SHEBOYGAN, Wis. - Providing the most efficient link between contractor customers and its distribution operation was the goal of JJ Koepsell Co. Even for those customers and its own employees who were "technologically challenged," the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC distributor wanted to develop a simple computerized system that would provide immediate pricing updates. The evolution of the system began a couple of years ago.

"The JJ Koepsell Co. Customer Software actually began to be planned almost immediately upon my arrival at the company in 2002," said Kelly Martens, manager of information systems.

The way the company's previous pricing service worked was to manually download a price file for each customer and import it in-

to a Microsoft® Access database. It then would be placed on a floppy disk that was handed to the customer, generally by the salesperson. A series of Web pages served by the old Windows 98 Web server utility, Personal Web Server, would be used to retrieve data from the Access database and give the customer the price for the item obtained in their search.

The ultimate fatal blow to this service was the fact that Microsoft stopped supporting the Personal Web Server technology. But there were also some major drawbacks, noted Martens, both for the distributor and the contractor:

1. Price updates were inconsistently sent out. "Since there was no system in place, contractors were left to guess if the pricing they had was anywhere near accurate," he said.

2. Contractors were building quotes based on these prices. "If a commodity item such as copper, which fluctuates greatly, had gone up significantly, the contractor had no way of knowing this, and it would then be reflected in any quote they passed to their customers," remarked Martens. "Obviously, this caused problems later on when invoicing occurred."

3. From the distributor's point of view, handing out the entire price file on a disk that had no security attached to it, and no control over where or who the data went to after it left JJ Koepsell, was troublesome. "Pricing is a distributor's lifeblood and handing it out with no controls whatsoever was, in my estimation, unacceptable," he said.

A JJ Koepsell Co. counter person is shown at a PC, getting ready to grab a pick ticket for an order that just came in from a contractor.

Version 1.0

Writing of the code for Version 1.0 of the Customer Software began in February 2003.

"This version was pretty much designed to allow me to get to know our customers and what they wanted," commented Martens. "I did not have a road map to guide me in this, as the idea of a distribution house distributing its own software had not been tried before. Learning what the customer wanted was priority one and that was what version 1.0 was all about."

This initial software served the purpose of getting contractor customers used to an Internet-based system for pricing information. Martens would compile a pricing file and post an update every 24 hours, a significant advantage over the previous approach. But there was a transition period as people got accustomed to the new system.

"When the software was re-leased, those that had been in contracting for many years did not want too much to do with it," Martens said.

"It is human nature to resist change, but I was confident after seeing the initial test results come back that we were on to something and, given time, it would grow on people.

"Ironically, the software's biggest supporters today are those that didn't care for the software initially, both within my own company and the contractors."

Martens related that one of the best-received new features was keyword search ability, which enabled those who were not well-versed in the industry, such as office personnel, to locate items quickly and get them priced or ordered.

Also, "My boss was happy because customers could now only get one price at a time, which made our pricing much more secure than it had been on floppy disks."

The main screen of the JJ Koepsell Co. Customer Software. Enhancements in version 3.0 include networkability, improved reporting, program/keyword database updates in the background, an interactive message center, and the ability to build multiple orders at one time.

On To Real-Time Pricing

The effort to offer more functionality required developing a link between JJ Koepsell's mainframe accounting package and customers' PCs. The next release of the software "became possible as I realized that customers could act as users inside my AIX (a derivative of UNIX) system in a controlled environment, such as a Windows application, operating through a Telnet connection," said Martens.

"I spent many hours writing the methods that would allow PC-based Windows applications to communicate with a mainframe system."

Version 2.0 was released in September of 2003. This version offered real-time pricing and stock status. "We also included a ‘Favorites' section that allowed the user to mark items as ‘favorites' so they would not have to hunt for them again," he said. "We allowed them to categorize them on their own, which the contractors really liked, as no two contractors ever agree completely on how things should be done."

In the later releases of this version, real-time order entry was initiated.

The addition of these new features was a major advancement that was very well received. "Contractors love the idea of real-time pricing, stock status, and order entry," Martens said.

Customer feedback noted that it's "an immense time saver" since contractors don't have to spend a lot of their day on the phone or at the distributor's counter, and "They could order in confidence knowing the stock would be there," he added.

"Real-time order entry has changed the way many contractors do business because now they can submit their orders overnight and, when the counter personnel come in the next morning, the pick tickets have printed and only need to be filled. It is so far from where we were in 2002, it is kind of unbelievable."

Some contractors, naturally, needed time to adjust to real-time order entry, but once they did, they "saw the advantage it gave them as opposed to waiting for a fax to be processed or handing the order to a salesman," said Martens.

"In addition, we added functionality that allowed the customer to include special order items." It helped the distributor as well. "We find out what customers want that we are not carrying."

