Customer-Made Information: Family-Owned Cabinet Manufacturer Builds a Wealth of Knowledge for Its CSRs
- By Marvin Grimm
Decore-ative Specialties (Monrovia, Calif.) is a family-owned company and has been manufacturing high-quality cabinet doors since 1965.
The company's goal is to provide the best customer service in the industry. With the building industry booming and order-taking staff handling a rapidly-increasing number of orders every day, the Customer Service Department was faced with the challenge of efficiently entering complete and accurate orders. Decore-ative Specialties does not have a finished goods inventory; therefore, each cabinet door is custom made after the order is received.
To the uninitiated, making cabinet doors may seem like a relatively simple task. In actuality, it is an extremely complicated process that must handle an almost infinite number of combinations. For example, some of the factors include: materials (different wood species, laminates, veneers and their availability and pricing), door styles (raised and recessed panels, hundreds of edge detail options, glass panes, curved doors and other options), size restrictions, direction of the wood grain, and on and on. Handling these differences means that each Customer Service Representative (CSR) must be intimately familiar with the valid combinations that produce a cabinet door. In fact, there were so many rules that each new CSR underwent several months of training to become familiar with the appropriate business rules and validations.
"With all of this information to remember, the potential for human error during the order-taking process was large," explains Eric Lansford, Vice President of Decore-ative Specialties. Lansford saw the potential to consolidate the wealth of knowledge that had accumulated over the past 35 years in a centralized, shared repository. The company could then leverage this knowledge by developing an expert system to interface with this knowledge base and automatically enforce business rules and apply validations during the order-taking process.
After an extensive search, Decore-ative Specialties turned to Prestige Software Inc. (Anaheim Hills, Calif.) to design and build the new, order-taking system. Prestige Software develops custom desktop and Web-based applications, and had the experience, technical knowledge and cultural fit that Decore-ative was looking for.
The first challenge was to access the vast amount of information that had accumulated during the past 35 years. The business rules and validations had to be gathered from a variety of sources throughout the company, including interviews with key employees, an enormous Lotus Notes database and the existing order-taking system's source code.
The next challenge was to design the complex Order Entry System. After an analysis, it was decided to implement a three-tier, object-oriented solution, using Visual Basic for the business rules and presentation layer and Microsoft SQL Server as the database. It was decided to keep Decore-ative Specialties' legacy database as the master data repository since other legacy systems interfaced with it. Instead of replacing the legacy database, the necessary data would be replicated to the Microsoft SQL Server database on a daily basis.
To achieve this data-sharing, Decore-ative Specialties decided to use the Replic-Action software product from Casahl Technology Inc. (San Ramon, Calif.). A Visual Basic application, storing the business rules and validation logic, serves as the middle tier. "Since Decore-ative Specialties had future plans to add a Web-based front-end to their Order Entry System, it made sense to use a three-tier architecture to separate out the business rules," explains Lisa Falsken, Project Manager at Prestige Software. "We, also, decided to use an object-oriented approach at the presentation layer to allow them to reuse logic in the Web front-end."
"Using Visual Basic for the presentation layer provided the ability to release a version of the application, obtain user feedback, make the suggested changes and release another version for additional feedback. This iterative development process helped achieve buy-in from the user community in the early stages of the project."
Improving upon the previous order-taking system, the new Order Entry System monitors the data entered by the CSR and searches for "triggering" events stored in its knowledge base. For example, if a CSR enters an order for a cherry wood door, the expert system is triggered and displays a message for the CSR indicating that, "A natural characteristic of cherry wood is pitch pockets. Notify the customer and confirm that this is O.K." The expert system then stores the customer's response in its database as a logging mechanism for future reference.
The new system, also, dynamically changes the available on-screen options, based on the data already entered by the CSR. As a result, only valid options are presented to the CSR, preventing the inadvertent selection of an invalid option.
"By catching errors and omissions at one time, we can resolve issues with the customer in a single phone call," explains Lansford. "It also allows us to improve the lead time to our customers, which is an important consideration for us."
