Upgrading Distribution Software
Although it’s not always pleasant, change is inevitable.
In order to offer the best products and service in a timely manner, jan/san distributors must be cognizant of their customers’ needs as well as frequent product updates or other changes.
Distributors must also stay up-to-date and pursue internal changes that allow them to continue offering customers the highest level of service they’ve come to expect.
One of the most significant and largest changes jan/san distributors face is implementing new distribution software.
To keep their businesses running smoothly without any hiccups in service, distributors must consider all aspects of a software change and formulate a plan of attack that guarantees a smooth transition to avoid any problems that could ultimately affect their clients.
“Too often, distributors look at implementation as an after-thought,” says Bill Patton, vice president of professional services and customer support with software provider Activant, based in Livermore, Calif. “When selecting a software provider, distributors need to look beyond what the software can do to the company behind it. What type of implementation program is in place? What are the long-term support options? Software is an important business investment and distributors should make that investment with a technology partner that they can do business with for many years to come.”
Start With A Timetable
When considering a software change, software providers say distributors should start by exploring what they currently use and what they will need from the new software system.
“(Distributors should do) a thorough needs analysis to make sure data migration and business processes are covered before going live,” says Chris Raffo, president of Somerville, N.J.-based provider Universal Business Systems.
Once the needs of the distributor are identified, a timetable for implementation can be established, though the actual time a full overhaul of new implementation software varies based on needs of the distributor, size of the company and many other factors.
“Time to the convert is very much the customer’s decision, but usually one month to six weeks is typical, in order to easily schedule in all the training sessions without over-taxing the customer’s staff,” says Bob Hestenes, president of STEP 1, a software company in Newbury Park, Calif.
“The time will vary based on the customer,” adds Raffo. “The number of users, locations, existing functions and schedules all play into the implementation timetable. Also, if programming is needed to meet specific needs of the business, (that) impacts the timetable.”
Then, once the timetable has been set the process truly begins.
“(After) an interview and review of the client’s current business processes and data formats, then an on-site pre-implementation, data conversion, validation and initial training sessions take place,” says Barbara Jagoe, vice president of software provider DDI System, based in Sandy Hook, Conn.
The training process for implementing new distribution software varies from provider to provider, insiders explain. It must also become an integral part of the conversion planning.
In most cases, however, the training is set up by departments and which distributor employees will be using a certain part of the program.
“Each department is trained from top down,” says Raffo. “Everything starts with ownership and developing the expectations, then to department heads and then individuals.”
“While we urge distributors to train all their employees, some of the most successful distributors set up employee power users who immerse themselves in the new systems and become the internal experts for the rest of the company,” adds Patton.
Initial training tends to be done over the phone to acclimate users to the software. Some software providers offer training on site and over the Internet.
Manufacturers may also offer custom-built online training programs that can test employees’ knowledge about a system and offer training suggestions. In some cases, additional training might be needed, but providers count on that and have plans in place for follow-up.
“Ongoing support and follow-up is key because the customer is more familiar after using the system live for a period of time to then take advantage of additional benefits the system has to offer,” says Raffo.
“We follow the process very closely by utilizing transition teams to help our distributors increase their comfort levels while managing their businesses,” says Jagoe, adding that a hotline for support and service calls after training are also available.
The additional, ongoing training is incredibly useful and distributors should take full advantage, says Hestenes.
“We have a whole series of training lessons designed for customers to utilize after they’ve gone live,” he adds. “This is advanced training and managerial help that they can easily soak up once they have gone live and are stabilized. The advanced training is better to do afterwards rather than before.”
Installation of the actual software can be troublesome for distributors, but software providers or consultants are there to handle most installation. And in the case of upgrades, users usually only need to download the new version from the Internet or can be walked through it with provider staff.
Providers also advise that distributors can also take a number of steps on their end to make the implementation process run smoother.
“Have all the data converted in advance so all training is done with information that is familiar to the users,” says Raffo. “Plan all processes and have them tested ahead of time. Do not go live until everything is completed.”
Every staff member must also be willing and accepting of changes in software.
“Change is always easier when you approach it with a positive attitude and some level of flexibility,” says Jagoe.
To further ease the transition to new software, distributors can get employees involved during the selection process and try to make the process fun, says Patton.
“Turn it into a competition,” he says. “Who can learn the system the fastest? Who makes the smoothest transition to the system?”
And while the transition might be difficult at the initial outset, the final result of having new, top-of-the-line software has its advantages.
For instance, one advantage is how easy it is for software providers to communicate with customers when problems arise.
“We and they can be looking at the same screen at the same time, so they can show us exactly what they need help with. This can be done at a moments notice, not only during the training period but even a year afterwards,” says Hestenes.
Staying up-to-date can also help a distributor’s bottom line.
“It ensures that your company operates at the highest level of efficiency possible achieving maximum profits with minimal overhead,” says Jagoe.
Steven Potter is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee.
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