February 28, 2008, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: On-Demand Technology: The Gain Without the Pain

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With so many systems feeding into the multi-channel platform, such as CRM, point-of-sale, order management, and customer service applications, it is tougher for retailers not only to manage those systems, but also to stay abreast of the latest advancements for each application. “It is rare that retailers can manage their platform in a manner that is seamless and know the actions that took place at each customer touch point,” continues Marrah. “We implement and roll out new versions of our platform monthly.”

To ensure the highest level of technical support ProfitCenter Software provides constant training for its own staff as well as that of the retailer’s internal IT staff. “Most of our staffers start their training with how to service client needs by learning the client’s business and their objectives,” Marrah says. “In-house users struggle to effectively train their employees on how to get the most out of the software.”

Marrah joined PCS in 2007 after serving as president of Escalate Inc., a software provider to direct and multi-channel retailers. During his eight years at Escalate, Marrah grew the company through a strategy of acquisition and organic growth around Escalate’s Ecometry and Blue Martini products.

Support for in-house staff

Ongoing training and support also need to be provided to the retailer’s in-house IT staff. With each new release of its platform ProfitCenter Software gives clients release notes and a tutorial video that explains the new features and functionality, how to deploy them and how to best leverage them to benefit their business. “A lot of training gets delivered to the client through video and online,” Marrah says. “This approach lets them come back to refresh their understanding of the application and they don’t have to pay to attend another training session. This makes training sessions reusable and more cost effective.”

Further training and support come from an executive advisory board made up of users and by having support personnel spend about 30% of their time visiting clients, Marrah adds.

Providing ongoing training to clients gives retailers a greater feeling of control over the platform. In doing so, PCS is knocking down one of the barriers retailers have to acceptance of on-demand platforms. “Retailers like control over their software platform, but that is waning as they gain a better understanding of the SaaS on-demand model,” says Marrah. “They see the resources that drive the product from a functionality standpoint.”

PCS’s ProfitCenter Software is a web-based multi-channel application that automates and manages the entire customer lifecycle across all sales channels and provides retailers with unified customer and inventory views that reduce the costs and complexities of traditional software.

Staying ahead of the client

Among the resources PCS can deliver to retailers through its platform are speedy development and implementation of new features on a monthly basis. “If we see our platform lacks a capability we try to be proactive and add new functionality ahead of customer needs,” says Marrah. “We try to use technology as an enabling force to allow clients to run their business and optimize their financial performance while minimizing costs. This allows them to focus on their core strengths of marketing, merchandising, promotion, and supply chain management, which is why retaining control over the platform is not as big a barrier to acceptance with retailers as it was three years ago.”

Nevertheless, retailers are best advised to take a proactive role in the management of their web sites to determine whether a vendor is living up to expectations. Issues they need to stay abreast of include whether the vendor promptly takes product pages down when an item is out of stock or states on the product page when less than 10 units remain or that an item is on back order. Other issues to track include whether bounce rates are rising, return rates are increasing, and whether shoppers on the web site are placing more phone orders for specific items.

All of these metrics help retailers quantify the performance of the vendor. “On-demand users really need to have the online business skills to control their own destiny,” says Venda’s Max. “If they have the right business skills, they will be able to distinguish business problems from technology problems and determine when the vendor could be doing more.”

Ideally, retailers want a partnership between themselves and their platform provider in which they collaborate with the vendor to leverage the full capabilities of the platform. To achieve this goal, Responsys offers webinars and user groups where customers can exchange ideas on ways to optimize the capabilities of the Responsys platform and improve it.

“We offer client workshops on how to use our application to execute the programs customers want to put in place at the lowest cost in order to drive the highest value,” says Olrich. “We will help them build campaigns and create templates. Retailers want technology partners that help them build core competencies in their organization.”

In doing so, retailers can get the most from their internal resources and those of the vendor, which is the best of both worlds. If retailers are too self-sufficient, they are not leveraging the skill set of the vendor. If they are too reliant on the vendor, they are not necessarily building core competencies. In either case, retailers are forgoing a collaborative environment that enables them to optimize the full functionality of the platform. “A collaborative environment gives retailers more options when it comes to leveraging their platform to meet their business needs,” says Olrich.

A key component of creating a collaborative environment is helping retailers differentiate the customer experience. Olrich cites the example of a flower retailer that offers shoppers the option of receiving a notification of delivery via e-mail or wireless mobile device.

As part of the notification process, the retailer enhances the customer experience by including a single question pertaining to their level of satisfaction with the purchase. The question is phrased simply, i.e. did they find the entire shopping experience to be positive or negative.

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