The Domino Effect

Customer retention is a major
business goal for a systems in-tegrator like CompuCom Systems Inc, whose $2 billion in
annual revenues during 1996 made it one of the top players in the industry. Based in
Dallas, the company has kept its Fortune 1000 customers happy for the past several years
by offering advanced ecommerce solutions and tools that drive down operating costs and
increase efficiency. But when these customers demanded a unified online procurement
tracking system that would allow them to place orders for delivery to offices all over the
world, CompuCom Systems relied on Lotus Notes and Domino to build bridges to dozens of
global business partners.

Custom tools for online procurement
Centralized procurement was the key force that changed the computer distribution channel
in the mid-1990s. Virtually every big customer wanted to reduce the number of vendors
supplying it with products and services, and to centralize its own purchasing processes.
By centralizing and managing fewer vendors, customers could reduce their administrative
costs and receive better, more integrated services. CompuCom responded to its domestic
customers by creating a variety of electronic procurement tools (including EDI, FTP and
replicated Notes databases).

The company uses these tools to build custom online procurement systems that best match
each customer’s business practices and infrastructure. By creating interfaces between
electronic procurement tools and backbone information management systems used by CompuCom,
all procurement data is captured and stored. For tracking and reporting, it built a
datawarehouse that captures data from different sources and places a universe of
information as close as a web browser.

But CompuCom’s large customers have multinational operations and they wanted a single
vendor to meet their domestic as well as international computer systems needs. By 1995,
the company began looking for international partners to assist it in order fulfillment.
“You have to be able to satisfy customers internationally in order to remain
competitive,” says Tod Lock, International Operations Manager, CompuCom. “Our
competitors were moving into relationships with international suppliers for their
customers with global operations and we needed to do the same thing in order to retain our
customers.”

The solution born out of this demand was GlobalServeSM, an alliance of microcomputer
procurement and service providers around the world. Working together, partners in Europe,
North and South America and Asia process orders internationally for customers with global
operations. CompuCom began GlobalServe with its primary European partner, Infopoint, in
1995. Soon after, GlobalServe Computer Services, a UK-based business entity, became the
umbrella organization to which qualified resellers belong. Over the next two years, a
total of 46 partners in 40 countries were brought into the alliance, and GlobalServe
obtained international accreditation from top computer manufacturers such as Compaq, IBM,
Toshiba and Hewlett-Packard.

Security, access and communication
As a founding partner of GlobalServeSM, the company contributes to the alliance by
applying its IS/IT resources for systems development and maintenance. During the past few
years, CompuCom programmers have developed more than 500 Notes applications that handle
such chores as an in-house ordering system and replication of pricing schedules for
customers.

It initially began using Notes’ email features to provide a consistent medium of
communication among partners. Since most GlobalServeSM partners already used Lotus Notes
to some extent, the decision was easy. But as the needs of the alliance and its customers
grew, Notes’ security and hassle-free replication made it the obvious choice for solving
GlobalServe’s database replication, security and access needs. Eventually, the Notes-based
application was converted into a web application using Domino.

The GlobalServe Ordering Tracking System uses three Notes databases that store customer
and partner profiles, orders and call-tracking information. CompuCom stores these
databases and replicates them to regional partners. In each geographic region, one partner
acts as a regional hub for support and that partner is responsible for replicating the
databases to other partners within its region.

In the beginning, the databases stored on CompuCom’s server in Dallas were replicated to
regional partners in France and Canada on fixed schedules via CompuCom’s T3 link.
(CompuCom itself acts as the regional partner for North America as well as Central and
South America.) With key regional partners in Europe and Canada, the workload for the
entire system was distributed.

Other partners in each region replicate their data with the regional hub once a day. The
regional hubs then replicate their database with the server in Dallas. As each new order
is entered, the system triggers an email notification to the specific partner charged with
fulfilling that order.

The original ordering system was developed in Notes Release three in 1996. It took about
six person-weeks over a three-month period to develop. Because the manufacturer’s ‘part’
numbers for equipment often vary by geographic region, it wasn’t feasible to build a table
of standard ‘part’ names and numbers for use when ordering. Instead, partners enter orders
into free-form fields by describing the items needed and then including the correct ‘part’
numbers for their own country.

“The exact ‘part’ numbers can be different in every country,” says Bob McCranie,
Programmer Analyst, CompuCom, “so we didn’t hard-code a table of numbers into the
orders database. Instead, we let partners enter their own ‘part’ numbers and descriptions
of the items in basic text fields and the company fulfilling the order can figure it out
based on the description.”

