Technology Solutions Special: Technology choices

All independent dealers know by now that they need to embrace technology in order to stay in the game, but the options available can be bewildering. David Holes caught up with three OP dealers to find out what software platforms they're using, why they chose them and what they're bringing to their businesses.

Case study 1: Clark Office Products

Clark Office Products was founded in 1972 in Mountain Home, Arkansas, with a branch in Harrison opening in 1988. The company currently services a region covering ten counties in the north of the state, running right up to the Missouri border. It offers a full range of OP supplies, as well as furniture, facilities and breakroom products; it’s also a Canon-authorised dealer. The current owners, Rick and Lorna Dixon, bought the business ten years ago. Rick gives his thoughts on their decision to adopt SSI’s software package.

“SSI came to our attention when we were on the lookout for a new software provider. After lengthy conversations and demonstrations, we found its suite to be the best fit for our company. We believed the point of sale, purchasing, accounts receivable and web store had the power and flexibility that we were looking for at a price we could afford. Changing software is no easy task, but with the training and support we were given we have never looked back. 

“In current times where most dealers are seeing sales declines, we have seen growth across all aspects of our business. We attribute much of that to SSI and the recommendations made by them to help us compete with the big-box stores. We also use ‘jobtrack’ for the machine side of our business and like how it and the web store flow seamlessly into the SSI package.

“Support is always there for us by email or phone when needed. However, we’ve found that after the initial learning curve we’ve become more confident and knowledgeable and don’t need as much hand-holding. The system is so powerful — I know we do not use all of the features provided, but I’m continually learning and it makes our jobs easier.

“As a result of all this, our e-commerce platform is doing well and the numbers are growing. We know that without it our business would not be where it is. To be considered a legitimate player in today’s world, you must have a good e-commerce presence. We are in the early stages of developing our m-commerce platform and realise that this will play an important part in our continued growth.

“Social media is another important aspect of our business today — we use Facebook to make customers aware of news and the latest promotions and products — and this is proving a considerable success. Additionally, the last three employees we’ve recruited were hired using Facebook to place the job adverts.

“Having said all that, after 40 years in this business I still find myself wanting a personal relationship with all the customers we deal with, and I think this is actually one of the most important reasons that we continue to grow our business. We are what you would call ‘old school’ when it comes to customer service. 

“In fact, one of the main reasons we went with SSI in 2015 for our software was because the team there gave me this feeling of personal service. I know I can speak to Terry, Charles or John — the owners — if I need to. They are in a business where the latest technology is a top priority, but they still have an outstanding customer service ethic.”

Case study 2: Perimeter Office Products

Perimeter Office Products operates out of Lawrenceville, a suburb of Atlanta in the US state of Georgia. The company has 30 employees, reported sales of over $15 million in 2017 and is on track to raise this to $16.5 million this year. 70% of its trade is SMBs, with the remaining 30% coming from its larger customer accounts.

Perimeter prides itself on its commitment to exceptional customer service. OPI speaks to President Mike Evert about Perimeter’s decision to go with ECI’s software package and the effect this has had on the business.

OPI: Why did you choose ECI’s software solution and why is it particularly suited to your business? 

Mike Evert: We took a serious look at three other packages. The first didn’t offer the full suite of capabilities we needed while the other two were comprehensive, but very expensive. The ECI offering includes ECinteractivePlus, Website Customisation Services (WCS) and Acsellerate — a very robust software package at an affordable cost.  

This suite of solutions has integrated extremely well into our business and has helped us grow by taking on more complex customers and allowing us to become far more automated in our processes.

OPI: Where specifically are the benefits?

ME: Purchasing is one of them — we have multiple accounts with our first call wholesaler Essendant, and the package has allowed us to fully automate the auto-short buy process.  

Our website, with ECI’s WCS team’s help, has become very competitive from a content point of view. Additionally, ECinteractive now allows us to remain competitive with the big boxes by, for example, letting our customers have multiple levels of approvers. It’s also mobile friendly which is a huge plus and our mobile offering is becoming increasingly popular.

