Building collaboration tools

Fisher Scientific Canada describes itself as Canada’s largest provider of instruments, equipment, supplies and other products to the scientific community. But to Mike Aronson, director of Distribution and Information Technology, the laboratory and industrial safety products supplier is as much an information company as a product company.

The Nepean, Ont.-based company serves research centres, clinical laboratories, hospitals, health care alliances, environmental testing centres, quality-control and other industrial laboratories engaged in biomedical, biotechnology, pharmaceutical, chemical and other fields of research and development.

“We’ve got over 200,000 records on our product master,” Aronson reports. “When you have that many products, the ability to access information and disseminate the right information to the right people in a timely fashion is critical. A lot of the (IT) development work that we’ve done has been centred around that. When you’re an information company as much as a product company, the core of everything is communication. A lot of issues circle around: how do we communicate better with customers, with our employees and with our suppliers? And how do our suppliers communicate better with us in terms of making sure that we have the right product in the right place at the right time at the right price for a particular customer? The better job we can do in providing that information to the customer, the better off we are.”

That is, the more competitive Fisher Scientific can be. Certainly that’s vital, given that this company faces not only head on competition but also vies for customers with niche players and even manufacturers’ direct sales staff. To compound matters, many customers can be directly or indirectly government funded. That funding source also means that Fisher Scientific has to frequently invest in preparing quotations, which in itself necessitates having the appropriate information quickly and accurately.

Fisher Scientific is meeting these challenges by developing the ability to collaborate, often electronically, with customers, vendors and internal staff, says Rob Mowry, manager, Business Technology.

Customer access to information

“We really tried to focus on giving customers the information they need now,” he begins in describing why this wholly owned subsidiary of Fisher Scientific International makes access to information available electronically, by phone to the call centre or by the account rep in the field.

In 1994, they began what would become FisherFast, an e-commerce program that is today Web-based and uses Java. Originally it was a C++ program distributed on diskette to customers so they could used a modem to link to Fisher Scientific’s back-end systems.

In May 1998, the company launched its first generation Web-order entry. The current FisherFast, their second generation of a Web-order entry vehicle, was rolled out in January 2001 with more functionality and improved response times.

Customers use the current FisherFast to find their specific contract pricing and product delivery information. Customers can access their contracted items and delivery information, generate an order online, review their order status and determine shipping information. They can click on their waybill number at the Fisher Scientific Web site to connect to the Purolator Web site to view the delivery information, signature and time of delivery. They can see their Fisher Scientific invoicing online if they choose to.

“We built a lot of other things to help them with their business as far as financial limits on orders, approval processes so that one individual in a company can generate an order and automatically route it to another in their business to actually sign a purchase order and approve it,” Mowry elaborates. “Customers basically use FisherFast to compose an order – this may be somebody working in a lab who knows the products they want to order. They’ll generate the order in FisherFast and we can route that to their manager, as an example, with a quick email. The manager can click on a link and log into FisherFast and look at what his/her employee wished to purchase and either approve it and send the order to us over the Web or deny it.”

Mowry says FisherFast was created with a combination of the company’s own resources and working with IBM using their Websphere Application Server. It gives users the choice of 40-bit or the recommended 128-bit encryption.

Customers can also order by phone, fax and EDI. Still other customers want to use their own systems to talk to Fisher Scientific. They can also respond to customers who use Ariba for procurement through the supply chain.

“We are leveraging the Internet and XML technology to allow a customer’s system to talk directly to ours without having to use some sort of intermediary device like Web order entry or an EDI supplier,” Mowry explains. “You can think of a customer using an SAP system to do their internal works in purchasing. We allow them to send that from their system directly to ours over the Web.”

They use Ironworks Server, a piece of B2B Integration Platform from Ironside Technologies in Toronto, to install connectors that let one talk to different systems such as Oracle, SAP and Ariba. Mowry cautions to carefully select from the many middleware packages to help handle XML so that the tool chosen to integrate a customer-facing e-business application and back end systems is a good fit.

Customer service goes beyond giving them access to information. The company offers customized billing for high volume customers such as large universities who can easily generate 10,000 invoices in just one month, Aronson reports. “For most of them we will deliver it in a customized format so that it almost becomes an upload to their system as if they had keyed all this information themselves. We’re providing them with unique information that they’ve said they want captured and must be part of the process. We’ve modified our system for certain customers to force the entry of appropriate GL (general ledger) codes. Part of their challenge is to manage all the research grants or help the researcher to manage the grants so the GL coding helps them do that. We’re sort of tailoring it as a feed into their payable system.”

Fisher Scientific even generates performance reports for major customers based on customers’ parameters. “We’re telling the customer how we’re doing so they don’t have to ask,” says Aronson.

The company offers customers information in whatever format best meets each customer’s needs – paper, electronically over the Web site, on a CD or by email.

Many of the products Fisher Scientific handles are classified as hazardous, requiring information regarding workplace safety issues and the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act. For example, Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) in English and French by law have to have a certain format and be sent the first time the product is sent to a customer and after a certain lapsed time or any time there is a change in the product. “We have developed programs to track all this so that we send the right information to the right customers at the right point in time,” says Aronson.