When an order is saved, the order is validated against hundreds of business rules to ensure that the cabinet door is indeed producible. The system also calculates the order's price, delivery date and other fields (which are based on the order's total square footage, materials, door styles, volume discounts, special customer relationships and other variables).
Completed orders are automatically exported to Decore-ative Specialties' legacy mainframe every two hours. The data is exported in the same layout used by the previous order entry system, minimizing the modifications to the remaining legacy applications and minimizing the disruption to the company's other business operations. Also, unlike the old system, only valid orders are exported to the legacy mainframe, making production scheduling more consistent.
The new Order Entry System provides a central repository for years of accumulated knowledge and is expandable to meet Decore-ative Specialties' future needs. By consistently processing all orders, it significantly reduces the training time for new CSRs.
"We'd like to eventually roll out the new Order Entry System to all of our facilities to standardize our operations," says Lansford. "Our current plans include adding a Web-based interface and developing free software for our clients to help them plan and bid jobs more easily and automatically upload their orders to our system. We're excited about the improvements technology is bringing to our business and we'd like to maximize our use of it to benefit our customers."
Marvin Grimm is Director of Business Development for Prestige Software Inc. (Anaheim Hills, Calif.). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prestige Software Preserves Its "Shelf" Life
Prestige Software (Anaheim Hills, Calif.) is a consulting firm that builds custom software and Web-based systems for its clients. As a Microsoft Certified Solution Provider, Prestige Software specializes in Visual Basic, Active Server Pages (ASPs), Java, Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle, Microsoft Access and Crystal Reports. "With the recent explosion of Web-based applications, our customers have been asking for everything from electronic order-taking, sales force automation, workflow automation and human resources to various intranet/extranet applications that share information with employees, clients and vendors," explains Prestige President Paul F. Simmons. During its five-year history, Prestige Software has worked with companies, including Aetna Health Plans of California, Guess?, Ingram Micro, Kaufman and Broad, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment and Wherehouse Entertainment Inc. "Our biggest project in recent memory was with Wherehouse Entertainment," recalls Bob Uyeda, Prestige's Executive Vice President. "When The Wherehouse acquired Blockbuster Music, it more than doubled in size, posing huge logistical and technical challenges. As part of the Blockbuster conversion team, we participated in the conversion of all Blockbuster data, including the assimilation of inventory records, conversion and merging of all financial data, payroll processing and daily store sales data. Our responsibilities, also, included tracking $220 million of inventory, from the time physical inventories were taken until the inventory was under the control of The Wherehouse's enterprise systems - a 13-week process with 10-20 stores converting each week." "After the Blockbuster acquisition, The Wherehouse needed to transition from its IBM mainframe DDA financial system to Lawson's UNIX-based financial package," continues Uyeda. "The Wherehouse's previous accounting package couldn't support the increased accounting needs posed by its increase in business. Plus, due to Y2K considerations, we successfully squeezed the conversion into a six-month timeframe." During the implementation of the Lawson software package, Prestige Software took on the challenge of converting two years of historical data, for both the general ledger and accounts payable systems, as well as the interfaces to The Wherehouse's other systems. An added challenge was the fact that The Wherehouse had decided to completely reorganize its general ledger chart of accounts in the process. Prestige Software was able to meet the challenge, as well as support an extensive audit process of the converted data. Several other homegrown systems attached to the DDA financial system were also rewritten during the course of this project. Also, The Wherehouse originally purchased Lawson's automated accounts payable matching system to replace similar software in the DDA system. Early on in the implementation, it was determined that the software module would not meet The Wherehouse's requirements. Prestige Software was called upon to design, develop and implement a system that would not only match the functionality of the DDA system, but also automate many of its manual functions and achieve a higher percentage of system matches. A unique challenge of the matching system was that it received purchase orders, receipts and invoices from three different systems: purchase orders from an ES/9000 mainframe, receipts from a warehouse management system running on an AS/400 and invoices from another AS/400 handling the EDI functions. Also, once the system matched invoices to purchase orders and receipts, it posted the invoices for payment to the Lawson accounts payable system running on a UNIX RS-6000 system. This software allowed the Accounting Department to handle its increased workload (resulting from the Blockbuster acquisition) more accurately, and without adding additional staff.