The Acsellerate software is useful in term of giving our sales representatives the information they need to gauge opportunities for category penetration within their accounts. It also helps to identify accounts that have fallen off and need to be revived. In addition, we use Acsellerate’s ‘Profitability Report’ module, which can create customer-facing reports that suggest item substitutions that will both save the customer money and enhance our profitability.

OPI: Can you point to any tangible results that you’ve seen? 

ME: We have taken on some customers that we wouldn’t have been able to add without this software suite. Our growth figures speak for themselves — revenues are up by over $4.5 million since we converted to this software in 2015. That’s not all down to this package, of course, but having the right technology helps and it has allowed us to grow without any limitations.

OPI: How much support do you get from ECI? 

ME: We had multiple training sessions leading up to the conversion time, both on-site and via webinars, and we have complete access to ECI’s customer support team. Their people are extremely knowledgeable and helpful. 

Furthermore, for a reasonable cost, ECI also handles our item file updates and year-end procedure for us.

OPI: How is the e-commerce platform performing for Perimeter? What features would you highlight in particular? 

ME: The platform is performing very well for us. I’m a bit of a novice, but I use the analytics features to come up with at least one actionable lead for my sales force each day, mainly looking at items abandoned in cart. 

There is, however, a lot more I could be using the analytics for and I intend to use this aspect of the suite increasingly in the future. For example, I haven’t tied the analytics into our email marketing strategy yet and need to spend more time implementing this.  

The adoption of technology by independent dealers is extremely important. Technology doesn’t create growth by itself, but the correct mix can help accelerate it, and I will continue to invest in it to ensure our business is able to expand unencumbered.

Case study 3: Office Solutions

As one of the largest independent OP dealers in the US, Office Solutions says it offers the benefits of national purchasing power coupled with a customer-centric philosophy and local, personalised service. The company was founded in 1984 and is headquartered in Yorba Linda, California. It supplies a comprehensive range of office and business products, including furniture, facilities and breakroom supplies as well as printing and other technology equipment.

According to President Bob Mairena, his management team periodically evaluates its technology with the view to delivering the best experience for customers. It is always looking for ways to make it easier for customers to select, buy and receive what they need, where and when they need it. 

“The decision to look for a new software solution several years back was driven by growth,” he explains. “We had outgrown our previous system and found that we were not offering the cutting-edge technology that customers needed. The lifeblood of successful distribution, e-commerce needed to be fully integrated with robust back-end functionality if we were going to compete with the big-box distributors.”

In keeping with the culture of the company, analytics played a big part in searching for a new solution. The Office Solutions team investigated how the various software packages would handle real-life issues for distributors, including how they would transmit orders, deal with back orders, and what the end-to-end e-commerce experience was like. This disciplined approach meant that the team could narrow down which solution would work best for the company.

“I led a whole evaluation process for 50-60 dealers that were part of a user group to look at what options were out there,” says Mairena. “Having gone through that process, all the dog-and-pony shows, all the meetings — and there were many — I felt that BMI was by far the best option for us. 

“The rest of the team was equally diligent about ‘kicking the tyres’, talking to other users, as well as interviewing Microsoft about its commitment to the platform. After that, they too were confident with BMI as their choice.”

The staff at Office Solutions worked hard to ensure the conversion process did not interrupt business. In fact, implementation happened over a single weekend and there were no real issues. As Mairena states: “It was incredibly smooth. We had heard about nightmare scenarios (with other implementations) where orders got lost, people had to shut down and manually enter orders, and I was committed that we were not going to be one of those victims.”

Following successful installation, the new software suite meant that the business ran more efficiently, and instead of management having to spend time dealing with technology problems, it now has more freedom to think about innovative go-to-market ideas. 

Mairena concludes: “I’m not having to do those dumb workarounds anymore. The integrated BMI system ensures that the information is accurate, with fewer errors. The biggest benefit is the fact that I don’t think about it — it just runs, day in and day out. 

“We as a company are larger and more complicated now from when we first installed the software, but BMI continues to evolve and work effectively for — and with — us. The team there has been very supportive, responsive and accessible to me. I have never had any service issues, and because of our relationship we get attention and we get responses.”

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