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Ace Fixings

 

Microsoft Navision innovative mobile solution improves sales force productivity while providing the company with a significant competitive advantage

 

Industry:  Fixings and power tools to the building industry
Scenarios: Business Processes and Sales Force Automation

 

Company background

Ace Fixings was founded in 1978 and is now one of the largest independent fixings and power tool distributors in Ireland. Its customers include plumbers, electricians, builders, ceiling & partitioning contractors and the general construction industry.

 

Operating from its Ballymena headquarters, the company has established a reputation for excellent customer care by delivering products of the highest quality at the most competitive prices. Ace Fixing has an impressive 30,000 square feet of storage space where it carries over 23,000 product lines. Customers are serviced by a highly experienced sales force backed up by a fast efficient delivery service. A power tool repair service is provided by full time highly trained technicians.

 

The company is committed to the use of Information Technology as a means of improving business efficiency. Ace Fixings had already selected and installed the Microsoft Navision solution to manage its finances. However, it needed to work with a partner who could extend the system to exploit the enterprise wide capabilities of the system.

 

“We knew that Microsoft Navision was a very strong financial solution” explained Ace Fixings Financial Controller, Mervyn Glenn. “However, what we really wanted was to fully exploit the powerful operational applications such as manufacturing, warehouse management and mobility. The incumbent Microsoft Navision centre lacked the skills to enable us to implement the full business process capabilities of the system. We really needed a partner who could work with us to provide Ace Fixings with a competitive business advantage”.

 

The Business Need
 

The main requirement was a fully integrated business management system that would allow Ace Fixings to capitalise on its prominent market position. The system needed to provide accurate and timely information on product and client trends across the business. The desired deliverable was the ability to reduce data duplication while sharing key information both within the business and with a mobile sales force.

 

The key to the success of the company is the total focus on the delivery of high quality and consistent customer service. “At Ace Fixings, the ethos is that the customer is king” said Financial Controller Mervyn Glenn. “Every effort is made to ensure that we deliver products of the highest quality, with the best service and at the most competitive prices”.

 

“Being unable to fully exploit the inherent potential of the Microsoft Navision operational applications was a source of frustration within the company. To compensate, we were maintaining a variety of solutions. The lack of integration between the various systems meant that administration costs were increasing due to data duplication. In addition, the production of meaningful management information was becoming difficult”.

 

Partner Selection Process
 

The Ace Fixings assessment team interviewed a number of Microsoft Navision centres prior to selecting Cambridge based Microsoft Certified Gold Partner Anglia Business Solutions. “We were looking for a well established company with a wide range of skills” explained Glenn. “However, we also wanted to engage with a supplier with a proven reputation for achieving business oriented results through a partnership model”.

 

“Anglia’s Microsoft Navision based supply chain credentials and customer references stood up to the closest scrutiny. In addition, it was clear that they also had additional in-depth integration expertise as well as highly innovative Microsoft .NET skills. These were crucial as a means of extending the core system to provide secure access to the sales force and clients”.

 

Solution Overview
 

Having carried out an assessment of the existing Ace Fixings Microsoft Navision system and taking future requirements into account, the Anglia recommendation was to upgrade to the latest available version of the product.

 

The solution involved the re-implementation of the manufacturing and warehouse management applications to take advantage of the new facilities of the latest release. Information from the previous system was converted while the opportunity was taken to cleanse the data. In addition, a number of minor enhancements were carried out to reflect Ace Fixings preferred operational methods.

 

The upgrade and system refinements had an immediate impact within the business. “Anglia’s expertise on how to exploit the full power of the underlying Microsoft Navision technology was impressive” explained Glenn. “We now had a solution that worked exactly how we wished to work. User confidence in the system soared as people experienced the time savings inherent in the product. Once the core system was fully operational, we could then concentrate on meeting the pressing needs of the field sales force”.

 

The Mobility Solution

 

Ace Fixings employ an experienced and knowledgeable field sales force operating throughout Ireland. The sales consultants provide customer account management services and visit clients on a regular basis. Their role involves advising clients on the latest productivity aids, monitoring client satisfaction, resolving commercial issues and taking and progressing orders.

 

“The problem we faced was the amount of time the reps had to spend on the ordering process” explained Glenn. “Once the orders were taken, they were handwritten on order pads and faxed to the office. These were then manually entered on the Microsoft Navision sales order processing system. This was a time consuming, costly and error prone process”.

 

“It was only at the order processing stage that problems relating to the customer order were flagged. These could involve incorrect product code or descriptions, inaccurate discount rates, agreed credit limits exceeded or out of stock or discontinued product lines. In each case, the rep had to be advised and the customer contacted to resolve the issue. As each rep entered up to 30 orders per day, the time and costs involved were significant”.

