Streamlining Customer Service by Dropping the Paper

A company founded on innovation implements a document management system to streamline its customer service processes while reducing costs.

On any given business day, the customer service representatives at Greenlee, A Textron Company might field 150 to 200 calls each from any of the company's 4,000-plus distributors phoning in to check on an order's status, discuss the details of an order or go over an invoice. For any given call, the rep might need to check on a customer's purchase order or Greenlee's own shipping documents and invoices.

In the past, that meant the customer service rep had to contact accounts receivable (A/R), accounts payable (A/P), shipping or another department at the Rockford, Ill.-based company, which manufactures wire and cable installation systems for the electrical industry, and the data-signal-voice market.

But now, by implementing a document management system, the company has succeeded in streamlining and automating those interactions with its customers in order to improve service while also reducing costs.

A History of Innovation

Innovation is nothing new at Greenlee. Indeed, invention lies at the very roots of the company. In the mid-1800s, Edmund Greenlee, a farmer in Crawford County, Pa., patented a wooden barrel-making machine, just one of the numerous labor-saving devices he created. Later, in 1862, Edmund's twin sons Robert and Ralph, having moved to the Chicago area and established themselves as pre-eminent barrel makers, invented what they called the hollow chisel mortiser, a tool that allowed for speedier, better construction of wood products and just the first of many useful contraptions created by the twins.

Given the family preoccupation with improving processes and doing things more efficiently, it is not surprising that some 140 years later the company the two brothers established should find itself implementing new technologies to streamline its customer service function.

Greenlee, a unit of Providence, R.I.-based Textron, began looking for a better way to manage its customer-related documentation back in 1998. The company was using a legacy document-imaging system at the time, but Sharon Cole, a senior programmer analyst at Greenlee, says the system was not reliable. "In the old system, it was really a 50-50 shot whether a document would be there when you went to pull it up," Cole explains. As a result, the customer-service process remained largely tied to paper, with the service reps frequently having to collect hard copies of documents from various other functions in order to answer queries from distributors.

The manufacturer wanted a system that could store customers' purchase orders, invoices, bills of lading, shipping documents and other customer-related paperwork in a single repository that the service reps could access quickly and reliably. Greenlee's objectives included both improving customer service  by responding more quickly to distributor queries  and improving its own processes. After evaluating its options, Greenlee opted to work with Integrated Document Technologies of Itasca, Ill., to implement an information management system based on the Acorde application from Colorado Springs, Colo.-based solution provider Optika.

Touchpoints with Multiple Functions

IDT's solution for Greenlee incorporated a variety of technologies to "capture" documents and store them in the Acorde system for later retrieval, including software that brought incoming purchase orders faxed from distributors into the system, document capture systems for bringing hard copies into Acorde, and integration with other business applications, such as order entry, for automatic conversion and storage of electronic business documents in the Optika system. The system allows users to search for documents using a variety of customized queries. Once users find the document they need, they can view it onscreen, fax it out through a fax server (that is, without having to print it out), or send it out by e-mail as an attachment.

The system touches many functions within the company. "We use it across customer service, A/R, A/P, general ledger and purchasing," Cole says. "For example, when customers call in needing a copy of a shipping document or invoice, it makes it very easy for our customer service department to access those documents without having to contact our accounts receivable department."

Cole says the implementation entailed no particular challenges. IDT got all the hardware installed and did the necessary work to get most of the initial set of documents into the system. Cole herself did a week of training at Optika and, when she returned, was able to get the remainder of the documents set up for the system. The hardware was installed the first week of December 1998, and they went live on the system, filing documents in the repository, as of January 1, 1999. Since then Cole has continued to add documents and reports to the system on an ongoing basis, and Greenlee has moved to the latest version of Acorde, the most recent upgrade having been completed last August. The company currently has about 150 users on the system altogether.

Building Trust in the System

According to Cole, the system itself is fairly straightforward, and she has tried to structure the query functionality with the end users in mind. For example, if users only know the order number, customer number or purchase order number, they still should be able to locate the document they are looking for on the system. "I usually try to give everyone three or four different ways to pull up a single document, so that if you don't know one piece of the puzzle but you know another, you can get to your document that way," she says.

