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Going real-time to beat the building slump

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright June 4, 2013
Connecting real-time information from its core systems of record into cloud-based systems of engagement has helped building materials distributor CH Briggs buck a construction downturn.

Don Schalk, COO at CH Briggs

After embracing the cloud as a platform for customer engagement, the next challenge for most enterprises is to link those outward-facing systems back into their core systems of record which typically run on-premise.

One of the early poster children for this emerging pattern is CH Briggs Company, a distributor of specialty interior building materials operating across several states on the US east coast from Pennsylvania to Georgia.

The 200-employee company was the first adopter of — and indeed something of a guinea pig for the development of — Inforce Everywhere, which connects Infor ERP products into

For more than 20 years, CH Briggs has run its business on an RPG-based ERP application now known as Infor Distribution A+, which today runs on an IBM Power Systems server.

Inforce Everywhere, running on the same IBM server, powers the integration with the cloud-based Salesforce application.

After first deploying the connected system for sales and customer services teams in April last year, the company this year brought all its employees in back-office roles onto the Salesforce system.

Its president and COO Don Schalk told me last month this has helped put CH Briggs in a strong position to capture business in a still weak construction market.

"In the last 3 months our business has increased by about 15 percent in what is still a fragile economy," said Schalk.

Competitive advantage

Connecting front and back-office systems has accelerated business processes that used to happen overnight, enabling the company to react in real-time to customer needs. For example, quotes go out to customers throughout the day but previously it was not until the next day that a report went to salespeople.

"Today, we close those quotes within the same day," said Schalk. "So we're just quicker, faster, more nimble. With the economy the way it is, he who gets there first has a competitive advantage."

With Salesforce now accessed by staff in roles such as purchasing, operations, credit control and customer care, everyone in the organization can proactively support the sales effort. For example, purchasing can get insight into upcoming orders that may require extra stock, or a customer care agent answering a customer call can see the recent sales history.

"In the traditional world the salesperson owned the relationship with the customer. Where we're headed, now the organization owns the relationships because there's a 360-degree view," said Schalk. "It's basically knocked down all the functional silos of the organization and helped us be more efficient, improve relations with our customers, [and] our margins have improved."

Customer intimacy

The journey to this transformation in the business began in 2007 with the collapse of the real estate boom and subsequent financial crash. At the time, three quarters of the distributor's revenues came from residential construction.

"When that market collapsed, a lot of our customers really suffered significantly," said Briggs. "There was tremendous margin compression."

The company refocussed on sectors that remained strong, such as healthcare, education and military, and adopted a strategic plan that emphasized customer intimacy, with the aim of competing on service and partnership rather than price. When Infor announced its collaboration with in late 2011, CH Briggs immediately saw the potential and leapt at the chance to become a beta deployment.

"We learnt a lot as we went and as they developed the product," said Schalk. "The thing that surprised us in this process was, five years ago if I'd gone to Infor and said, would you develop this for me, they would have said it would take 18 months.

"We talked to them about this product in November 2011 and that product was actually operational in six months. This whole issue of traditionally what would occur and the speed at which new products can be brought on today has been totally exploded."

Changing the conversation

Inforce Everywhere brings information dynamically from the ERP system into Salesforce, allowing sales people to see historic sales, margins on major product categories, order history and trends, open orders, quotes, open opportunities and much more."By having that information when they're out in the field, it changes the conversation with the customer," said Schalk.

Previously, sales people had to call the customer care team to enquire about questions that arose when they were visiting customers, such as open credits, pending returns or delivery dates. Now they can arrive knowing what's on the customer's mind and can prepare themselves accordingly.

"Having all that information changes the conversation with the customer to, what are you working on — rather than leading with, this is what I've got to sell you," said Schalk.

The company has replaced laptops with iPads for their field sales people. "iPads cost us probably half what a laptop would. The other thing is, they're just more functional and easier to use in the field," said Schalk. When Salesforce was first rolled out in 2009, sales people complained about the time it took to start up their laptops. "We said we'll take that hurdle away, we'll just give them iPads."

This new investment in systems of engagement that connect dynamically with core systems of record remains a work in progress, as CH Briggs explores other ways in which it can help improve business processes.

"The exciting part for us is, with the tools that we have, I think we've just scratched the surface really. We're learning every day," said Schalk.

With the support of Salesforce and Infor, he added, "It's helped us survive — and even now thrive — in what I would call still challenging times."

Disclosure: is a diginomica premier partner. Infor contributed to travel costs for diginomica founders to attend its April conference.

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