Plugging The Black Hole

Have you ever wondered
what happened to that TV you shipped back to the company because its colors were off, or
because its screen was too small for your den? Are you sure that, in an attempt to soften
the impact of returns on its bottomline, the company didn’t just put your TV set back on
the shelf?

In order to deal with
such returns, a company usually uses a system, commonly called RMA, or return merchandise
authorization system. Such systems vary widely in scope and efficiency, few unfortunately
are first class. In fact, according to Drew Robinson, Credit Manager at Creative Labs,
“RMAs are a black hole for most businesses.”

Handling returns can
be a complicated process. Just how complicated depends on the number of items involved,
the terms of the sale, special product characteristics, value at the time of return,
reason for return, status of warranty, and the kind of satisfaction, that the customer
wants-replacement, refund or repair.

The first application
to automate every conceivable step in this process has been developed by Progress partner
JAS Systems Inc. It’s called Jas Ensemble and among its first users was Creative Labs Inc,
producer of the ubiquitous sound blaster PC audio system. Now the flagship of a
diversified multimedia line, sound blaster has been an industry standard for over a
decade. But despite the product’s success, Creative Labs was far from satisfied with the
cost of handling returns. “No matter how good your product,” says Robinson,
“if you’re in the consumer business, some of the units you ship will come back.
Dealers order too many. Shippers pack the wrong model or size. Customers misunderstand
your specs.”

Creative Labs had been
using a manual system tied to a database that was not shared by their other applications
like accounts payable or inventory. And, as indicated by Robinson, Creative Labs wasn’t
alone in being financially encumbered by an inadequate RAM system.

Zeroing
in on the opportunity

When you visit JAS website (www.jasinc.com), you’ll see the slogan, “when it is an
easy job, our competition gets it. When it is impossible, they all come here.” It was
in this spirit that Tony Lim, President, founded JAS seven years ago in San Jose,
California. He sought to solve problems that other developers and consultants couldn’t or
hadn’t chosen to address. Today, his company employs 25 people, and generates revenues in
millions. The company specializes in packaged and custom applications, training, and
support for helping manufacturers better align their information systems with their
business objectives and managing their software assets better.

For some clients, this
means reducing material shortages or improving distribution logistics. For others, it’s
providing more responsive customer service, which was the unanswered need that JAS was
called on to fill three years ago with a real RMA system to track and manage returned
merchandise.

While looking at RMA
applications, recalls Lim, “they were usually just modules of ERPs (solutions). They
were neither efficient nor flexible. There was the helpdesk type that, instead of
automating the process, stepped the user through it manually. And there were workarounds
that handled returns as negative orders.” Believe it or not, he continues,
“these recorded negative quantities and negative dollars. When an item was returned
to a warehouse, the system would produce a sales order in reverse.”

Here, JAS saw the kind
of unanswered need automating the RMA Process that it was committed to confronting.
Today’s JAS Ensemble, developed in Progress Version 8, is actually the fifth iteration of
an RMA product. The first three were written in FORTRAN as custom applications for clients
using FORTRAN-based ERP systems. “As you can imagine,” Lim notes, “those
weren’t quick or easy jobs. But each was a decided improvement over the preceding.

“Then, when the
fourth opportunity arose, we decided to give it a Windows front end and make it flexible
enough to work in any business. So, we switched to Progress version 7, and developed our
first packaged RMA application. Creative Labs was our first customer-as it was for the
current JAS Ensemble, developed in Version 8.”

Saving
time and money

JAS Ensemble is designed to meet 80% of the needs of any manufacturer. It is compatible
with standard databases and interfaces with a broad range of file servers and enterprise
information systems. The remaining 20% of functionality and connectivity can be satisfied
by JAS on a client-by-client basis.

JAS Ensemble not only
processes calls, validates product warranties, and automatically handles thousands of RMAs
a day, it also routes products to preassigned repair centers, tracks multiple return and
repair histories for both serialized and non-serialized products and manages credit,
advance replacements and upgrades. Moreover, its tracking capabilities are a decided asset
in quality control programs.

