IT in manufacturing: Square hole, square peg

ERP, CRM – or something else? Sometimes, the answer isn’t obvious, discovers Malcolm Wheatley.

Wind turbinesBack in late 2010, Leeds-based Audio-Technica realised that its IT systems were acting as a barrier to growth. The European arm of Japanese audio equipment manufacturer Audio-Technica Corporation supplies a network of 500 or so dealers across the UK and also acts as a central inventory holding for Audio-Technica’s entire European operations.

“From a strategic perspective, we wanted to make Customer Relationship Management (CRM) central to everything that we do, in order to differentiate us in the market,” explains managing director Adrian Rooke. “Being able to deliver a sustainable high-quality service would help to change the conversation with customers from a price-based discussion to one that revolves around the total package that we offer.”

The problem? Its standalone legacy contact management system and third-tier distributioncentric business system were both failing to deliver the functionality to achieve this.

“Not only did our core business system need upgrading to a full ERP system, but it also needed to be integrated with a true CRM system,” says Rooke.

But which CRM system? And which ERP system? The choice was complicated by some peculiarities of Audio-Technica’s business. For instance, while not a traditional manufacturer, the business was certainly more than just a distributor.

“It’s ‘assemble-to-order’, rather than true manufacturing – but with an extended supply chain stretching back to Japan,” explains Rooke. Routinely, for instance, products are repackaged, combined together with other products to be sold as bundled sets and shipped with localisation options peculiar to particular markets.

Likewise, from a CRM point of view, Rooke was keen to retain a critical piece of functionality contained within the existing contact management system, which provided sales representatives with an off-line copy of the CRM database. This enabled them to consult it while on the road, and prepare post-visit reports shortly after leaving a customer’s premises.

The search for alternative solutions soon brought Audio-Technica in contact with specialist Microsoft Dynamics solutions provider eBECS, the UK’s Microsoft Dynamics Reseller of the Year 2012.

eBECS, he relates, played a critical role in helping Audio-Technica to understand what Microsoft Dynamics AX and CRM could deliver and also how best to deploy and utilise them for maximum benefit.

“It was quickly clear that the combination of Microsoft Dynamics CRM and Microsoft Dynamics AX would give us a powerful and integrated solution,” says Rooke. But, he insists, Audio-Technica wasn’t shoehorned into the Dynamics solutions, and indeed surveyed the market broadly.

“eBECS started with what we wanted to achieve, and how we wanted to achieve it, not with some preordained view of what we should do, and how we should do it,” he says. “The result is a solution that’s totally ‘ours’, and which meets our requirements.”

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“eBECS started with what we wanted to achieve, and how we wanted to achieve it, not with some preordained view of what we should do, and how we should do it. The result is a solution that’s totally ‘ours’” – Adrian Rooke, Managing Director, Audio-Technica

Business as usual

Talk to eBECS’ managing director Kevin Hall, and such sentiments aren’t new. eBECS, prides itself on its customer-centric approach to system selection.

What’s more, he emphasises, eBECS strives to be open and straightforward in recommending what is best for the customer – even when the customer knocks on the door asking for a different solution. It’s an approach, he notes, that is particularly apposite when it comes to the distinction between ERP and CRM.

“Sometimes, the customer might think that they want ERP, or an extension to ERP,” he says. “But really, the answer might be CRM, or perhaps Business Intelligence. We always start by looking at the customer’s underlying requirements and recommend what’s appropriate. The answer isn’t always ERP.”

Redditch based lighting manufacturer Thorlux Lighting, a division of the F.W. Thorpe PLC group, is a case in point.

A specialist manufacturer and supplier of commercial and industrial lighting, Thorlux provides a comprehensive range of professional lighting and control systems. A team of around twenty engineers provides post sales support, commissioning and fine tuning customers’ lighting installations. But with a rapid growth in post sales support activity had come a lack of visibility into the day to day activities of engineers, says technical services manager Paul Moisy. Were chargeable site visits being invoiced? Could site visits be better scheduled? Were site engineers fully equipped to solve issues on these visits?

“How many site visits were we making each year? To which customers? How many of those visits involved rectification – and at what cost to the business? Questions like these were extremely difficult to answer: we just didn’t have the information,” relates Moisy.

A two year search eventually led Thorlux to Microsoft Gold Business Partner eBECS.

“From a solution provider perspective, eBECS combined a strong pedigree in manufacturing with a strong history of working with Dynamics CRM,” says Moisy. “The more we talked to them, the more we felt that they understood what we were trying to achieve.”

The eventual solution? Microsoft Dynamics CRM, implemented at the end of 2011.

“We ended up getting a lot more than what we expected,” sums up Moisy. “We are able to target areas for improvement very quickly, and pinpoint how we can better serve our customers. Also, the information that becomes visible can now be fed back into our sales and manufacturing processes.”

Kevin Hall, Managing Director, eBECS
Kevin Hall, Managing Director, eBECS

“Whenever we look at identifying a solution for a client, we always start with the end point in mind—which ultimately, is our customers’ success” – Kevin Hall, Managing Director, eBECS

Thinking outside the box

It would be a mistake to imagine that CRM – despite its name – only impacts a company’s relationship with its customers, stresses eBECS’ Hall.

At fast-growing eBECS customer Mainstream Renewable Power, which designs, develops, and operates renewable power installations around the world, Microsoft Dynamics CRM is in use helping the business to manage relationships with a whole host of third parties. “In fact, the number of actual customers is quite small – it’s basically those companies which buy a completed renewable energy installation from us, when it has been built and commissioned,” explains Mainstream CIO John Shaw. “But the challenge of stakeholder relationship management is very real. In such a highly regulated industry, it’s vital to deliver CRM comprehensively.”

Partners, regulators, landowners, and utilities, certainly. But also a host of other interested parties, ranging from fisheries authorities through to shipping and defence interests, each of which must be consulted about the presence of an offshore wind farm in busy coastal waters.

Inevitably, too, Mainstream makes extensive use of subcontractors and third party specialists. Relationships with these also fall under the remit of CRM, with Microsoft SharePoint deployed as a collaboration and document management tool, helping to record interactions with stakeholders.

“Although we use 33 Microsoft products, the core pillars are Microsoft Dynamics AX, Dynamics CRM, and SharePoint,” says Shaw. “Microsoft technology underpins everything we do – from project management through to procurement, and from stakeholder relationships through to paying the bills.”

The role played by eBECS has been critical, he adds: “eBECS fully understood what we needed to do, and have played a leading role in enabling our business growth.” Back at eBECS, managing director Kevin Hall is gratified by these endorsements, but not surprised.

“Whenever we look at identifying a solution for a client, we always start with the end point in mind – which ultimately, is our customers’ success,” he sums up. “As with every business, eBECS is owned by its shareholders. And we only sleep well at night if our customers are getting what they want.”