WMS: The Hub of Customer Service

Sometimes, accessible information is more important than automated processes.

“By giving customers a tool to obtain routine information, such as when orders ship, what carrier is being used, or if there is a back order, we have freed our customer service representatives to handle issues that merit more attention.”

Shakespeare advised us to “see ourselves as others see us.” Bill Cook, vice president of logistics for Lanier Worldwide Inc., Atlanta, voices a similar sentiment when he discusses Lanier’s recent implementation of Provia Software’s VIAWARE suite of warehouse management (WMS) and transportation management (TMS) products.

“Our first initiative was to make it easier for our customers to do business with us,” says Cook. “You have to view the world from the customer’s perspective.”

In choosing the best IT solution, Cook affirms it was imperative to select a product that addressed issues of importance to the customer. The VIAWARE product allows customers to track and trace the fulfillment process across the supply chain—with information available to all trading partners via an Internet connection.

As the world’s largest private label distributor of copiers and related products, Lanier had efficient order fulfillment processes in place and, given the nature of its products, automation was not vital to the warehouse’s productivity. Fulfilling orders for finished products wasn’t complicated in the sense that it did not require sophisticated picking and packing methodologies.

Even in the fulfillment of parts orders, Lanier’s distribution center (DC) was productive, averaging a pick rate of more than 200 picks per hour per person. “We were running off established legacy systems, and had good methodologies to support the in-house requirements of our business; however, the systems did not have the technical capabilities to support communications with the outside world,” says Cook. “There was no way for customers, or even our sales management, to learn information about an order without calling customer service.

“We wanted to expand the availability of information to internal and external customers so they would feel part of the order process,” he says. “By giving customers a tool to obtain routine information, such as when orders ship, what carrier is being used, or if there is a back order, we have freed our customer service representatives to handle issues that merit more attention.”

Lanier implemented the VIAWARE products at its Atlanta DC in April, with plans for an aggressive deployment to three additional sites in rapid succession: going live in Philadelphia by late May, and bringing two additional DCs on board by July. Initially, the software is being utilized strictly for outbound trading partners in the United States. This is no small feat, with literally tens of thousands of users expected to access the system each month.

“We’ve been very impressed with Provia’s demonstrated ability to implement, and the strength of the VIAWARE products,” says Cook. “They have done everything they said they would do and the products are solid; there’s no ‘vaporware.’ We were able to hit the ground running, shipping orders the first day of implementation. It was a seamless event for our customers.”

The most significant ROI (return on investment) for Lanier will be the ability to “touch” its customers, the subsequent improvements in customer service, and the ability for sales representatives to monitor orders without having to interrupt productive sales cycles. If these improvements could be translated from “soft” dollars to hard figures, Cook expects the payback on implementing the software would be realized in “significantly less than one year.”

Provia’s VIAWARE software provides dot.com companies with inventory visibility, and helps make that information available to both internal and external customers.

In addition to the visibility benefits, VIAWARE provides integrated data warehousing, with each activity in the supply chain “trapped in real time”, and all events assimilated in a central repository that facilitates historical trending. The system promotes proactive, intelligent decisions through aggregated information collection and automatic notification of events. A customer can drill down to obtain shipping histories for customer service or to review productivity reports for warehouse management.

“The VIAWARE suite provides tools for action,” says John Pulling, COO of Provia Software, Grand Rapids, Mich. “This solution gives customers the combination of real-time visibility, event management, and data warehousing all through the simplicity of a web browser connection.”

Subscription notifications automatically alert designated recipients of key events. The system can communicate with other systems by triggering an XML document, or it can initiate pagers, e-mails, and faxes of each event. The entire supply chain can be choreographed with accurate precision, from ASNs (advanced shipping notices) confirming an order is on its way to pager notifications signaling when a trailer is ready for unloading.

“The second release will be introduced in July and will include intelligent order routing,” says Joe Batteiger, director of marketing at Provia. “The system will look at destination, geography, and inventory availability, then route orders through the best fulfillment cycle. It doesn’t apply to every enterprise but it will be a useful tool for dealing with inventories that may be out of balance.”

Real-time visibility into warehouse management will have a dramatic impact on productivity, accuracy, and responsiveness. Pulling and Batteiger predict it will drive customer service to new levels because customers will essentially be “watching” as their order is processed and filled. Ironically, Pulling reports, “there are fewer order changes when customers have real-time visibility.” That’s because orders can be placed closer to the required delivery time as visibility to inventory levels and fulfillment accuracy promotes confidence for JIT ordering.

“The security of our VIAWARE product is a big factor in its appeal to customers, especially for third-party logistics providers that may have customers who are competitors,” says Batteiger. “Although it is web browser based, multiple levels of security make it impossible for one customer to access another customer’s information.”

The suite is also ideal for dot.com companies and global corporations with multiple business units. The simplicity of the solution is a perfect fit with B2C e-tailers; consumers can be sent instant e-mail verifications of order receipt and shipping, and they can track orders with simple hyperlinks to the carriers without having to know the carrier tracking number.

“Many dot.com organizations don’t have a back-end inventory management solution,” says Pulling. “VIAWARE plays a critical role by providing inventory visibility within the organization and making this information available to both internal and external customers.”

The trend toward outsourcing warehouse and logistics has been slowed by the negative experience some dot.coms had when they depended on unreliable 3PLs during peak seasons. “As many as 80 to 85 percent of dot.com companies started their business by outsourcing; but one Christmas season with a 3PL that didn’t perform may convince some of these companies to take more ownership of their logistics processes,” says Pulling.

Owens Corning, Toledo, Ohio, a $5-billion manufacturer of building materials systems and composites systems, has multiple business units canvassing industries throughout the world. Owens Corning will implement Provia’s VIAWARE WMS and YMS (yard management system) in at least 10 U.S. facilities this year.

“We wanted a common, standard solution to operate across several of our business units, each having very diverse functional and language requirements,” says David Johns, CTO (chief technology officer) of Owens Corning. “The warehouse functionality required to store, monitor and track our insulation, roofing, acoustic, and exterior products throughout our supply chain is quite different than the functionality required to do the same with our composites products.”