SOI 2013 - Accelerating Orders

Simplifying Roles And New Software Help Improve Efficiency

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Accelerating OrdersDistributors find that simplified roles and new software help improve the efficiency of their operations.

"I need it by yesterday" is a phrase distributors are hearing more often than ever from clients. Competition from online outlets and intensifying demands from customers are factors that have distributors looking to make any tweak possible to their operations that will ensure orders can be turned around faster.

Many distributors are taking a step back from their operations to examine opportunities for speeding things up, incorporating new software, dividing up tasks and making other modifications to ensure customers can get their orders faster – if not quite by yesterday.

"Effectively speeding up operations, without spending a lot of money or driving your staff crazy, begins by seeing your operation as a series of dependent tasks," says Michael Clingan, president of consultancy The Claymore Group and author of Close that Sale! "Billing depends on shipping, which depends on QA. But one of those tasks is your bottleneck. Just one."

He urges distributors to identify the specific "bottleneck" that holds up operations and fix the issue first by trying to enhance the production processes, then by off-loading tasks to other areas where possible, and as a last resort, spending money to improve the process.

That was an approach taken by the MRL Group (asi/258137). The company president, Mike Levitt, realized that employees bringing in business were then having to do a lot of additional logging and tracking of the orders through much of its production. Not only was this not the best use of their skills, which should be dedicated to finding additional business, but having one person handle numerous tasks also slowed down the process.

MRL has since divided up the work of processing an order across a larger group of people, creating more specialized tasks for each individual. "The baton is handed once the order comes in the door," says Levitt. "There is a different person who processes the order, does the tracking, and checks at the factory to make sure it's done on time."

In operations management lingo, MRL removed one of the "seven classic wastes" in operating the business. That is excessive motion, where individuals have to take more steps than needed for the operation they are doing.

"In business, you have to beware of just moving stuff around," says Tom Armour, co-founder of productivity consultancy High Return Selection. "If you can have a more efficient position of things, or provide easier access, the changes might seem small but they add up."

Key Partners A distributor with a smaller staff who is unable to break up the operations into as many individual roles might consider securing the services of outside firms to handle administrative, marketing or order tracking tasks. Virtual Help Resources, based in Oviedo, FL, handles order processing for several Proforma (300094) franchises.

"What I see with some of our clients is the need for standardized procedures," says Heather Young, founder of Virtual Help Resources. "The clients we work with that have standard processes in place require much less time touching the job. We use an online spreadsheet to keep track of every job in progress so that the salesperson can see where the order is (proofing, production, shipped etc.), and it also helps the team if one person is out or needs help."

Laura Lee Rose, a time management and efficiency coach, takes this idea a step further, suggesting that distributors set up procedures so the clients themselves can handle some of the early ordering steps. She suggests offering discounts to entice clients to use an online template where they can upload their art and enter the specifications that might otherwise fall on a member of the distributor's staff.

"This website page can be used for internal staff as well as clients," says Rose. "This increases the number of resources, so you can distribute the work without lowering the quality."

MRL has been aided in recent years as suppliers have also made changes to help meet the around-the-clock demands of customers, with many now offering 24-hour service for unexpected or urgent orders. In one recent week, MRL was able to put through several last-minute orders – luggage tags with Prime Line, branded napkins with American Accents, high-end headphones with Leed's – thanks to the quick-turnaround ability of its supplier partners.

New Software Solutions
To enhance operations, distributors are also turning to new software options that help them to streamline or simplify their processes. AviatorGear (asi/189405) had been tracking orders and filling out invoices using QuickBooks as well as Google Documents. But at the start of this year, the company switched over to a comprehensive document management system.

"Now, the order comes in and the customer is already in the system, so you see all the task orders and can clone a previous order within minutes," says Cory Bower, sales manager for AviatorGear. "So you enter it once and don't touch it again. I always say that the fewer fingerprints you can put on an order, the more money you are saving, in time, reduced labor cost and chance for error."

The system also connects directly to the price lists of suppliers like SanMar, Gildan, and Bodek and Rhodes, and after the order is fulfilled, it surveys the customer and can generate reports on feedback.

As part of the distributor's effort to overhaul its software, it also moved from its on-site server to a cloud-based processing system. Part of this included subscribing to Microsoft 365, which gives the company cloud access to Microsoft Office software without the need to purchase updates when the next edition is released.

"If you can access your applications after hours, or, in the instance of a lot of promotional products companies, at trade shows or customer events, you can put in an order for someone then and there," says Scott Schultz, president of Fusion Technology, which helps small businesses evaluate software and decide what should be moved to the cloud.

New Orders Chart