SYSTEMS SOFTWARE: Smooth implementations

Planning and testing can simplify system installations

Installing a full-blown catalog management system or patching an existing system to integrate your Website can be a tricky proposition. Making matters worse, some catalogers underestimate just how difficult the process can be.

“Most catalogers either rush the implementation or haven’t clearly mapped out a schedule,” says Paul Sobota, vice president of Richmond, VA-based operations consultancy F. Curtis Barry & Co.

Some of those that neglect to work out a schedule are under the illusion that they don’t have to. “Usually, the perception among catalogers is that the software vendor is going to take care of everything,” Sobota says. But while most vendors will have a plan of attack in place, catalogers should become more proactive in the software implementation process, which may include converting records and training employees – and always, plenty of testing.

Atlanta-based catalog marketer Ben Meadows Co., which sells equipment for ecological conservation and forestry-related supplies, planned for more than six months before converting to Smith-Gardner’s MACS catalog management system shortly after Labor Day 1997. The firm also sent several employees to Smith-Gardner’s headquarters for MACS training. “Having employees trained on the new system before we went live was critical,” says president Karl Hube.

Because switching systems entailed converting and transferring data, Ben Meadows also rented a computer exactly like its central computer so that employees could convert the files to the new format before MACS went online and while business carried on as usual. “With the duplicate central computer in place, we converted customer and order history records to the MACS system,” Hube says. “We converted almost everything electronically; only our old backorders were rekeyed manually.” The computer cost about $10,000 to rent, Hube notes, but it was a small price to pay compared to the cost of a glitch after going live.

Because the cataloger planned ahead, implementation of MACS went fairly smoothly, Hube says – although he admits the transition wasn’t easy. “Every conversion we made here was equivalent to a corporate root canal,” he jokes.

Employee training was the most challenging part of National Wildlife Federation’s conversion from its proprietary system to CommercialWare’s Mozart catalog management system in June 1996. When it comes to employees and computer programs, “change is tough, and old habits are hard to break,” says Tocky Lawrence, director of information systems for the Vienna, VA-based gifts cataloger.

Fortunately, the cataloger had allotted nine months from the time it introduced the system to employees to when it finally implemented the program. Overall, Lawrence adds, the implementation went smoothly.

But planning for implementation is only half of the equation. First, catalogers must carefully evaluate their needs, especially if the operation includes more than one business. “Operations systems are inherently more complex,” says Coy Clement, president of Westerly, RI-based Paragon Holdings. “A system geared to consumer order processing may be inefficient for business orders with multiple ship-to addresses.”

Then there’s testing. “You need to test the new system vigorously,” consultant Sobota says. The program has to work not only with your internal systems, such as accounting software, but with outside systems as well. For example, “test against your credit-card processor,” Sobota says.

1. If your annual sales are $50 million or more, buy a package that you can customize and maintain inhouse. If your sales are less, consider buying an off-the-shelf package – and the support that goes with it.

2. Spend three to six months developing a complete request for proposal. By identifying your objectives, assessing your current resources, and establishing clear specifications for the new system, you’ll receive bids that meet your needs.

3. Evaluate what the software does “out of the box.” If it can meet your basic needs without modification, you have a much better chance of a successful installation. Be careful buying software that requires extensive modification – experts say that most implementation disasters stem from installing systems that need extensive modification just to handle the basic needs of the business.

4. Allow sufficient time for implementation of your new system. The entire process should take 12-18 months. Catalogers that are unhappy with their new system typically rushed the implementation.

5. Don’t underestimate the learning curve of employees such as order-takers, who will be the ones actually using the new system.

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