Making an intelligent choice

Business intelligence (BI) is a broad category — it encompasses a myriad of technologies and applications for gathering, storing, analyzing and providing access to data in order to help enterprise users make better business decisions. This can make the BI tool selection process a mind-boggling one.

But according to a report from Stamford, Conn.-based analyst house Gartner Inc., technology should be one of the last steps completed before settling on a BI solution. IT managers must use business and user requirements as a compass when evaluating enterprise BI suites and reporting tools and should consider not only features and functions, but also factors like architecture and design, how the proposed tool fits in with existing investments, and what kind of technical support is available.

Below are the success stories of three Canadian enterprises.

National Fast Freight Inc.

National Fast Freight (NFF), a Concord, Ont.-based freight forwarding company, provides less-than-truckload service: customers who need to ship less than a full load — and are unable to negotiate an order with another carrier — can put whatever they need to ship in one of NFF’s trucks, which carries freight for multiple customers.

The company wanted some insight into the profit it was making from its customers, said Lori McCreight, NFF’s general manager. “This is a very competitive industry. We look at our margins on a regular basis and if the service is not making money for our customers, we’re not making money.”

In addition, the firm’s data management system provided paper-based reports on a daily basis, which made it relatively easy to distinguish what kind of margin was being made from a specific unit. But determining what a particular customer contributed to the margin on an overall basis was a different story — employees could not cross-reference current information on shipping prices, load status or customer sales in real-time, all critical business indicators. “We would have to print thousands of pages, take that information and manually analyze it. It was very tedious,” she said.

NFF enlisted in the help of GHI Technologies Company Ltd., a Mississauga, Ont.-based business intelligence and customer relationship management solutions provider that was doing a hardware project for NFF at the time.

GHI suggested a hosted transportation-specific Microsoft-based BI solution based on Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition, including Analysis Services and Data Analyzer. The tool analyzes revenue by customer lane, service type, trip, as well as other key performance indicators. Users log in to the NFF site with a secure code and then click on a link that takes them to GHI’s servers.

For a demo, NFF sent over its revenue and cost data in Excel format and GHI customized the solution based on the business rules NFF provided. “We saw that what used to take us hours we could now do in two minutes,” McCreight said. The implementation took 30 days and after a few meetings and “some tweaking here and there,” the system was ready to go.

NFF has used the solution to help build better relationships with its more valuable customers, resulting in client retention. In the freight industry, if a company is not making enough profit, it will usually increase the lane rate for its customers. “Because we don’t have enough of a concrete, factual basis to make decisions on (a specific) item…we end up hitting up customers across the board for four to five per cent (extra) per year.”

But now that it is able to view how much each customer is contributing to its margins, NFF only has to increase the lane rates for the less profitable customers. “We are building a better relationship with the customer by trying to show them that we are trying to save them money in an area where we don’t need any more profit made.”

Direct Energy Essential Home Services

In 1999, Direct Energy Essential Home Services, a Toronto-based retailer that sells and services home energy equipment, was spun off from Enbridge Inc., a regulated natural gas utility. To compete effectively in the open market, Direct Energy needed a way to monitor the execution of its business strategy.

“There were a lot of things changing for company at that point,” said Ripley Maddock, the firm’s director of customer management. “Everything was going to new computer systems, there were new processes to follow, new jobs people had. We needed to establish how the business needed to function,” which meant changing some of the metrics used to track the business.

One of these met