FAST COMPANY

Feb 01, 2005 10:30 PM  By

Back in the day, an order entry operator took an order over the phone and laboriously keyed in all the information into a computer. Not any more, thanks to the efforts of order entry software vendors. These suppliers have combined steps to make the job easier, causing the role of order entry operator to expand into areas such as customer service and sales. Order entry training now tends to be less standardized and more closely related to the particular order entry application used.

MOUSE EXTERMINATION

Lloyd Merriam, president and CEO of Marietta, GA-based Colinear Systems Inc., says of Colinear’s Response order entry software program, “We have written our applications in such a way that the user never has to use a mouse, unless he wants to. We’ve designed ‘hot’ keys to allow the operator to navigate easily.”

Once a customer’s first order is taken, at the next order the operator can call up the customer’s order history with just a few key strokes. With less manual work to do, the operator is freer to cross-sell or suggest promotional products.

The operator, Merriam says, “has to understand the optimum way to take and process an order in his particular environment. This will vary from client to client.” For instance, some companies want shipping information to be taken first. Others prefer to start with the order, since they feel it’s pointless to start with shipping information if no order follows. Merriam mentions one Response user that always asks for the customer’s credit card number first, because the company sells adult-oriented products, and callers tend to call and talk about the items but not order them. Getting the credit card number first qualifies them as genuine customers.

Merriam maintains that although operator training should not be a big issue, it is for many vendors. “Much of this type of software is not user-friendly — intentionally, for that carries a requirement that the vendor is needed for training,” he says. “If the software is well designed, it should be easy to work with and allow the user to intuitively master the process.”

Noting that only about 8% of his customers ask for training, Merriam says, “My idea of successful training is to demonstrate how to use the software wisely rather than explain every little detail about how to do this or that.” Students using Colinear’s instructional material can easily familiarize themselves with the software, become aware of the various navigational aids to finding data, and learn the basics of how to look up customers and orders. Once new users have accomplished this, and if they have prepared questions ahead of time, then, Merriam says, an hour’s class with a company instructor can bring the client an added dimension. “My perspective is the big picture and helping users make the most of the software with the least amount of effort,” Merriam says. “I focus on operational efficiency and going beyond the obvious to understand the finer points — those things that most only discover after months (or even years) of experience.”

READING THE MANUAL

One of Colinear’s customers, Mary Jo Potter Madewell, customer service manager for Eagle America Corporation of Chardon, OH, takes a contrasting view. “The Response software is so rich in possibilities, I’ve found the quickest way to get our operators into the day-to-day usage is through [a] simplified manual we’ve devised,” Madewell says. “They learn just what they need day to day.”

Eagle makes woodworking equipment, primarily router bits — a niche market, and a highly technical one. Prior to Madewell’s arrival five years ago, the operators all specialized in specific companies. “The problem was that sometimes people were busy and sometimes they were not,” Madewell says. “So I cross-trained everyone so everyone can do any one of a number of things to expedite orders and satisfy customer needs without the necessity of checking with someone else.”

Madewell trains incrementally. After being trained on the manual, an operator starts with mail order entries. “This means the operator is not stuck on the phone with a customer, and can ask questions,” Madewell says. The new operator is also assigned to a mentor who can answer questions for three to six weeks. During the time the new operator is not on the computer, he is listening — via headphones — to his mentor taking orders on the technical products.

Not until after at least three weeks does a new operator start taking orders directly. Then, and even later, if a question is too difficult, he can switch easily to his mentor or supervisor. “Even experienced operators have problems sometimes,” Madewell says. “The system has worked very well. All of the reps that were here when I came are still here.”

One other aspect of this type of training that was not necessary before, Madewell says, is that “Internet orders now mean operators have to be trained not only to have good verbal communication skills, but good writing skills as well.”

CROSSING OVER

Sean Rollings, senior director of marketing for NetSuite Inc., headquartered in San Mateo, CA, says, “The crazy thing with most customer management systems is that they may allow offering a quote, but cannot take an order. Taking an order and establishing that tangible relationship is the center of our system. Then we add many other functions which make up order management.”

Rollings says that operators should be trained to not just take an order “but rather take a strategic view and operate to upsell and cross-sell.” In this scenario, an operator uses information on his screen not only to take orders but also to do push/pull selling. Or the operator might see complementary or add-on products that he can “pull” the customer toward on the basis of sales history. One NetSuite user, Los Angeles-based TonerZone.com, is a wholesaler/distributor of printing supplies for over 5,000 different printers and fax machines. Since customers tend to order the same types of supplies for their machines, once the customer data is on the screen, an order is usually a matter of simply changing the number or quantity of the item.

“The contact information and preferred shipping methods and payment are already there,” says TonerZone.com president llan Douek. The NetSuite application automatically calculates different prices for retailers, wholesalers, or special corporate accounts, as well as sales tax. A promotional code calculates discounts, shipping costs, and the removal of same if the order is big enough. Then, after being routed to a superior for approval, the order is automatically communicated to the customer by e-mail or fax. “This software eliminated about 20 steps,” Douek says. “It’s a very easy system to navigate. We start new operators on fax orders so they don’t have the pressure of being on the phone. But within one to two weeks they’re comfortable enough to start taking orders on the phone.”

Thomas G. Dolan is a freelance writer based in Anacortes, WA. He can be contacted by phone at (360) 299-2286.