GF Inc wraps up customer service with LANSA
A single LANSA skill set lets us share web and Windows development between three developers.
Editors Note: GF Inc used LANSA's low-code platform to develop its eCatalogue and contact management solutions (see case study below). More recently GF Inc provided its sales representatives with a mobile business app, also developed with LANSA. The app is GF Inc's 3rd generation of mobile apps, replacing both a native Blackberry app and an HTML5 web app.
GF Inc is the leading supplier of industrial packaging and fastening products in Western Canada through its GF Packaging and GF Fastening divisions. GF improved customer service and reduced call center traffic with an online eCatalogue site built with LANSA Commerce Edition in only four weeks. Internal efficiency has improved with a Visual LANSA-based contact management system, called 'Business Builder'. Both solutions integrate directly with a COBOL and IBM i-based ERP system.
Jim O'Reilly, president of GF Inc, says "With LANSA Commerce Edition we rolled the eCatalogue site out to the first users in the fifth week. Within three months our 300 largest customers signed-up, leading to immediate relief in our call center. And customers are buying more products, because they can see the complete breadth of product assortment. At the same time we have improved our internal efficiency with Visual LANSA. We get more quotes out and of a higher professional level than we ever could before."
Our 300 largest customers signed-up within three months, leading to immediate relief in our call center.
- The Challenge
- Web Self-Service for Customers
- Windows Integration for Staff
- 2014 Update: Mobile Solution for Sales Representatives
- Company and System Information
About 70 percent of GF revenue comes from packaging supplies and 30 percent from fastening and flooring supplies. Most of the packaging supplies are sold to manufacturers, who use the supplies to wrap their product at the end of the production line.
O'Reilly explains, "We have a sales force of over 60 people visiting the purchasing officers of companies throughout the west. Customers placed orders by phone or fax, which required manual entry in our distribution system. Our call center also received a lot of inquiry calls concerning order and account status."
"We realized several years ago that a website should be a first step in improving customer service. We had several attempts at building a site, but it never came to a stage that was good enough to implement."
"First, we built a website with Visual Basic and Active Server pages, but the site was unstable and continuously exposed to viral attacks. Because our ERP system runs on IBM i, we had a lot of issues duplicating the data and keeping the two systems synchronized. The solution was awkward and we never rolled it out to our customers."
"Next we investigated IBM's WebSphere. But learning WebSphere and Java was difficult and the expertise required did not relate to our existing skill set. It was not productive and I would have had to double my staff to manage and run that type of installation."
"We also wanted to provide our staff with a Windows solution that could integrate both with our IBM i based ERP system and with MS Office."
"When we learned that we could use Visual LANSA to develop both web and Windows solutions, we were really interested and decided to try it out," says O'Reilly.
When we learned that we could use Visual LANSA to develop both web and Windows solutions, we decided to try it out.
Web Self-Service for Customers
GF purchased LANSA Commerce Edition and one month of LANSA consulting services. Most of LANSA Commerce Edition standard functionality was implemented, including placing and tracing of orders and stock inquiry. Customers can see their invoices, outstanding orders and statement balances and define multiple levels of security for their own staff.
"We were able to get a first cut of the eCatalogue site up and running in three weeks," says O'Reilly. "All we had to do on our end was develop a few small COBOL programs to interface with the Commerce Edition suite. LANSA consulting staff mapped our core solution to Commerce Edition. It worked well. In the fifth week, we rolled the site out to the first few users. We sell over 20,000 products and spent far more time on cleaning data and making product photos, than with programming."
Because implementation was so fast, GF' IT team did not really pick up the skills to develop and maintain the solution themselves, so a LANSA consultant came to their office for one week mentoring.
O'Reilly continues, "After one week of mentoring, we were able to support and enhance the eCatalogue ourselves. We learned how the solution worked and best practice LANSA coding. It gave an enormous boost in our understanding and productivity."
Charlie Roth, systems analyst at GF, comments, "Maintenance is easy. Recently we redesigned the entire look and feel of the site, with the help of a graphics-advertising firm. We took less than a week to update and implement the new site, which included adding many new navigational features."
"LANSA is well designed. Components and styles are called out of libraries, which makes it very easy to do a major facelift very quickly. The maintenance of our static site, which runs on ISS and does not interface with any data, is much more clumsy."
O'Reilly continues, "At the moment we are adding 10 new customers each day, which we can handle easily. It saves us a lot of work that customers themselves can create multilevel security for their staff saves. Also, hardly any training is required. LANSA Commerce Edition has been given a lot of thought and it covers our and our customers' needs."
