By Wayne E. Seel

In the past, Private Spring Water Company of Foster City, Calif., used a combination of a stand-alone order entry system, accounting system and word processor to track orders for their custom-labeled spring water.

But after hearing how another specialty supplier was able to cut its order processing time by 15 percent and save thousands of dollars per month in rush shipping charges by implementing a new order processing system, Private Spring Water decided to risk change. A new system was integrated that includes all the tools needed to enter and track orders on a single screen. This greatly reduces errors and makes it much easier to monitor jobs in progress.

Specialty supplier
Private Spring Water provides a fresh and healthful beverage with customized packaging promoting new products, in-house programs, charities, community events, etc. The water is shipped in convenient containers that the end-user can refill and use again as a sports bottle. They’re available with twist-off caps or push/pull sports caps, and are sold through a network of 15,000 advertising specialty distributors around the country. First year sales topped $1.3 million. Major computer hardware and software vendors—including Apple, Oracle, Symantec, IBM, Xylink and others—were among the first major companies to use this new promotion.

Order processing is key to the business of producing and delivering custom-labeled water. The company typically receives 20-to-30 orders per day. For each of these it must prepare and print labels, apply them to the water bottles and ship the freight to the customer.

The process starts with the art department producing the label design. The layout they develop is then sent to the client for art approval. After approval, the art goes to the printing department where the labels are made. The labels are then sent to the bottling plant where they’re attached, bottles packed and batch shipped.

Keeping the different parties to each transaction straight can be difficult. The actual customer is typically the local office of the advertising distributor that sold the water. The invoice, however, usually goes to the headquarters of that same distributor. Finally, the product is shipped to the final purchaser, the company that’s using the water to promote itself. To further complicate things, many orders require products be shipped in a number of smaller batches to offices around the country or even around the world.

Data entry: Triple to single
Private Spring Water was unable to find a software package capable of handling these three separate entities—sold-to, bill-to and ship-to—so it used three separate programs for order processing. A stand-alone order entry program designed for the advertising specialty industry was used to enter and track the order. This program only had single ship-to and sold-to entries and did not handle invoicing. This made it necessary to enter the multiple ship-to entries in a word processing program, for later use for preparing shipping papers and labels. Once the order was produced, the information was then entered into a Windows accounting program that generated invoices and kept financial records.

The old system kept track of orders, but was unable to track progress after they were received. This meant that the course of the order had to be tracked on paper. Lengthy meetings involving managers from each department were needed so that someone was present who was aware of the status of each job. A considerable amount of time was spent examining output from each system to find out where a particular job was.

Each order had to be checked several times along the way because data was being entered in the three separate systems and there was always the possibility that an order could be prepared for shipment to the wrong place. Another challenge was that orders were occasionally entered twice in one of the systems, which would potentially cause twice as much product manufactured than was actually ordered. The need for data entry several times for the same order also increased the risk of incorrect entry of quantities, dates or other substantial details of the order.

It’s important to note that most of the products shipped by the company are intended for use at a specific event and are worthless if they’re not received in time. Jobs that fall through the cracks or several days behind schedule immediately eat into the profit margin. Because Private Spring Water guarantees delivery on the date requested, if these jobs fall too far behind, the specified items must be shipped by air to the customer’s sites, at an average cost of $1,000 per order.

Flexibility and customization
In an effort to overcome these difficulties, Private Spring Water management spoke to several value-added resellers (VARs) and examined a number of different accounting packages. It was important to find a Windows program since office personnel were already familiar with this user interface. One VAR in particular, Select Systems of San Mateo, Calif., recommended Solomon IV for Windows from Solomon Software of Findlay, Ohio.

This package impressed Private Spring Water management with its flexibility and customization ability. It’s based on an open architecture and built with Microsoft Visual Basic and other industry-standard tools. An unusual advantage is its upgrades don’t affect the customization, so new versions of the software can be installed without any programming effort.

Private Spring Water management spent time with Select Systems consultants, showing them how their business operated and the company’s need for a single-task order entry and tracking process. This necessity inspired a key feature of the new system—an order entry screen that accepts all information required to place and track the order.

To accommodate this concept, the standard invoice was modified to account for at least three parties for every job. The standard “Ship to” field was changed to “Sold to.” A new “Ship to” field was then created for each line item of the invoice, making it easier to ship every single line item to a different location by automatically generating shippers and labels for each location. Private Spring Water management considered this a major accomplishment, since none of the VARs consulted had much of an idea how they could program this feature.

The status button
The program calculates how many cases are required for each location, based on the number of bottles ordered, and prints the corresponding number of shipping labels. There’s also a shipping information screen that makes it possible to enter the shipment method and any special instructions.

The consultants offered suggestions for a further streamlining of the process. An important contribution was the idea for a status button that account service people use to instantly determine where any order stands. The tracking feature is based on steps, from the order start time to the “in-hand” date, which is when the customer receives the bottles. The projected completion date for each department involved is calculated by the program based on the number of days to perform each stage in the project. For example, 24 hours is normally required to create original artwork. As the job actually clears, its status is updated, making it easy to track its progress.

A custom report, called the office copy, incorporates all pertinent information on an order on a single sheet of paper. This makes it possible for someone to come by and pick up a file from a folder and know exactly what the job is all about. Another report provides an update on any project behind in schedule or that has remained in the same department longer that it’s supposed to. One more custom report was created that provides a form for clients to sign off on art approval.

Fewer manhours needed
The new system paid for itself in the first month of operation. The time required to enter an order was reduced from one hour to 15 minutes. The need for a two-hour meeting each day to track the progress of each job was eliminated. It takes just 10 minutes to get a complete picture of what’s going on with a specific order. It was soon apparent that fewer people were needed to accomplish the same work. The order processing staff size was reduced from 13 to 11 by transferring people to other departments. The amount of time management needed to spend on order tracking was also substantially reduced—leaving more time to spend on generating additional sales and attending to the strategic needs of the business.

Even greater savings were achieved by eliminating mistakes. The possibility of a job falling through the cracks and having to be shipped by air to meet promised dates has been virtually eliminated. This situation has not occurred once since the new system was installed, saving several thousand dollars per month. Entering data once and automatically transferring through different modules of the system has greatly reduced the number of errors. Customer service has improved because the staff can get immediate answers to customers’ questions, rather than having to call them back later.

Conclusion
The improved efficiency provided by the new order entry system has prepared Private Spring Water for the high demand it’s currently experiencing. The company expects to achieve approximately 50 percent growth this year without any increase in order processing staff. Key to the success of this custom application was the excellent working relationship between Private Spring Water management and the VAR, and the excellent flexibility offered by the software. Private Spring Water is hoping its product will become the “coffee mug” of the 21st century. So far, it’s off to a great start.

About the author
Wayne E. Seel is president and CEO of Private Spring Water Co. in Foster City, Calif., a custom bottler for events and gatherings. He can be reached at (650) 572-1935, (650) 574-6019 (fax).

FYI
If you’d like to know more, contact Solomon Software at PO Box 414, Findlay, Ohio 45839 or toll-free at (800) 476-5666.

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