As for reporting capabilities, a prime benefit of the software is that it allows customers to research transactions going back three years for a single item, or using a search term such as the P.O. number, ticket number, or any part of the item number.

Customers can also further break down their searches into specific types of transactions, such as searching a line for credits received.

The software also provides an open order report that allows the contractor to view outstanding orders that have yet to be filled by the distributor, both on an individual item and all open orders as a group. "This report is perhaps the most well received, both within JJ Koepsell and the contractors," said Martens. In addition, account status information is provided.

“Real-time order entry has changed the way many contractors do business, because now they can submit their orders overnight and, when the counter personnel come in the next morning, the pick tickets have printed and only need to be filled,” said Kelly Martens, manager of information systems for JJ Koepsell Co. Above is the order entry screen.

Unexpected Change

In December 2003, Martens received notice that the supplier of his company's accounting software was withdrawing support due to its age. JJ Koepsell would have to upgrade its accounting package. Martens knew this would likely require some major changes to the code for his Customer Software.

"Before I had known about this, I had begun the process of putting together version 3.0 of the software, which was an extensive rewrite of version 2.0," he said.

"Because I was in the middle of the rewrite when I found out, it didn't make sense for me to go backwards and take out the changes" in order to accommodate the accounting software upgrade. He quickly started writing code for the concepts of 3.0 that would be integrated with the upgrade.

At the end of January 2004, JJ Koepsell made the accounting upgrade. "The code to integrate with the upgrade of our accounting package was actually pretty accurate, but there were enough inaccuracies that I could not leave it as is," Martens said. He had to put in long hours getting all the previous functions back to normal, as well as hunting for and fixing bugs within the new code.

By the beginning of March, all the new functions of 3.0 were ready. "It was a year before I had really wanted to release it, but it ended up working out OK," he said.

Some of the enhancements are:

  • Networkability - Contractors often use networks, which allow them to share files and information between users. "I built in a means for them to be able to share their orders, keywords, and Favorites databases with their staff at their location," said Martens. Up to this point, each user had to have an individual database in order to use the program.

  • Reporting - Reports are now exclusively done in Microsoft formats and have been streamlined to generate much faster than they had. In addition, special folders have been created where all reports and orders are saved for easier reference.

  • Program/keyword database updates - In the past, program updates were bulky and took a long time to download, Martens remarked. "In this version, all updates are under 1 megabyte and they download while you work." The purpose of program updates is to have the ability to fix the occasional bug found or to bring new features to users of the software. Keyword listings are also updated occasionally while the individual is working.

  • Message Center - "The purpose of the Message Center within the software is to keep contractors aware of what is happening on our server, and advertise specials to them. We added a touch of interactivity in version 3.0, so if the server was being rebooted or there was an important announcement, the Message Center would turn red, and in the case of a reboot would warn you with a message box," said Martens.

  • Order entry - The software now can build more than one order at a time. "We recognized that contractors often work on several jobs at a time and need the ability to send orders in an organized fashion," he said. Past versions had permitted a single order to be built at a time.

    Contractor Reactions

    The response to 3.0 "has been overwhelmingly positive," Martens said. "We implemented a new interface in this release that allowed the user to primarily stay on one screen for all routine tasks they needed to perform, which made a lot of people happy. We also allowed the user to create ‘pack and hold' orders through the software and send them to us, which has proven quite popular."

    Martens said JJ Koepsell currently has 97 registered users with several more on the way. "Every day I receive more requests."

    Vince Brotz, service manager, D&M Plumbing and Heating, Sheboygan, agrees that the new version has been beneficial to his contracting company. "It's been a time saver. It's so nice to be able to go in, find what you're looking for, and order at the same time, with all the pricing in front of you and availability."

    Steve Harms, project purchasing coordinator for D&M Plumbing and Heating at another Sheboygan location, also appreciates the ease of ordering. "Time is money in our business, and it provides time savings." The new version is "cleaner and not as much is on the screen at one time."

    Of course, some of the distributor's customers continue to use the phone, fax, or buy over the counter. "Those are usually contractors who do not have an Internet connection available to them," explained Martens. "The future is such that I believe that, in the next three to five years, Internet transactions will be the rule rather than the exception."

    Plans for upcoming versions of the software include:

  • Creating an instant messenger function between contractors and JJ Koepsell.

  • Making the open order report real-time; currently it is updated daily.

  • Making the transaction report real-time; currently it is updated daily.

  • Looking at distributing invoices and statements through the program as opposed to mailing them. This would provide considerable workhour and postage savings, noted Martens.

    Down the road, he would like to build a portion of the program that would handle payments via credit cards or checking accounts.

    Martens and JJ Koepsell continue to learn from their contractor customers and keep making adjustments and improvements to their Customer Software, creating a tighter and ever-more-efficient link between contractor and distributor that saves time and cuts costs for both.

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    Publication date: 06/28/2004