Order routing and security are handled with Notes features such as access control lists
and selective replication. Each order has a destination country and region, for example,
England is in the EMEA (Europe Middle East Africa) region. Since Notes rely heavily on
‘views’ for navigation, a ‘view’ or batch of orders is replicated on a regional basis.
From there, access control lists determines what end-users have access to which ‘views’.
“Once the data was replicated to a regional server,” says McCranie,
“individual partners in the area could access that server to replicate themselves.
For example, if you were in England, you would dial into Paris.”

Enabling browser access
The global replication system initially worked well with a handful of partners, but as the
GlobalServe alliance grew, there were inevitable problems with receiving updated
information from every partner in every region. CompuCom could replicate the main
databases once a day to each regional server, but getting up-to-date data from the whole
network required each of the 46 partners to replicate their own databases on a reliable
schedule and that wasn’t always the case.

Notes was doing its job, but equipment or scheduling problems sometimes disrupted data
flow. "We had to depend on the regional servers to be up and for all of their local
partners to have replicated their new data before we replicated from the US," says
McCranie. "When some of the partners hadn’t yet replicated the previous day’s data by
the time we replicated, it created gaps in the information." For example, if the
partner in Amsterdam hadn’t replicated with Paris in more than 24 hours, CompuCom wouldn’t
receive Amsterdam’s latest order information. "We depended on the regions to do
replication with the individual partners in their area and if something broke down in the
chain, the data could be a day or two old."

The obvious solution to the replication issues was to have a single data repository and
make it universally accessible. Individual partners could have replicated their Notes data
directly by connection with CompuCom’s servers via the internet, but that didn’t solve the
problem of getting each partner to do it reliably. A better solution was to convert the
system for access where the web-updates took place instantly and customers didn’t need the
Notes client to check on order status.

The company chose Lotus Domino as the web-application tool for a variety of reasons,
including programming time, its existing investment in Notes and compatibility with other
ordering systems. The GlobalServe system was upgraded to Notes release 4.5 in April 1997,
and soon after the company began converting to a single Domino-based datawarehouse on the
web. The Domino system took about four months to complete and was operational by October
1997.

"Having all the data on one server was much more advantageous," says McCranie.
"With Domino, we could hold the data and everyone else could access it via the web,
24 hours a day, seven days a week. There’s one repository, one place to look for an order.
It’s not hung-up on somebody’s server somewhere."

Weaving a tighter web
The new web-based tracking system now gives real-time, 24-hour access to GlobalServe
quotes and orders for both partners and customers. Since access to the data is available
to any web browser with appropriate password, customers can now access the system to view
orders and even enter new ones.

"The greatest benefit is the consistent format and medium for relaying order
requests, plus a common tool that brings all of our partners closer together," says
Tod Lock. "Our customers and partners have `24×7′ access, and they can enter updates
to the orders database in real time-you can enter an order and it’s in the system
worldwide in one second."

"Using Domino and the web also increases data security," adds McCranie. The
databases are stored on a Compaq Proliant 5000 server inside the company firewall and then
replicated in real time to a duplicate server outside the firewall for access via the web
and Domino.

Moreover, the web-based datawarehouse doesn’t sacrifice security. Access to the site is
possible at five different levels: all web browsers, customer-specific, partner-specific,
regional and global. Passwords control security from viewing marketing literature at the
‘all browser’ level, to restricting access to only the information, quotes and orders of a
specific customer.

Today, GlobalServe system allows partners and customers to create, save, view and edit
quotes, and also to track customer orders delivered around the world. Additional features
include, customer secured access, detailed customer profiles and account management.

Inbound orders recoup development costs
GlobalServe remains primarily a tool for the company to communicate and fulfill
international orders from its US-based customers. In the third quarter of 1997 alone,
outbound orders from the company to other partners in the system totaled $1.3 million.
However, GlobalServe has also delivered new business in the form of inbound orders from
its worldwide partner network. The total development costs involved in buying two Compaq
servers and a few dozen hours of programming time.

Currently, only customers without centralized procurement systems can enter orders
directly via the web, but Lock says that he plans to enable customers with central
procurement systems to access the system as well. Other enhancements will include ordering
options that make it easier for customers to accurately and consistently order ‘parts’ and
services by selecting choices from menus, rather than entering text descriptions.

EDI systems have been a key to the company’s customer retention strategy for several
years. But when the time came to extend the strategy internationally, the company’s EDI
experts turned to Lotus Notes and Domino for fast, secure and reliable data access and
communications. By offering instant, one-stop ordering and communication around the world,
GlobalServe has enabled CompuCom to retain more than 150 key Fortune 1000 customers and
has also attracted new incoming business from its worldwide network of partners.

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