For most small and medium-sized businesses in the UK, the digital journey started somewhere between the mid-70s and mid-80s. In this article Glen Jewell, Sales Director at Blue Rock Systems tells the ERP software journey for distributors and merchants from “soup to nuts”, recounting the timeline of business software evolution.
Manual systems (pen and paper) for order taking, stock control and finances started to be replaced by keyboard and screen between three and four decades ago. The benefits of this new method were almost immediately obvious, with administrative activities completed quicker and business issues (such as credit control or stock levels) addressed much faster.
The next two decades the “main meal” ERP software was refined, much like the British dining habits for the same era. Software was modernised and moved away from the old green screen monitors and became early incarnations of Windows. The business software products widened the available functionality with Customer Relationship Management, fixed assets and service features.
In the late 90s/early 00s the explosion of the Internet and affordable communications meant that IT taste buds had further developed. The new-found sophistication left businesses hungry for more, demanding better electronic connections with their customers and suppliers. There were two focus points; firstly, they would use technology to cut costs, and secondly, they would use technology to market to a new generation of shoppers.
At this point consumers were getting used to transactions which allowed them to shop anonymously and without human engagement. E-commerce websites boomed, first with .COM giants and then later with smaller businesses as the technology became available for everyone. In the scramble some businesses succeeded while others failed; but online shopping was here to stay.
On the tail skirts of e-commerce came field sales and service automation. Representatives of your business now had the software available in the palm of their hand, providing them with pretty much everything they needed to engage with a customer. Sales people could also make use of this technique and the software became again more sophisticated, augmented with sales intelligence. Sales people could now attend appointments with prepared purpose, addressing drifting accounts or products that weren’t doing so well. No longer would they stop in just to have a cup of tea and dunk biscuits with the customer.
Warehouse & logistics
These aspects have covered the entrees, starters and main course, but there remains the sweets and coffee to be had in the form of warehouse and logistics. The advent of reliable wireless networking and robust hardware has enabled businesses to remove the picking note, and replace paper with a barcode scanner. The scanners not only record what was picked but can also direct the picker to the correct bay and bin or tell them when they have picked the wrong product. Furthermore, the picked product could then be added to the delivery manifest the moment it was picked, providing logistics with advanced notice. These are all hugely useful advances, but how does a previously manually run company get rid of paper for good?
It’s finally time for the coffee and mints. There is increasing demand for integrated logistics, either for a business-owned fleet of vehicles or communication with chosen couriers. In either case it’s now a paperless process, with the order/picking note automatically assigned a route, drop sequence, vehicle and (signed for) electronic confirmation of delivery. Sophisticated systems can also handle vehicle tracking, while advising a customer of a pending delivery. Courier integration can now auto-select the best fit based on price/service as well as instruct the courier for collection.
From customer to supplier (or vice versa) without a single sheet of paper. This means no illegible delivery notes, no postage, reduced keystrokes and above all, improved customer service. But is our meal complete?
Not quite. Although we integrate to our warehouse, field staff, customers and suppliers very well, what about our customers’ customers? There are several mobile apps, predominantly aimed at trades people (plumbers, builders, merchants and alike), that enable quoting or invoicing customers, say for fitting a bathroom or fixing a car. Some of these apps can integrate with the business system of the supplier, importing prices for quoting or even turning a tradesperson’s quote for a customer into a purchase order for the supplier.
The digital journey will continue to evolve and transform as new technology becomes commonplace. The “courses” surrounding the ERP software “main meal” have become more varied as tastes change, providing your business with choices from a range of tried and tested favourites. The journey from soup to nuts has seen the distributor and the merchant leave behind manual, paper-based solutions in favour of a more sophisticated way of working.