Running on MS Windows,
Windows NT, Unix and NetWare, Jas Ensemble’s user-friendly graphical user interface (GUI)
reduces the learning curve for all who use it and speeds their data input with dropdown
selection lists and powerful search browsers.

Since implementing JAS
Ensemble and interfacing it with the corporate information system (MANMAN), Creative Labs
has realized significant returns on its investment. According to Robinson. “We had
always done a great job with inventory and receiving of raw materials. Now we are doing
equally well with inventory and receiving of returned product.”

Simplifying
development and deployment

The first version of JAS Ensemble more than fulfilled its promise. By October 1996, JAS
had decided to refine the front end and substantially restructure the database using
Progress version 8. Since part of the plan was to move Creative Labs to the new version,
everything had to be up and running by the fiscal year end, May 31, 1997. "In just
seven months, we were going to design a new Progress database and provide enhancements to
our front end-plus convert Creative Labs database from one version to another and provide
them with training," says Lim. "It was a serious challenge, and one that I don’t
think we could have met in any environment but Progress."

Eddic Tran, Senior
Software Engineer at JAS, does recall a moment when they actually considered building
their first non-FORTRAN RMA application in VisualBasic or PowerBuilder. "But it was
only for a moment," he says, "because we needed a complete solution, 4GL
scalability, and especially important, profitability, so that we could shift platforms or
operating systems without having to change source code."

When work on the new
JAS Ensemble began, several Progress Version 8 features stood out. First were Progress
Smart Objects, reusable components that automate the building of simple and complex
business applications. Ready-to-use smart objects are included with the Progress User
Interface Builder (UIB), which also provides the tools that JAS used to build additional
tools of its own. All in all, according to Tran, the reusability of the Smart Objects
dramatically reduced coding time. "They made it fast and efficient," he says.
Smart Objects facilitated component-based development without the usual component-based
complexity.

A second feature that
sped development was Progress’s prototyping ability. "Because Creative Labs was
running our previous version," Tran explains, "we were able to quickly develop
prototypes for weekly feedback on our changes. That was invaluable in determining whether
or not we were on track with user needs. Imagine doing it in FORTRAN or C++."

Broad
success, bright future

Creative Labs isn’t alone in streamlining its RMA system with JAS Ensemble. Among the
others on a growing list of users is SyQuest Technology Inc, a leading supplier of
removable cartridge hard disk drives for PCs, workstations and servers. Like Creative
Labs, SyQuest realized that its system was woefully inadequate, generating mountains of
paperwork and leaving long queues of product to be processed, thus increasing the need for
additional warehouse space.

With JAS Ensemble
SyQuest now handles returns promptly and profitably. Phone agents can determine with a
customer on the line whether their return is or is not under warranty. Warehouse personnel
compare what is returned with what should have been returned. Thus many warranty repairs
are invoiced and credit is withheld for missing items. No longer is either considered a
write-off.

Future versions of JAS
Ensemble will have even greater functionality. Tran indicates that JAS is open to
incorporating in the packaged product any refinement requested by a user if it has wide
enough application. An example is an internet-based front end that would allow customers
to request and receive RMAs from a web site. Already Creative Labs has shown interest.
Their current system, which is primarily for distributors and resellers, isn’t yet open to
end-users. So says Amy Lin, MIS Manager at Creative Labs, "An internet solution for
end-user returns would be interesting, indeed." She continues, "When we selected
JAS Ensemble we were looking at three or four packages. All fit our needs, but this one
was the most flexible, required the least customization and we like the future features
that were planned."

JAS is already well
into developing the internet extension, for which they will use WebSpeed. Other ‘future
features’ will be in areas of reporting and database updates and extractions. "As a
Progress partner," Lim concludes, "we feel confident that we’ll get the direct
help that these initiatives require. When you’re a small company that often finds itself
going up against consulting groups from ‘Big Six’ accounting firms, it’s nice to know you
have this level of backing."

Courtesy: Progress
Software

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