Not waiting for AI - how xByte Technologies automated its pricing engine with Acumatica

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed February 22, 2018
Waiting for AI isn't a winning approach. For xByte Technologies, it's about a push to greater automation - without losing their customer service edge. Here's how they tied their pricing engine to Acumatica ERP.

When I ask customers at cloud ERP shows about AI, their usual response is: "We're waiting to see what our vendor has to offer." That's understandable - when you consider the challenges of building your own intelligent services. But one company that didn't wait around was xByte Technologies.

At the Acumatica Summit, CEO Ryan Brown told me their story. Brown doesn't like tagging what they've done so far as "AI," and that's fair. Their ultimate goal gets back to their IT philosophy: automate where you can; free up talent for differentiating work.

Brown worked his way into the CEO role. He began at xByte Technologies eight years ago as head of marketing, then sales. When the owners stepped back three years ago, they asked him to lead xByte forward. Selling affordable server technology is an unforgiving business: price points must be perfect; partnerships with suppliers like Dell must be strong. 45 employees are counting on Brown to get it right.

One key decision: moving to a modern ERP platform. Brown led the team through an evaluation, and Acumatica stood out:

We looked at traditional companies like your NetSuites, the Dynamics line, and we looked at Acumatica. Acumatica just looked like the fresh company. For us, it allowed us to go both on premise and web-based, I should say. So we have it hosted at our site.

Deployment options and the power of web-based ERP

The option to deploy Acumatica on-site was appealing to Brown. xByte has expertise managing servers and web deployments:

We buy hardware and sell hardware and so for us, hardware is dirt cheap. That was a major plus for us to have [Acumatica on our hardware].

Accessing ERP data on the web never gets old:

I was in a dinner meeting with somebody and they asked me about a very specific part. I could bring it up on my phone. "Okay, yep. We have three of these in stock, we have this many that are coming." Anything like that - I can give it out real-time.

That has sales impact:

It's very impressive to show a customer that we're on the fly right now, telling you what we have. "Why don't we just do the order right now? Why even wait until tomorrow? I've got you right here."

Real-time is how xByte competes with the big players. Brown says it's not just the tech, it's the relentless approach to customer service:

We want to be a different kind of IT company. When you think of IT companies out there in the hardware space, you think of phone trees. We don't want any phone trees... We get back to people within an hour, as far as requesting information. So we are relentless at that customer service standpoint. If something goes wrong, we trip over ourselves to be able to make things right for them.

Building pricing engines and business intelligence

For xByte, ERP was never about transactional systems only. It was always about business intelligence. When hardware margins are tight, pricing decisions are crucial:

For us, business intelligence is pulling from multiple sources to get the data... There is no possible delay on that kind of stuff.

Soon after their Acumatica go-live, Brown's team started working with Acumatica's BI options on a variety of fronts, from Acumatica's own dashboards to Excel-based crunching to Power BI. Brown's IT team built price crawlers:

We'll actually have crawlers that go to various locations that we'll not disclose, to pull information to give us pricing, availability within the market out there.

The price crawlers pull data into a SQL database. From there, they push the data were it needs to go. Often, it will get analyzed in Excel. When pricing decisions and adjustments are made, that gets pushed into Acumatica. Brown says getting their pricing engine up quickly is due to Acumatica's flexibility:

One of the really cool things we found at Acumatica early on is there's imports you can schedule. Acumatica can pull from any kind of source out there. We use that as a really easy way to do certain integrations.

Within Excel, they now have an "easy" button for the pricing integration:

Where we push Excel data, we developed a little button you click, and it sends any price adjustments to a custom table. We then have Acumatica's imports just grab that data, look at any net changes and then update the Acumatica data with those price changes.

This beats the heck out of doing it all in Excel - especially when it comes to pricing history and audits.

This way, we get the performance of Excel direct with SQL for changes, but we're not losing that traceability. We can now see audit history of every time a price has changed within Acumatica - and the Acumatica field-level audit history is amazing.

AI on the horizon - automating the pricing engine

Automating pricing happened in steps. One big step: building the crawlers that pull and integrate the pricing data:

We thought to ourselves, "Hey look, this is silly for us to manually go out there. There's got to be some way to write something that would just go out there, go online and get the data."

Then it was about integrating that data, with writebacks into Acumatica and SQL from Excel.  But xByte has now taken the next "AI" step:

We do have some items where it basically makes the decision for us. Within certain parameters, it will be able to make those kind of decisions.

Brown is reluctant to call this "AI," which makes sense. For now, the machines aren't learning, but following pre-defined rules. However, I'd argue there is a big culture step in trusting machines to make pricing decisions for you. That trust will enable bigger "AI" steps going forward.

The wrap - internal IT is the differentiator

One big step for AI: trusting the machines on a critical decision. Another big step is how you deploy IT. Brown outsources commodity IT to partners:

We allow our developers to focus on those areas that actually make a difference.

xByte proves you don't have to be the size of Dell in order to make this work:

We have our partners do what partners can do. The key differentiators of our business intelligence - or our  loosely defined AI - can be handled through internal talent.

xByte is too early on with Acumatica to quantify ROI. But Brown sees new efficiencies, such as invoice automation (from scan to invoice), and better stocking visibility. With a full time internal developer focused on Acumatica, he's also looking forward to building apps on the Acumatica platform.

With their Dell partnership in high gear, Brown sees the potential to scale:

If Acumatica does its job, we can double our sales, and have a minor impact on the number of employees we need.

During their implementation, Brown learned a key lesson about modern ERP: choose your partner based on vertical expertise, not geographic proximity. xByte's first partner was conveniently local, but didn't understand their business. Acumatica eventually took over the implementation. After go-live, xByte selected a new Acumatica partner - this one, Crestwood Associates, is expert in manufacturing and able to be a true business advisor.

Brown wants to see Acumatica provide more opportunities to share code and lessons with fellow customers, but otherwise, he's ready to roll. We did this interview prior to Acumatica's second day keynote, where Acumatica fleshed out their approach to next-gen tech like AI. I'm sure Brown was all ears.

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