"Within three months of implementation our 300 largest customers signed-up, leading to immediate relief in our call center. Eventually we expect that most of our 6,000 active customers will make the site their preferred way of placing orders."
"We already notice a 30 percent decrease in inquiry calls. We have 20 people in our call centers across the country, who are looking forward to providing real customer services rather than answering standard queries."
"Customers are buying more products, because they can see the complete breadth of product assortment. You can search by product group, brand and so on. Even our own staff has developed a better understanding of the product, because of the easy navigation and attractive graphical presentation."
"The reliability of IBM i is unparalleled," adds Roth. "Using LANSA we can give users a quick way to access e-catalogue data. And as both the data and the website are housed on the same machine we don't have data duplication and synchronizations issues anymore. We also have an easier time maintaining the site, which isn't as susceptible to viruses as our static pages. We still serve our static, or brochure, pages from a Win 2000 server, mostly to facilitate working with our design partner and to present a better target to search engines. We view these pages as non-essential and are willing to risk the failures associated with a Windows site - something we're not willing to do with our eCommerce pages."
Customers are buying more products, because they can see the complete breadth of product assortment.
Windows Integration for Staff
Using Visual LANSA, GF developed a Windows-based contact management system, called ‘Business Builder', that allows sales staff to manage their accounts. Business Builder is integrated with the IBM i-based core line of business and uses the same COBOL custom price calculation modules to generate quotations directly into MS Word and MS Excel.
O'Reilly says, "We get more quotes out and of a higher professional level than we ever could before. We create a much better image for our customers. And because the sales staff are more productive, we can handle more accounts per person."
"Sales staff used to prepare their quotations using a variety of tools, which would vary in style and accuracy depending on the person. They had to retype product and price information, or copy AS/400 reports to the customer. They all started to develop their own way of getting the job done. The process was time-consuming and error prone. Sometimes the pricing and the description of products would be inconsistent."
"Over the years we built several front-end Windows solutions. We started with Gupta SQL, then Visual Basic and later C++, but the performance and ease of use just didn't cut it. Visual LANSA's performance is great. There are no real limitations once you understand how to use the product. It is as fully functionally a tool as you are going to get. You can do anything you can do in C++. LANSA is very productive and projects move ahead really quickly."
GF also uses Visual LANSA to help produce their printed catalogue. A Visual LANSA program extracts the data and images from the IBM i, in a similar format to the website, and feeds this to Quark desktop publishing software.
"We generate 80 percent of the catalog pages automatically. Previously it would take one person a full year to create the catalog, so we would produce it only every three to four years. The new catalog is of much higher quality, includes pricing and our full product range. And we can produce it in less than three months."
"To me this is a spin-off of building the eCatalogue and it shows the benefit of LANSA's integrated products and single skill set."
We get more quotes out and of a higher professional level than we ever could before.
"The three things that impress me most about LANSA are its speed of getting to the data, its easy maintenance and good support," concludes Roth. "LANSA's web and Windows environments both have fast native DB2/400 data access. Central definition of components makes maintenance easy. And whenever we had an issue, we felt a real commitment from LANSA to get it solved."
"A single LANSA skill set lets us share web and Windows development between three developers. And we find LANSA far more productive than COBOL, even though we have been using LANSA for only one year and COBOL for more than 15" says O'Reilly.
"The most important lesson we have learned is to invest in LANSA training to get your head around the proper way of development," concludes O'Reilly. "The more components and definitions you put in LANSA's Repository, the more re-use benefit you get. With each subsequent project, the focus is shifting more towards assembly of available and tested components."
A single LANSA skill set lets us share web and Windows development between three developers.
2014 Update: Mobile Solution for Sales Representatives
GF has built a mobile app for its sales representatives that allows them to view customer details, sales history, product information and inventory status, and to update quotes and orders. The app, developed with LANSA's LongRange, integrates in real-time with GF's IBM i-based ERP system and is deployed on a mixture of iPhones and iPads by over 35 sales representatives. The app is helping GF to get more orders and to get orders confirmed sooner. The app has been received extremely well by the salesforce and app usage is high, averaging to about 100 to 150 touches per rep per day. The app is GF's 3rd generation of mobile apps, replacing both a native Blackberry app and an HTML5 web app. GF's users feel the LongRange app is the most functional and robust.
Company and System Information
- GF Packaging supplies industrial packaging, equipment and warehouse supplies. GF Fastening supplies tools, fasteners and accessories to contractors and industry. GF has 13 store locations in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
- For more information visit: www.gf.ca
- GF uses an in-house developed COBOL ERP system, extended and modernized with LANSA, on the IBM i operation system.