Once your business reaches a certain level, integrating your back-end systems with your customers through the Ariba® Network is one of the smartest moves you can make (check out this guide for tips on why and when to do it.) By enabling you to fully automate the order-to-cash cycle, integration delivers major benefits—including 75% lower order and invoice processing costs, higher retention and sales, and faster payment. Yet what’s the best way to go about it? And how can you ensure the process goes smoothly—not only with your first integration, but all the others that follow?
Answering these questions was the focus of an Ariba LIVE 2014 session, where two leading sellers—Jennifer Neumann, IT business applications manager for MSC Industrial Supply Company, and Jim Hightower, lead B2B solutions manager for the PremierConnect solution at Dell—shared best practices that have helped them successfully integrate hundreds of customers and turn e-commerce into a competitive differentiator for their business. Read on to see how you can do the same.
Best practice #1: Prioritize which customers you integrate with. Sure, integration can add huge value for you and your customers—but you need to carefully analyze each situation before jumping in. Prioritization is central to MSC’s integration approach. “We do integrate more with the folks willing to do the higher volumes, because it makes more sense to do that,” Neumann says. But size isn’t the only criterion. Her team considers not only the number and volume of transactions but also the overall value of the customer relationship. This helps clarify the best way to move forward—which may not always be full integration, as Hightower points out. “You’ve got to figure out what’s best for you and that customer, and that’s part of the scoping process,” he says.
Best practice #2: Create an “integration playbook.” By providing a solid roadmap for both internal teams and your customer, an integration playbook helps keep the process on track and on target. Your playbook should include these phases:
- Phase 1: Project initiation, when your sales team engages with the customer to determine their needs and get that all-important corporate agreement—from your side and theirs—on integration goals. “When you have the agreement and the support of the executive teams, you’re going to find you have a much more successful time,” Neumann says.
- Phase 2: Data collection, which involves gathering key information about the customer’s platform, ERP system, special requirements, and similar specifications.
- Phase 3: Discovery, where kickoff calls are held with your and your customer’s IT and business teams to align all stakeholders on scope, timing, and who’s doing what. For MSC, this includes using a checklist to review issues they’ve had challenges with in the past. “You want to know what you’re agreeing to,” Neumann says. “We make sure that up front, we know exactly what the customer is expecting and what time frames they want to do it in.” And lock down your access to key players. “We need someone from the buyer to personally own the relationship,” Hightower says. “I want the name, phone number, and email address of who I’m going to work with for that integration.” This supports the close collaboration essential to understanding and meeting the customer’s requirements.
- Phase 4: Mapping and configuration of all protocols and processes (such as cXML/EDI, PunchOut, purchase orders, advance ship notices, and/or invoices).
- Phase 5: Testing and go-live, which includes testing transactions and functionality to make sure agreed-on standards and requirements have been met, special requests fulfilled, and users trained on how the new system works—for example, ensuring they enter complete information in the right fields, and educating them about PunchOut, POs, invoices, and other processes being automated.
While a typical integration takes four to six weeks, with each phase lasting roughly a week, keep in mind that this can vary depending on the customer’s experience (those new to the process may require more handholding) and the project scope, plus the degree of customization the customer requires.
Best practice #3: Divide and conquer. If a customer isn’t willing or prepared to integrate across the full procure-to-pay process, consider splitting up the project. “We’ll do PunchOut and POs up front, then come back and do the return documents later after the customer is ready for it,” Neumann says.
Best practice #4: Engage strong cross-functional support from sales. As the front line of connection with customers, the sales team plays a crucial role in integration success, so make them an integral part of the process. Dell conducted company-wide training with sales when it began integrating through Ariba, and performs one-on-one training for new sales team members as needed to explain how B2B works, what’s required from them, and how to engage customers to move to B2B.
Best practice #5: Keep the lines of communication open. Both Neumann and Hightower emphasize the need for constant communication across all teams. “You want it from project initiation all the way through to testing and go-live, to make sure that anyone who’s involved understands where you are and what’s needed next,” Neumann says. Hold weekly meetings to review status on active integrations, and create a documented escalation process to prevent slowdowns and nip problems in the bud.
Best practice #6: Have dedicated resources, and encourage customers to do the same. Assigning a dedicated project manager to each integration improves results and eliminates frustrating communication gaps and delays. “When the customer’s side has dedicated resources as well, the whole process goes much smoother and quicker, so that four- to six-week time frame can be reduced quite a bit,” Neumann says.
Best practice #7: Use PunchOut whenever possible. While some customers still prefer CIF catalogs, PunchOut delivers far more benefits. “PunchOut provides the best customer experience, hands down,” Neumann says. “The customer is getting real-time, clean, accurate data from the website, they’re getting all the part numbers, they’re getting correct prices, and they have access to all of our back end.” The result? Productivity gains of 50% or more (read this article for details on the value of PunchOut).
Best practice #8: Support customers’ change management and training efforts. If users continue to order in the old way, no one benefits from integration, so do what it takes to help customers drive compliance. For example, they may ask you to refuse orders not sent through the system (which can be a challenging request for your sales team, but pays off in the long run). You can also support training to make sure all users understand the system. “The testers are a controlled environment, but after you go live, you get it out to everybody, and everybody really doesn’t know how it works,” Hightower says. “We kind of look to the buyer to educate end users, but we’re going to be here to help anytime it’s needed.”
Best practice #9: Take advantage of Ariba resources and support. The Ariba Electronic Supplier Integration Management (ESIM) team can provide personalized support and consulting to help guide you through the integration process.[i] After you’ve integrated with at least one customer, an Integration Express Consultation walks you through completion of an integration questionnaire that captures your process, capabilities, and requirements, helping you expedite future integrations with other customers.[ii]
Best practice #10: Measure your performance. Establish key performance indicators to track your progress and benchmark your results. Examples of areas to measure include:
- Number of customers that are integrated
- Number of electronic POs received through the system without errors
- Number of “frictionless” transactions, i.e., orders that go all the way to fulfillment without a human touching them
Building bottom- and top-line benefits
Besides dramatically increasing efficiency and productivity, integration pays off handsomely in other ways as well. “All of this helps us become a more important supplier,” Neumann says. “We’ve found that when customers are integrated, we can go higher, wider, and deeper with them.” For example, integrated customers are more likely to use MSC’s vendor-managed inventory (VMI) and vending machine solutions, which in turn strengthens those relationships and enhances the company’s position as a trusted business partner. “For these reasons, integrated accounts grow faster and become a greater overall source of revenue.”
Find out more
Ready to learn more? Listen to the complete session on the Ariba Slideshare site, or contact the Ariba Commerce Assistance team for resources and support that can help you achieve integration success.
[i] These services are included at no cost to sellers whose customers receive Ariba enablement services as part of their subscription.
[ii] The Integration Express Consultation is available to Premier, Enterprise, and Enterprise Plus subscribers in the Supplier Membership Program.