 

Ace Fixings recognised that the key to resolving this issue was to harness the reps customer and product knowledge at the ordering stage. This would ideally involve providing them with the same updated information available to the order entry staff.

 

“If we could replace the handwritten orders by automating the process while at the same time advising the reps of stock or credit matters, the issues could be dealt with while face to face with the client” explained Glenn. “This would improve customer service while significantly reducing the effort involved in order processing”.

 

Screenshot showing reps view of system via heldheld device

Fig 1: Screenshot showing reps view of system via handheld device.

The technical challenges facing the implementation team were considerable as Anglia’s Development Manager Richard Jones explains: “Offline capture of ordering information is not a new concept and has been implemented with other ERP solutions. These work by replicating an electronic order form which when completed, is sent to the main system and the data uploaded.

 

However, the data available at order entry time is limited to historic client and product information which is often out of date when the order is placed. Furthermore, uploading usually only takes place when a physical communication link is established with the main server. The Ace Fixings requirement was different in that the information had to be current as of the last update which could take place several times a day. Furthermore, it had to work with small handheld devices”.

 

“The main obstacle was the frequent dynamic synchronisation of large amounts of data across limited bandwidth. For example, the Ace Fixings product catalogue contains over 20,000 items. This is a bit like pushing an elephant through a straw and according to industry analysts requires 3G to resolve. The patchy airwave coverage in Ireland represented another issue. In addition, the integrated nature of the solution also represented major security challenges. The requirement was that each rep only had access to his client data while being able to view all of the inventory records”.

 

The solution involved a combination of Microsoft Navision and Microsoft .NET technologies. The technology had to be special to deal with the accuracy, security and response issues. It also required a unique solution called ’Drizzle Technology’ developed by Anglia as part of its mobility components within its .NET catalogue. This works in the background so that data is transferred invisibly to the user. The complexities of the communication process are hidden to the mobile user making the interface simple. Synchronisation typically takes just 30 seconds.

 

Screenshot showing the syncronisation table

Fig 2: Screenshot showing the synchronisation table

 

Within the Microsoft Navision application, specialist tables were created to ensure that the correct data was directed to the appropriate device on connection. “By leveraging the sophisticated security features within the Microsoft Navision solution, we were able to ensure that when connecting to the system, only the appropriate client and product changes relevant to that rep were updated” explained Jones.

 

Once the concepts were proven, the system was extensively tested in a pilot scheme prior to being released to the sales force. Key users were trained on the solution and a support arrangement implemented. Help desk personnel now dial in to the main customer system to resolve user issues.

 

Benefits
 

This unique solution has provided Ace Fixings with a significant competitive advantage in the building materials sector. Order accuracy has greatly increased as data duplication has been removed. Lead times have been reduced leading to improved customer satisfaction. Inventory costs have reduced as the sales force sell what is available based on current information.

 

Internal administration costs have been cut as staff no longer have to key in faxed orders. This has allowed the redeployment of administrative staff to actively progress orders leading to improved customer service. Reps productivity has increased as they now spend less time resolving administrative issues. This has led to increased order intakes as more time can be spent on client sales calls. Overall, the solution has significantly improved company efficiency leading to increased profitability.

 

Image of Ace's handheld devices

Fig 3: Handheld devices used by the field sales force.
 

One unplanned gain was the significant reduction in the effort required for the support of reps’ IT facilities. The locked down nature of the CE devices reduced the risk of data corruption and virus infection. This has proved so beneficial that the handhelds have now replaced the previous sales force laptop computers.

 

“The professional approach together with the Microsoft Navision skills provided by Anglia was crucial in resolving the supply chain issues we had with the main system” explained Glenn. “This provided us with the confidence that our original choice of Microsoft Navision as a powerful flexible solution capable of meeting our needs was correct. The mobile solution was the icing on the cake. We can now use IT as a real competitive differentiator while significantly improving client service”.

Software & Hardware
Microsoft Business Solutions-Navision 3.70
Windows Server 2003, SQL 2000, SQL-CE
Exchange 2000
Anglia Drizzle Technology
HP Servers

Services Required
Windows Network Infrastructure Design
Active Directory Design & Deployment
Network Consultancy & Support
VPN Design & Implementation
Citrix SQL/Microsoft Navision Integration
Microsoft Navision Consultancy & Deployment
Microsoft Navision Software Development
User Training
Microsoft .NET Compact Framework Development
Windows CE.NET Device Programming
SQL Server CE Expertise
GPRS Technology
Project Management
 

 



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