Troubleshooting the Hard Sell

By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld  |  Posted 2003-01-17 Print this article Print

The aviation-parts company was having trouble shipping out its goods. Then it found salve for its self-inflicted wounds.

Troubleshooting the Hard Sell

Broadly, Lacik had three choices: one, Fix the problem in-house, with existing staff. Not an option, really, because once the fix was done he'd have to let folks go.

Two, use an outside consultant. But then it was only a matter of time before some "very polished, highly paid individuals put their arm around my shoulder and say, 'we didn't realize this application has a real flaw.'" The invariable answer: "It's OK, it'll only cost you another $1 million and I'll fix it for you."

Three, hire another software supplier. In this case, Aviall could get a small infantry to address the problem, and, watching over its shoulder, gain a competency in-house to maintain the fix for the long term.

Plus, in Lacik's view, a supplier of software designed to fix a specific problem is hooked. If the software doesn't work as advertised, it's got to be fixed or it's not saleable elsewhere.

The difference between hiring a consultant and a coding company is the difference between eggs and ham. With eggs, the chicken is involved. With ham, the pig is committed. "I wanted pigs; I didn't want chickens,'' Lacik says.

The "pigs" came from New Era of Networks, an Englewood, Colo., company whose products attempt to overcome "language barriers" afflicting software used by large corporations.

New Era, acquired subsequently by database pioneer Sybase of Dublin, Calif., used the Extensible Markup Language (XML) to create "adapters'' that would let the different pieces of software swap data.

Simply put, an adapter figures out what two pieces of software call the same piece of data, and then what has to be done with it. The adapter transfers that piece of data between the two programs, making sure it ends up in the right place.

 Here's how the data gets handed over:
Map "Bill to Address" in Siebel "Order Entry - Orders" to Lawson "BILL_ORDER1" in "CUSTORDER"
Take the information in the "Bill To Address" field in the line of data known in Siebel as "Order Entry - Orders" and insert it in the Lawson field known as "Bill_Ordr1" in the line known as "CUSTORDER."
Convert "CURR_PRICE_01" in Lawson "OEBASE" from implied decimal to explicit decimal for "Lawson Price" in Siebel "Order Entry - Line Items."
Convert the currency price for this item in Lawson's order entry database from an implied decimal number to one with decimals spelled out in Siebel's summary of "Order Entry—Line Items."
Aviall uses "adapters" from Sybase to ship data between incompatible software from Lawson, which handles inventory, and Siebel Systems, which tracks customers' ordering history.

Then, each program that receives it can process the data further.

With this approach, the various applications don't even have to know the others exist. "The edges don't have to be aware of each other," says Bob Breton, senior director of product strategy at Sybase. "All the transformations and decisions take place in the middle."

Simple in concept, but a hard sell nonetheless. It was a hard sell to Aviall's finance department because the adapters in place would wind up costing an extra $1 million.

It also was a hard sell inside Aviall's information technology department. "Hot-shot developers don't like middleware,'' Lacik says. "That's like saying to Picasso that there's a paint-by-number [answer] ready to go.''

Lacik freed his own developers to work on custom code that would actually improve functions in the distribution facility. But even asking a software supplier to troubleshoot problems is not as easy as it sounds.

One of the most important connections would be between the Lawson software and the Siebel software, enabling a sales representative to assure a customer that an order could be fulfilled. The Siebel customer-service software would have to draw information on the prices and availability of parts from Lawson.

Figuring out how to do that took two years—and Lawson even brought in e-business consultants from accounting firm Grant Thornton to wring out the connections with Siebel.

Lacik, too, pushed Sybase hard to deliver on its promise that it could make the Lawson and Siebel programs talk to each other. But when the moment of truth arrived, nothing much happened. "When we plugged into the Siebel adapter, there wasn't much rockin' and rollin' going on,'' says Lacik.

Eventually, the adapter got fixed. And Lacik would find that "the technology is the easy part'' when installing something like Siebel's customer relationship management (CRM) application.

First, he now says, you have to change the sales force.

Or at least how it conducts business. "The vast majority of CRM projects fail; and the reason is you have to change the behavior of the sales force," he says.

In this case, Aviall's sales force needed to get used to having their actions measured, Lacik contends. For the first time, the number of sales calls a month, the types of customers called on, and the reasons why, all would be tracked. Aviall's number of inside sales and customer service representatives dropped, by about five heads, in the adjustment.

Tom was editor-in-chief of Interactive Week, from 1995 to 2000, leading a team that created the Internet industry's first newspaper and won numerous awards for the publication. He also has been an award-winning technology journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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