Skipping the renovations

Imagine didn’t have to rebuild or replace your existing ERP system, call centre customer relationship application or other IT infrastructure to accommodate e-business capabilities.

Chances are you’d generate more revenue, reduce costs, improve customer service and loyalty, find more ways to streamline your firm’s internal operations and enjoy a competitive edge.

At least that’s the experience of Vision Corp. of Mississauga, Ont. and Mark VII Inc., based in Memphis, Tenn. Both companies this year have implemented the e-Business Interaction Suite from Richmond Hill, Ont.-based Delano Technology Corp., which also has offices in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and the U.K.

From 125 offices, the 10-year Mark VII provides a range of transportation and logistics capabilities to support supply chain operations worldwide. Its clients span the globe market, and include Frito-Lay. Mark VII ships between 15,000 and 20,000 customer loads each week.

Mark VII provides sales support and credit and collections services to its branch offices and agent operations on a centralized basis. To deliver this support, it runs an Informix Dynamic Server relational database on a Sun Ultra Enterprise 3000 server, plus a Microsoft IIS Web server running on NT Server, a Microsoft Exchange mail server, a Data General mainframe and various Windows 95 and NT workstations.

The company also uses high-speed document imaging, EDI, faxes, the Internet and e-mail to process thousands of shipments per day and manage the comprehensive customer service offerings.

“We wanted an Internet/e-mail delivery system to get information out to the field,” said Terry Maready, vice-president of information systems at Mark VII. “I’m particular about the exposure of our database to the Internet, so we had to find a tool that would allow us to extract data rapidly and deliver it.”

At first, Maready saw only two uninviting paths to take: either absorb the cost of a large development staff in-house or contract to one company to do all of it “and then live and die at their priority.”

When they found the Delano product they saw it took them down a centre path and decided to use it to automate and manage a number of core business processes. Mark VII had four or five e-business applications in production within the first three weeks of receiving approval from the board of directors. That included installing the software, building the interfaces to the databases and setting up a development workstation for Mark VII Web developers.

“We contracted with Delano for support and that got us off the ground quickly,” Maready said. “We have developed another 10 e-business applications since then. We’re developing new ones almost every week.”

For example:

Gone is their multi-step, paper-based manual process involved in extending credit to customers. Now, a Web-based credit application form is automatically routed for approval, the customer database updated and a status update returned to the agent originating the request. Credit approvals are completed in a matter of hours, enabling Mark VII to enter the $500 million spot transportation market.

Accounts receivable aging applications daily scan the Mark VII database for overdue customers and automatically send customized reminder e-mails with information on the outstanding invoices. Long overdue accounts are automatically escalated to a collection clerk for direct follow-up.

Credit balance applications automatically send notifications to Mark VII agents to ensure customers don’t exceed approved credit limits. A customer statement retrieval application enables Mark VII agents to request and receive customer statements over the Web. When fully deployed, Mark VII anticipates reducing receivables collection rates by two to three days, giving the company access to valuable working capital of $5 to $7 million.

Eight full time Mark VII staff used to handle up to 200 phone calls per week from some of the 7,000 or so affiliated carriers, with inquiries regarding their forthcoming paycheques. Now a vendor notification application scans the Mark VII database at regular intervals, automatically creates a copy of each vendor’s cheque along with details for each load, and e-mails the information in an HTML attachment to each carrier. The eight people can perform more revenue-generating work and the carriers appreciate the timely information.

Maready also plans to use Delano to deliver electronic stubs for the electronic payments to carriers. “Some of the smaller trucking companies are living paycheque to paycheque. We’ve made a lot of folks happy. We provide that at no charge.”

He said the Delano software installed in May 1999 paid for itself within three months. He estimates the first year ROI from initial applications is 300 per cent, considering staffing repositioning and supplier relationships. Annual telecommunications and administration savings could be as much as $1.5 million.

According to Maready, the single biggest benefit of their e-business capabilities is being able to meet the endless list of requirements for different reporting. An extranet is being established for authorized users to extract data in a usable form. Users will simply click on a report and get the data in a form that they can put on their spreadsheet.

The Delano application server sits behind the firewall from where it queries, extracts and sends data. Maready said it eliminates any external exposure of their database. Only one of the 16 employees in the Memphis operation, where most of the company’s infrastructure systems are maintained, is designated to do anything with the Internet/e-business systems. “With Delano, that’s plenty,” he said.

He adds that their e-business activity gives them an edge in a very competitive market. They plan to apply this approach to further boost efficiency in dealing with vendors and customers.

“Without a doubt, it’s going to make a major difference to be able to provide information immediately at a customer’s desire, when and how they want it,” he said. “We believe that will [give us an advantage] compared to our competitors.

The Delano e-Business Interaction Suite is also a component of the e-business platform of Vision, a subsidiary of TLC Laser Eye Centers, a provider of laser vision correction services. TLC has more than 50 centres across North America and in early 1999 became the first to perform 100,000 vision correction procedures.

