Simplify customer service: Get shop order data right the first time
Glass fabricators respond to a multitude of customer questions every day and their ability to do so readily, easily and accurately comes down to the flexibility in their order entry and production software, contends Dennis Csehi, director of Atwood Mobile Products, Antwerp Operations, in Antwerp, Ohio. “Most companies have canned shop floor software packages that can produce various reports,” he says. “They allow for a little modification of the reports but usually you can’t do [much modification] without throwing lots of money into it. So, unless the reports happen to be set up [to display the information] you need on the back end, they may not provide what you want.”
Approximately three years ago, Atwood created a program to address this dilemma. Shop Order Data is a custom Microsoft Excel database that enables Atwood to respond to just about any customer inquiry. For instance, a customer with 10 orders in process calls to ask if order number three, due in two weeks, can be bumped up and completed ahead of order number two, due next week. “Before we created the program, we would have had to go through and query our shop floor control system, but we would have needed all our job numbers to do it,” Csehi explains. With Shop Order Data, “you can just sort by the customer name and it shows every order pending and active with that customer.”
In another scenario, an Atwood sales representative in a field meeting with a customer needs a current status report on all that customer’s orders. In the past, the salesperson would call in and speak to a member of Atwood’s production control department. That individual would put the salesperson on hold or call back after he identified all the customer’s orders and determined what stage of production they were in. When he got back to the sales representative, “the salesperson might then say ‘OK, now that I know that, can you tell me this?’ and the production employee would have to go back to collect more information. There would be a lot of back-and-forth and the information provided might not be accurate,” Csehi says. Now, thanks to Shop Order Data, with a few keystrokes on a laptop computer, the salesperson can find complete information about all orders. He can pinpoint an order in production; for example, waiting to undergo seaming or being made into insulating glass units. He also can confirm the dimensions and type of glass on order. The salesperson either connects to the program via the Internet or opens a Shop Order Data file he downloaded before going on the road. “That will be reasonably accurate up until the time he downloaded,” Csehi says.
Other fabricators no doubt have developed similar programs that enable them to quickly access information from both their production and order entry systems. At Atwood, a software programmer developed Shop Order Data in about a week’s time. He started by identifying all the fields in Atwood’s business management and inventory software packages. Both these systems have associated databases and it was a matter of understanding where the fields in each were located, how they were defined and how they related to other fields.
The business management software package includes order entry and production components. Next, a group of key employees met and “put on a blackboard all the information they would like to have easily available,” Csehi recalls. From there, the programmer created an Excel PivotTable report, an interactive table that enables users to summarize large amounts of data quickly, and to rotate its rows and columns to show different summaries of the source data, filter the data by displaying different pages, or display the details for areas of interest. He populated the PivotTable by telling Excel what fields to look for in the other databases, where to find them and by programming it to update the information hourly.
Atwood employees can easily sort the data by 32 parameters, in total or by individual customer. For example, a user can identify orders due today for all customers or all orders due today for a specific customer. Shop Order Data also makes minutia available at the fingertips: a user can discover what orders call for any one of Atwood’s approximate 4,500 individual parts. “Everything we have is made to order, and we receive between 140 and 200 orders per day, so it becomes critical to track orders,” Csehi says. “This has allowed us to more readily and easily convey accurate information to our customers.”
Atwood employees receive minimal training for Shop Order Data because “if you can work in Excel, it’s pretty self-explanatory,” Csehi says. Plus, it’s a read-only program. Any errors, such as erasing part of the spreadsheet or inadvertently adding a formula, are not saved. Atwood backs up the program daily along with its other software. Csehi has never performed a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether Shop Order Data has saved money or improved productivity, but “in terms of the flexibility and ease it’s provided, it’s been worth our investment,” he says. The only disadvantage of the program is that it can only access the information available in Atwood’s order entry and production software.
“We’d like to push more data but we’re limited to what’s in the main system,” Csehi says.
Shop Order Data is available to some customers that buy or use the Atwood family of products via a companywide network. They can view and sort their orders in any level of detail, but do not have access to information about other customers. Atwood plans to make the program available to its other customers, but has no plans to commercialize Shop Order Data. However, “anyone with a good programmer who has a good understanding of databases could do what we’ve done,” Csehi says. Those interested in developing a similar program should “sit down with all the people who will have to use it and get contributions from them. Otherwise, they’ll be less apt to use it if they view it as something that was just put together by someone else and they don’t really understand how it works,” he says.