Brown&Williamson: Open All Night
A self-service extranet helped tobacco distributor Brown & Williamson automate its order-entry system and erase a time-consuming East Coast, West Coast divide.
A self-service extranet helped tobacco distributor Brown & Williamson automate its order-entry system and erase a time-consuming East Coast, West Coast divide. Now the company reaps the fruits of its labors, both on the marketing side and the customer side.
Tobacco distributor Brown & Williamson (B&W) needed to shock some life into its e-business plans. The company was hampered by a sluggish order-entry process that relied on manual entry and was far from providing 24x7 availability.
For years, B&W customer service representatives (CSRs) took sales orders and answered inquiries from wholesalers and distributors over the phone, by fax and by mail. To complete or check on an order, CSRs had to manually key information into the company's OS/390-based CICS system, according to Hector Cuadros, e-business program manager at B&W. A typical order or inquiry took up to a half an hour of a CSR's time, with much of that spent looking up records in the system. For business partners on the West Coast, there was an additional complication: B&W's customer service center operated until 5 p.m. Eastern time, thereby eliminating three hours of potential business.
B&W knew it had to find a way to automate this slow and cumbersome process, without dramatically uprooting its well-tuned CICS system. The most sensible approach was to convert the system into a self-service extranet that business partners could use to place or check up on orders at any time.
Initially, B&W considered removing the order entry system from the mainframe entirely, and replicating the system and database in a Web-based server environment. However, a major platform migration of a mission-critical system and database would have been a slow and expensive process. The system would have to be built from scratch, and would have reduced the speed at which B&W could further develop this crucial market.
At the other extreme, a quicker and cheaper way to get the solution out to business partners would have been to retain applications and data on the mainframe, and use a Web-to-host screen-scraper package, which delivers 3270 host sessions to end users' browsers.
However, putting mainframe terminal emulation screens out to a public interface presents a new range of problems, says Seth Lynn, managing director of Genex, a national Internet development and consulting firm that worked with B&W on the system.
The screens displayed to business partners, while dressed up with graphics, would have been the same as those used by internal customer service representatives. This would have exposed the business partners—many of whom are small operations—to mainframe screen function keys and menus, which require end user training, says Cuadros. Plus, the development team wouldn't be able to add new features—such as online catalogs and personalization engines—that work well in Web environments.
Packing for the Journey
B&W settled on a hybrid solution that fell somewhere between deploying an entirely new Web system and a mainframe screen-scraping approach, says Cuadros. While data is still maintained in the mainframe CICS environment, the application logic is modeled on a Web host application server that is accessed by business partners over the Internet.
Data continues to be stored and maintained on the company's S/390 in Macon, Ga., Cuadros continues. "Our order-entry application resides on the mainframe," he says. The mainframe delivers data to a Web server and middleware environment based in a Web center in Los Angeles. The middleware, built on WRQ's Verastream Host Integrator, models the mainframe application and processes data from the S/390 host. The Web infrastructure runs on Windows 2000 Advanced Server and Verastream-based applications built with COM components.
The Verastream technology was a relatively new package from WRQ, with few actual working deployments as references. Genex had to develop a proof of concept to test the deployment and worked closely with WRQ during the project.
Now B&W's wholesalers and distributors can place or inquire about orders directly from their PCs. B&W recently launched an extranet for its 1,200 wholesalers and distributors that presents the customer order information stored on the mainframe to most standard browsers. The transactional site and extranet enables business partners to order product any time, receive instant order confirmation, track order and shipping status, and access order history.
The site includes an online product catalog and also provides B&W sales agents with access to product and marketing information. Security is based on 128-bit virtual private network (VPN) encryption.
The system consolidates five screens from the mainframe application into a single graphical user interface. "We severed the order-processing flow from the sequential, rigid interface that the mainframe mandated," says Lynn. "We were able to make it a more intuitive, logical type of ordering process, and group different criteria and more logical components on the Web-based interface. We didn't have to follow the mainframe logic."
- Watch and document how customers interact with the company and how company representatives interact with the system.
- Communicate frequently and hold regular meetings to solicit end user feedback.
- Start with a smaller pilot project and roll out in phases.
- Keep older systems and processes in place, at least initially, until users are comfortable with the transition.
- Keep an eye on the big picture—how will this project fit into the company's overall Web strategy?
Rolling West to East
A gradual rollout of the system began this past spring, according to Cuadros. Instead of releasing the capability to all of its 1,200 customers at once, B&W staged a gradual rollout to 10 pilot customers, followed by staged regional launches. "We started from the West Coast and moved forward and identified different customers, different sections in regions every week," says Cuadros. Customers were introduced to the new system through a mailed informational packet that included instructions for signing up for a password. For now, customers can continue to phone in orders or inquiries to the call center.
Phase One of the project was launched in June; Phase Two is scheduled for rollout by the end of the year. Work on Phase One began in February and was directed toward Web-enabling the mainframe order-entry system, as well as addressing security. Phase Two will focus on Web personalization, tailoring the content and functions to individual users in order to enable targeted promotions based on a user's transaction history. The development team will also be concentrating on enhancing the administrative capabilities of the system, so B&W personnel can manage almost all of the content remotely.
B&W is realizing benefits in two areas. First, from a marketing perspective, customers are responding positively to the ability to order at any time online. West Coast customers, who could not place orders or calls late in the afternoon, were the first group able to log onto the system. Another benefit for B&W is that it will soon be able to start reassigning call center personnel to other areas of the company. Cuadros estimates this will affect two full-time call-center positions. However, the reassignment process will be gradual, as end users become comfortable with the new system, he adds. Eventually, more interactive features such as text chat may be incorporated into the Web site, but for now, B&W is taking a "wait-and-see" attitude toward such enhancements, he states.
In the Cards
More changes on a much larger scale may also be afoot. While the company is maintaining all customer data within its current mainframe-based CICS system, the company plans to move these online operations to an SAP system within the next two years, says Cuadros. In the meantime, the process is Web-enabled, and changes to the back-end system have not yet been necessary.
While Cuadros could not divulge the cost of the system, those close to the effort say the typical price tag for such a deployment ranges between $500,000 and $3 million. Future plans call for tighter supply chain integration, which will incorporate data from manufacturing units and suppliers. Enhanced customer relationship management capabilities will also be facilitated as the company migrates much of its processing to the new ERP system. "Within the next 15 months, we're moving away from the mainframe into an SAP environment, so we'll be integrating this Web site with the SAP module," says Cuadros. "Once we do that, it really opens up the whole supply chain and collaboration scenario."
Of course, moving application logic from a mainframe to a Web environment is not a simple task, particularly when you're trying to capture the workflow. "One of the hardest things to do is look at how the clients want to order," says Lynn. "We understand the logic of the mainframe, but never designed it as a client interface. From a business perspective, the mainframe logic is virtually irrelevant. We needed to go out and meet with B&W customers. We wanted to find out: When you place an order with B&W, what makes sense? What do you want to enter first? Where's it going? How're you going to pay for it? What products you want? Do you want a catalog?" Members of the development team sat in on CSR calls to track the course of a typical order or inquiry.