2.Don't Rule Out Building Your Own

By Elizabeth Bennett  |  Posted 2006-12-15 Print this article Print

Midsize companies are replacing sticky notes and spreadsheets with software to analyze customer data. Here are five technology strategies for attracting and retaining customers.

2. Don't Rule Out Building Your Own

Southwestern/Great American, a Nashville, Tenn.-based company with about $250 million in annual revenue, is a collection of 14 direct sales businesses. The Great American division provides an assortment of products, including magazines and Tasty Batters cookie dough, for schools and other organizations to sell in fund-raising projects. It also helps fund-raisers produce local-merchant discount cards.

One challenge: Great American wanted to more efficiently keep track of the production of the discount cards from inception to delivery, according to Ryan Tabor, a Southwestern/Great American business analyst. For a school fund-raising campaign, Great American works with the school to design and then produce the cards, which are purchased by the fund-raising group for resale at a markup of about 50%. The discount cards include the names and addresses of local merchants who agree to offer a discount in exchange for being listed on the card.

That's where custom-built software is making a difference.

Until about six months ago, 25 salespeople, graphics designers and project managers kept track of production of the plastic discount cards on paper, sticky notes and a 12-year-old database written in the Clipper programming language.

Today, those same people can download new custom-built production software written in the C# programming language on Microsoft's .NET framework, by clicking on a URL that triggers an automatic software installation on the employee's PC. Once a staffer logs in to the software—built by Southwestern/Great American's technology staff—and is authenticated, he can see which graphics will appear on the discount card, which merchants have been secured to participate in the discount program and how far along the card is in the production cycle.

Tabor says Great American had several requirements that led it to build its own software: The application had to be available to both Macintosh and PC users, and it would have to pull contract, order, inventory and master data from the company's SAP system, a difficult customization task for a commercial software package. Building the application in-house was the only way to meet all requirements, Tabor says.

The new application, called the Preferred System, saves workers time because they can check on progress themselves, rather than having to sift through paper files or call the graphics department for a status check. The technology also means a financial savings: Because anyone can download the application via a secure URL and receive software updates remotely, starting in January, all 25 salespeople will be required to work offsite, thus reducing workspace overhead.

Next page: Start Forecasting

Senior Writer
Elizabeth has been writing and reporting at Baselinesince its inaugural issue. Most recently, Liz helped Fortune 500 companies with their online strategies as a customer experience analyst at Creative Good. Prior to that, she worked in the organization practice at McKinsey & Co. She holds a B.A. from Vassar College.

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