Sunglasses distributor eyes sales automation

Vancouver-based sunglasses distributor Suntech Optics needed to take a load off its 37 sales representatives nationwide — literally.

Last year, Suntech implemented a new sales force automation system called EZ Route, part of the Microsoft Dynamics business solutions. EZ Route is a mobile-based ordering, inventory, invoicing, route maintenance and reporting tool.

Deciding on the EZ Route software — a research process that took almost five years — was only the first half of Suntech’s sales force revitalization project, said Mike Chang, the company’s IT manager; the second half involved scouting for the perfect mobile device that could run the EZ Route application.

The criteria were simple. “We were looking for something that’s a little bigger than the PDA, but definitely smaller than your conventional laptop,” said Chang.

One trip to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was all it took for Chang to find the device he was searching for.

The LifeBook P1510D from Fujitsu was small enough for his sales reps to lug around, but big enough to give them all the tools they need to conduct a sales call and send orders wirelessly, said Chang.

As one of Canada’s largest eyewear suppliers, counting among its customers retailers like Shoppers Drug Mart and Hudson’s Bay Company, Suntech has always been at the forefront of technology as a business enabler, said Chang.

Laptops have been part of Suntech’s sales team’s existence since 1990, being one of the first sunglasses companies in North America to implement some form of sales force automation, he added.

That’s why in 2000, the company decided it was time to upgrade its decade-old system.

It wanted to do so with newer, leaner technology designed to make it easier and less cumbersome for its team to do sales calls.

“We didn’t want the sales reps going into a store with big laptops and, in some cases, fairly large printers as well,” said Chang. “We wanted to give the sales reps the ease of use to be able to get into a store and get out of it very quickly without having to carry anywhere between seven and 12 pounds (of equipment).”

The LifeBook P1510D is a two-and-a-half-pound tablet PC with an 8.9-inch touch screen display, up to seven hours of battery life, a point-and-tap stylus functionality and a wireless card that allows Suntech’s field reps to transmit sales orders over wireless connectivity.

The EZ Route application running in tablet form can also capture signatures and store them in the database so that a salesperson can complete an order and have the customer sign the order right on the LifeBook device, explained Chang. This process gives Suntech the ability to maintain paperless proofs of purchase, he added.

On the process side, the EZ Route system effectively reduced the steps that a sales order needed to go through before the actual products are shipped to the customer, said Chang.

“To send an order before, [they] would have to get a phone line, dial up to Sympatico and then go to Outlook. From Outlook, the sales rep pulls the sales order into an attachment, and sends [it] to us,” he explained.

Once the order got to Suntech, the attachment was pulled and went to the Exchange Server. From the Exchange Server, the order went to a Unix server. From the Unix server, it went to another server that actually processesed the order.

“It was a seven-step process for them to send the orders. Now (with EZ Route) we have a two-step process,” said Chang, adding that the time it takes to send an order went down from between 15 and 20 minutes to a minute.

Even training the reps on the new system took less time than it did when the company implemented the previous sales automation system, he said.

EZ Route is also able to generate numerous reports for the reps, including sales history, inventory list and account history. It also features a route maintenance functionality that allows a rep to manage his sales call schedule through the LifeBook, said the Suntech executive.

Realizing the risk of loss or theft of mobile devices, Suntech acquired Computrace licenses for all deployed LifeBook devices, said Chang. Computrace is a product of Vancouver-based Absolute Software that puts tracking software on mobile devices, allowing it to recover and/or disable stolen or lost devices so they are rendered useless to an unauthorized user.

LifeBook also has a built-in biometric sensor for increased security.

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