Accessing vendor information

Given that the company’s account team may be involved with a customer doing specialized research that could go on for years, as part of the beginning of that process where they may be writing grant applications and putting budgets together, Fisher Scientific’s sales force has to understand what the customer is trying to do and whether the distributor has any products or services that will help them further that process.

Vendors’ price, delivery and expediting information is received electronically. That in turn feeds into the company’s back office system and becomes available to customers directly when they’re using FisherFast when they enter an order. Or, if the customer phones into the call centre, the customer service representatives has access to the same information.

The company generates “thousands and thousands” of purchase orders to suppliers, most of which are sent electronically or through an automated fax process, making it a hands-off function for Fisher Scientific.

“On all of our purchase orders, we calculate delivery time by item by warehouse,” says Aronson. “When an order is sent to a supplier, we know when we expect to receive the goods and when we’ll be able to ship them to the customer by receiving this expediting information electronically from our vendors.”

Most of what Fisher Scientific sells is imported, so it generates many thousands of customs entries in a year. The company uses the information it gets from suppliers’ electronic invoice as an equivalent of an ASN (Advance Ship Notice) “so we know what we’re going to be receiving,” Aronson explains. “That makes it easier to receive the goods once they come to our warehouse. We also use that same information to generate our payables document so we’re not doing all this key entry work. We are actually using our own programs that we developed to generate all the appropriate customs entries and documentation. So the invoices we get from our suppliers spawn the beginning of that process. We’ve tightly integrated information from our suppliers with our payables, our actual physical receiving of goods and the clearance of goods custom documentation. Our entries are submitted electronically to customs.”

To ensure the customs entries had a 100 per cent fit to back end systems, the company developed the systems internally, using legacy mainframe COBOL programming.

The company’s marketing organization can receive information on new products or product updates from suppliers over the Web via FTP. Mowry finds that particularly useful when there are large graphic files involved and expects its use will grow significantly.

Making life easier for staff

Basically, the company is trying to replace other paper-based processes whenever possible.

“We’ve done a lot of work in providing accurate and timely delivery information in terms of our own staff and our customers. Most of this is home-grown, evolved over the years as we’ve responded to Canadian market needs,” says Aronson.

It brought in Lotus Notes in 1995 and used it to custom build their own Contact Manager for sales staff to access and internally share customer information. It was also used to provide staff inbound and outbound faxing from their desktops. Since 1997, Workflow functionality in Notes has been used to automate a lot of what were paper-bound processes. Workflow has been gradually deployed in accounts maintenance, return goods, employee requisitions and even for electronic approval and audits of expenses.

“We are a large user of Lotus Notes as a platform for not only email but for a lot of collaboration within our company as far as discussion databases that may be about a customer’s opportunity or different situations,” says Mowry. “We can share that information in Lotus Notes in special groups and databases that every employee in the company is looking at every day. It really is something that allowed us to truly collaborate as a company. We also use it for a lot of workflow applications. Another interaction of Fisher to customer to supplier collaboration example is a return goods authorization. We have a Notes application that we have developed that allows us to input the appropriate information for the return of a product that will then spawn a process that may have it go back to stock or go back to a vendor. Over time as Notes has improved, we’ve taken advantage of more functionality like the Workflow. In effect, it has become like an intranet for us.”

The company also deploys Team Rooms, a Notes database set up for individuals in different areas of the company to work collaboratively on a customer issue or major project.

Mowry is also keen on their use of computer telephony integration (CTI) which enables the number for a phone call into the call centre to be identified and matched to the name of a customer, then routed to an appropriate customer service representative (CSR) or group. Once the CSR’s telephone rings, a box opens on his/her computer screen and allows the CSR to launch the customer data sheet, explains Mowry.

“We’re a company with a large customer base. Finding the account number is important. The CTI system’s saved a lot of time on the telephone,” he says.

“It has given us efficiencies internally, but the best piece of it is we’re giving our customers better service in that we’re able to process a call from them more quickly,” Aronson adds. “The more of the routine stuff we can make disappear or automate, the more value our CSR can truly add to the call. If we can reduce the time or length of a phone call, we’re giving the customer better service and presumably that’s going to then translate into more business or business at a reduced cost.”

Aronson reports that the ROI on these efforts comes in many forms, including enabling the business to grow without hiring more people because the existing group of people are more efficient. The company looks for a compelling business case before considering any IT investment.

“For us from an IT point of view, it is very much an ‘if we do this, are we helping move the business forward?’ It is a team effort between the end user community and IT and I think that’s why we’ve been as successful as we are.”

It helps that a number of people have worked in more than one part of the business, including some IT staff having worked at some of their end users’ posts.

“When making investments, we look at hard and soft costs and hard and soft benefits,” Aronson adds. “There’s a financial component to any investment we make. There’s also the component: is it the right thing to do? Is it going to generate more business for us or give better service to our customers, allow us to reduce our costs? If it does, that’s the intuitive or gut piece that goes along with the hard numbers. It is the combination of the two that is right.”

Applying this yardstick ensures they wait for technology to mature so that it is bullet proof reliable. “There’s no way we will do anything that will affect any part of the company that will hurt our service to our customers,” he stresses.