors that may make employees hesitant to embrace the new technology.
“People have problems embracing new technology because human nature itself often resists change,” Lawit notes. “Employees might be too busy doing things just as they have been all along to take the time to investigate how new tools might save time. Also, some people have a basic fear of technology — it’s simply intimidating.”
For some distributors, tech savvy is a weighty precondition during the hiring process. Employees who use technology outside of work — a home computer, for example — are often more comfortable embracing technology at work. Richard Renert, vice president of the Hamden, Conn.-based Eastern Paper of New England, looks for these types of employees during the hiring process. “When we hire employees, we look for a basic comfort and familiarity with technology. Because the use of technology is so essential to our operating system, we don’t hire people who will reject it,” he explains. “These days, if employees aren’t willing to make technological adjustments, they aren’t going to get too far.”
Show Them The Benefits
Henry Levenstein, vice president of sales and marketing for Supply King, a jan/san distributor headquartered in Neptune City, N.J., advises distributors to consider the process of introducing new technology. “The best thing to do is to introduce the problem to employees and present the software to them as a possible solution,” he advises. “After allowing them to learn more about it, they should be encouraged to give you feedback. Once you’ve identified the right kinds of software for the problem, you can make it available for use.”
Sheldon Supply has given its sales representatives an incentive to use new technology outside the office by purchasing software for them. “We make a deal with our salespeople: you purchase your computer and keep up-to-date on the hardware, and we’ll absorb the cost of buying the programs,” Sheldon says.
When technology’s benefits are clearly demonstrated to employees, they are more likely to embrace the new system. “We haven’t experienced a lot of resistance in our sales force to using our new technology, because we showed them how it freed them up to spend more of their time on other tasks that made them money,” says Hareland.
Although training employees to use new technology is essential, it is often overlooked by distributors. “Most companies don’t provide enough training,” Johnson says. “But training is critical, and it’s an ongoing process.”
Software manufacturers are often the first source of training. “We bring the software representatives in to help train our customer service employees and salespeople,” says Renert. “We set up a timeframe for training, and make sure everyone is there to get the information.”
Although software manufacturers are a useful source of initial training, Johnson cautions distributors against relying on them exclusively. “Training is really a two-step process — it’s not just external training from software manufacturers, but you also need a core group of internal employees within the organization that can champion the new system and help other employees use it,” he says. “This core group of employees — not necessarily from the IT department — can be recruited and given some kind of incentive to help those employees who are more resistant to change. If you just leave training up to the software manufacturers or IT department, it will happen much more slowly.”
Lynne Knobloch-Fedders is a Vernon Hills, Ill.-based freelance writer.
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