In Premier Paper’s market, the key to retaining business is timely product delivery. Clients need orders to be fulfilled quickly and accurately, so it’s order processing is a critical operation. This often means next or same day deliveries, so ‘speed’ really is the key here. Premier’s customers include printing works, copier shops, office suppliers and retail outlets, and the firm has a huge variety of products – about 10,000 different lines. About half of its orders are fulfilled direct from stock; the rest are ‘made to order’. Back in mid-1999, most of Premier’s order processing was done manually. There was mounting pressure on human resources, and the sheer scale of administration was proving to be a problem, financially. Robert Lockwood, business development director at Premier, explains: “The busiest time for us is 3 to 6pm, when most of the ‘phone orders are coming in, to be processed for next day delivery. It’s tight and logistics have to be smart. And prioritising orders is an issue, as some clients need their stock urgently, whereas others may not.” So, in August 1999, Premier decided to look for software that would allow customers to order directly over the Internet. This would ease pressure on the sales operation, and would provide an alternative method of ordering other than the telephone. Lockwood adds: “We knew this type of order processing software would open up our business information systems to customers and suppliers. But despite this, we knew the eventual benefits would outweigh any concerns we had over abuse or malpractice. “We wanted customers, and our own sales reps to be able to access account information, stock levels, pricing and alternatives. We wanted customers to be able to make more informed choices by browsing through on-line product catalogues, and checking their order status. This means you cut down the frequency of customers making phone calls to ask simple questions, thus reducing telephone traffic in the sales office and easing the pressure on everyone.” But, as in all on-line order processing implementations, the front-end web application has to integrate fully with the back-office transaction engine – in Premier’s case, an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system from Geac (on an IBM AS/400 platform). In mid-2000, the company approached Deliver-e, which had specific expertise in integrating IBM AS/400 ERP systems with front-end web software. It’s offering, Web:Linc, has a ‘Workspace’ facility (a rules engine) to help overcome the problems associated with bypassing manual order taking. Lockwood continues: “The rules [within Workspace] are predefined. Orders over a certain value can be automatically routed to a sales rep for checking with the customer before despatch. And the rules engine defines exactly what information a customer can and cannot access. After all, we don’t want customers looking at other customers’ account details. ”The great thing is it’s all very flexible, and you can add an unlimited number of rules to Workspace. There’s no such thing as a typical order here.” Web:Linc took just three months to implement, from September to December 2000. Lockwood: “The main problem was the e-catalogue for the web application. We had to revise and clean-up our internal data in order to present it to the outside world. We had inconsistent product descriptions, and a variety of company abbreviations that meant something to us, but would mean nothing to anyone else. “Overall, the project cost was reasonable,” says Lockwood. “£25,000 on two new servers, plus £40,000 on software, including some development work.” And the response from users has been positive. Lockwood: ”Clients are pleased at the speed with which they can access account information and place orders. And sales are happy to use the system as it keeps them informed in their dealings with clients. Sales also know who has been visiting the site. “We’ve actually picked up three new customers in the last three months from the website, and we’re saving around 15% on order processing costs.” But there’s more. The system is proving to be so successful, the company has decided to equip its sales force, and some key clients, with hand-held Nokia communicators. Lockwood: “Sales can connect straight into the ERP system and check details about the client, like real-time account information, stock levels and order history. It means sales are more customer-focussed, and no longer bogged down with administration.”