Vision provides health care companies and 12,000 TLC affiliate physicians with Web development services and e-business applications to connect them with manufacturers and suppliers of health care products and services across North America. To this end, it established its TLC Eye Care Network system which also co-ordinates with the various TLC centres and provides on-line centralized buying services for business supplies. The system registers the information and used Active Server Page objects to create and send an e-mail to both the vendor and to a Vision administrator.

Vision and TLC plan to expand their use of the Internet as much as possible to send educational material on laser eye surgery, post-surgery thank-you messages, appointment reminders and anniversary cards to TLC patients and doctors. Currently, TLC and Vision interact with more than 1,500 people each day on their Eye Care Network Web site and more than 3,500 Internet-using affiliate doctors on a monthly basis

“We love e-mail, but it is fire and forget,” said Vision president Paul-Michael Hawkins. “We realized if we get the growth we’re anticipating and we continue to see the use of the Web increase, we were going to run into a significant problems keeping track of our e-mails and communicating with our patients and doctors. That’s when we saw the Delano product and knew we’d have a tool that would allow us to track the e-mail. Now we fire (an e-mail), someone acts on it, it’s tracked and measured, so on a monthly basis we can ensure we haven’t let things fall through the cracks with consumers, doctors, suppliers and our corporate organization.”

The Delano e-business application handles the e-mail communication infrastructure for multiple TLC Web sites. Any e-business module needing to send an e-mail launches a routine that “databases” the message, sends it out, waits for approval and notifies if there has been no response. Monitoring all orders and automatically notifying all relevant parties about their status has also improved average response times. A Delano application runs through the entire database each month and flags any items not completed.

“In July, we went to each department and asked for a wish list of applications to be developed,” Hawkins said. They chose the ones which would produce the greatest pay off, then worked with each functional department manager to architect and implement the application.

The impact has been to streamline many of the business systems. For example, Hawkins said that while ramping up from five TLC centres to 55 centres, it wasn’t unusual for Vision to receive a call from an employee hired six or eight weeks earlier asking for a user ID or other new employee details. Soon, when a new employee is hired, every relevant department will immediately be made aware by e-mail which is tracked and, if not responded to, flagged within three or four days.

When, as in this case, there is no legacy system to adapt, they find developing a Delano application typically takes two days to one week.

“With any internal project like that, the challenge is to map out the internal business process,” said Anthony Dezilva, director of e-business services. “That’s where we’ve said we’re going to spend a lot of time defining who gets what information and how. Of the total three-month project, only two days to a week have been tagged as development time. When we look at changing business systems, it’s not the technology and implementation that holds back the development of it, it is actually getting the people within the department to change their existing behaviour.

“If we didn’t have Delano, we wouldn’t even try it,” he said.

Hawkins said the Delano Suite paid for itself in six months and even projects a 2,000 per cent ROI within the first 18 months. He bases that estimate on staff savings (they expected to hire four developers but only needed to hire one), cost reducing efficiencies and the ability to generate new revenue.

For example, TLC expects to drive its revenue by integrating e-mail into its regular mix of marketing communication to health care consumers. The Delano Suite will allow TLC and Vision to build an e-mail application which will engage its target market consumers into meaningful one-to-one relationships. E-mail responses will be launched to a large number of consumers, tracked and all subsequent communication managed by TLC staff. At $2,400 per eye for the procedure, Hawkins said converting patients using the Delano Suite has the potential to significantly drive TLC revenues at a fraction of the cost of advertising

Dezilva reports they handle their e-business applications with a three-machine platform comprised of Compaq 1850Rs, dual Pentium III 500 MHz processors with half a gigabyte of RAM. One is a front-end server running all Web utilities. A second box in the back handles everything from a SQL server to the authentication scheme to Delano inside a private network. The third is an e-mail and list server at the front end which basically routes all the communication from the Delano server outside.

Dezilva’s team includes one Delano application developer, two developers dedicated to managing the multiple Web sites for TLC, plus integration staff and project managers.

“Because of the drag and drop interface and the way the modules look on the screen, you don’t have to document our applications by using a program such as Visio anymore. It saves time and helps in the documentation. If we were doing this with C, C++ or ASP, we’d need five or six highly skilled programmers. With Delano, we can use scripters and not hire as many people.”

Delano’s pricing is based on the number of applications deployed and ranges upwards from $250,000 (U.S.) for enterprise-class deployments.

“When we first started working with Delano, it was a significant investment and we had questions, hurdles and stumbling blocks,” Hawkins said. “Delano was able to get us over initial hurdles and specific issues and they were able to come up with answers very quickly. Every day there are new technologies and concepts, but it is the people behind it who developed it and support it who actually make it work.”

Susan Maclean, principal of Sumac Communication in Guelph, Ont., is a freelance writer covering IT applications. She can be reached