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You’ve been running your distribution business on the same software for more than a decade. It paid for itself years ago and still performs the same basic functions it did when you logged in that very first time. You have every reason to feel proud of making a sound technology investment way back when.

What others — including your employees and customers — might not tell you, however, is that this same software could be slowly, inexorably strangling the life out of your business.

I recently spoke with a wholesaler who was a “power user” of one of our legacy enterprise resource planning (ERP) platforms dating back to the mid-1980s. He admitted that his software had outlived its purpose as far back as 2002. He finally upgraded to a powerful, modern solution in 2014. So, what happened during the intervening years? “We coasted, and it hurt us,” he said. “I knew I needed to make a change, but kept coming up with reasons to wait till next year.”

What this business owner would tell you today is that had he replaced his old software even four years earlier, it already would have paid for itself multiple times through increased efficiency, reduced labor and inventory expenses and improved customer satisfaction.

“It’s always easy to put off an important decision until next month or next year — especially when it involves a financial investment,” he said. “But the worst thing you can do is convince yourself that indecision doesn’t carry a price of its own. And that price can be very high.”

This business owner saw firsthand what he had been missing simply by observing his employees, who were now “willing to explore new ways to service our customers.” With the old system, they had a limited ability to capture important information on customer buying patterns. They were spending hours each day on price maintenance rather than focusing on building sales. They couldn’t analyze their business performance beyond a few canned reports.

With the new software, however, all of this changed. “I suddenly saw long-time employees who were re-energized and who had confidence that they could attack problems in new, more efficient ways. It was like they had been waiting for me to give them these tools for several years. How do you assign a value to that?”

Impact Throughout The Business

Unlike transaction-based legacy systems, unlimited access to your business data in a modern, open database environment can give employees the ability to analyze, providing real-time information to make better decisions and call out exceptions. This can lead to improved customer service and growth.

As employees accomplish more in their daily tasks, customers will see faster responses and more accurate service. For example, collaborative order entry reinforces customer confidence and prevents expensive errors from incorrect material orders and deliveries.

Likewise, mobility in more modern ERP systems can extend the application to workers outside of the office (e.g., giving the sales team data connectivity on the road to update order status). According to one distributor, “In an environment where everyone expects information now, I believe mobility with our ERP system gives our sales team access to the data needed to meet those expectations. We also receive real-time information that allows us to review open quotes, outstanding A/R, etc. to address while making a call to an account. In short, it allows us to work smarter, faster and with the most up-to-date data.”

Modern systems can also offer other sophisticated functionality that is important to HVAC and plumbing distributors, such as volume rebate tracking, customer-facing order entry, front counter capabilities, document imaging, job-based pricing, assemblies, disassemblies and modifications. For example, job-based pricing provides the ability to quote a job and store those prices for the material in a contract, so that the prices are guaranteed throughout the job. 

Enabling Sales and Profits

Bob Dylan wrote, “If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.” The same seems to be true in the context of operating a distribution business. The wholesalers who are most energized and, often, most successful, are the ones who understand that technology is a sales and profit enabler, not a cost center. They are continually looking for ways to harvest additional competitive value from their systems, and when those systems have been maxed out, they carefully select a new system with proven potential to drive their growth for the next several years. 

Conversely, there are businesses that continue to rely on an outdated solution simply for the reason that it still turns on every morning. It’s no wonder that many of these business owners are working harder than ever just to maintain some semblance of the sales and profitability they enjoyed 10 years ago.

Michael Lovelace
Director of business development, distribution for Epicor Software

Which are you? A business owner committed to aggressive growth and to attracting and retaining high-energy employees who look forward to coming to work each day? Or are you experiencing a steady erosion of your business as customers move to competitors?

If you’re the former, I congratulate you on your willingness to seek continuous improvement through leading edge technologies. If you’re the latter, I urge you to make the investment you’ve been postponing for so long. Haven’t you already paid too high a price?

Michael Lovelace is director of business development, distribution for Epicor Software Corporation.

This article originally appeared in the May/June print edition of Industrial Distribution. Click here to view the full digital edition.

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