The hardest part of the implementation, Cole says, was getting people to trust the system because of the unreliability of the legacy system. That trust would be critical to meeting the company's goals for reducing paper within the enterprise, since Greenlee staffers had to be absolutely certain they could dispense with hardcopies of documents before they would give up their filing cabinets.

"It was a challenge to get people to trust that when they went out to find a document, they would be able to find it today and, if they need it tomorrow, they'll have access to it then as well," Cole says. To build that trust, she has done a good deal of training and education among the end user community to demonstrate the system's reliability and to explain its functionality. "People are seeing now that they don't have to save a copy of the document," she says. "They can just file it into Acorde and then pull up the information off the system."

In addition, Cole has invested the time and effort to ensure that the system can provide information tailored to the needs of specific users. "I have some managers who only care about seeing the 'totals' lines on a report, while others want to see more detail," she says. "So I've developed queries that will give those managers just the information they need to see, and I have other queries that will give the heads-down version with the detailed information."

Dropping 25,000 Pages

In terms of the return on investment in its new document management system, Greenlee has focused on improvements in customer service and process cost savings achieved by taking paper out of the workflow. "We were looking at the time it would take people to retrieve documents and whether or not they had to go to a file cabinet and pull it, and the response time that it would take to get back to a customer when we're trying to collect on an invoice," Cole explains. "Or if customers call and say they haven't paid an invoice because they don't have a copy of it, that clerk can either e-mail or fax out a copy, which makes for a quicker time getting cash in the door here."

As an example of the process cost savings afforded by the system, Cole points to a series of month-end reports that used to take 24 hours to file. "With Optika, we were able to drop that filing time down to 15 or 20 minutes," she says.

The company also has looked at hard cost reductions thanks to less paper floating around the organization. Greenlee staffers still do print hardcopies of some documents, such as the invoices that get sent to customers, shipping documents that accompany consignments of product and planning documents that are sent to plants with their capacity planning. But the new system eliminates the need to print copies of those documents for filing at Greenlee's headquarters. The company's purchasing department staff alone dropped about 25,000 pages per month that they no longer print out for filing.

Overall, while Cole did not cite specific figures for the company's ROI on the new system, she said that Greenlee had calculated a 12 to 18 month return on its investment.

Moving Forward

Since the initial implementation, Cole has continued to add new documents to the document management system and to explore new opportunities for integration with the enterprise's other business systems. "Recently we have been getting our plants involved," she notes. "We're using an Ariba system for corporate purchase orders, so we're getting orders and those types of documents into Acorde, which is allowing for faster retrieval time and less time that the plants have to spend contacting our purchasing department and vice versa. Everyone can pull up the documents."

In addition, Greenlee is in the initial stages of implementing a SAP enterprise resource planning system, and the manufacturer is talking with Optika about the types of integration they can establish between the document management and ERP systems. For instance, Greenlee is looking at getting accounts payable down to a one-step entry process so that when an invoice is scanned and a clerk enters the necessary payment data into the A/P system, the appropriate information gets passed automatically to Acorde and to SAP without the clerk having to enter the data manually into both systems. Greenlee also is looking at extending Acorde functionality out to its suppliers and customers in conjunction with the SAP rollout, so that the company's partners may be able to do status checks or product searches by themselves, online, rather than having to call into a customer service representative or other staffer.

Cole adds that she continues to explore additional options for taking paper out of Greenlee's processes. "Anytime I walk into a department and they're looking something up in a filing cabinet, or I see a bunch of file cabinets in a room, I automatically say, 'What are you guys storing in those filing cabinets?'" she says "Nine times out of 10, if they're having to look something up, they're doing it for a customer or a vendor and then having to fax it out. Well, wouldn't it be nice to have it right there at their fingertips. Then all they have to do is pull up the document and send it out."

Now that sounds just like the kind of solution that Edmund Greenlee might have invented.