Techniques: Microcases

Problem: Giving customers up-to-date, detailed information about products
Solution: A digital-picture database
Payoff: Faster, more accurate customer service; marketing tool for sales reps

Burgess International (BI), an eight-employee, family-owned importer of bath fixtures in Romulus, Mich., was awash in customer-service problems. Its four customer-service reps did business with an outdated computer system that stored minimal information--just part number, color, and price--about the company's 1,500 products. To answer questions about product styles and availability, the reps had to flip through unwieldy three-ring binders while the customer dangled on hold--and even then they often came up short.

Consider the plumber who called about the Victorian water closet. He needed to know what the distance between the water-intake valve and the floor in a customer's bathroom had to be for the product to fit, but the spec was nowhere to be found. The rep had to hang up and hunt down the water closet in the warehouse, and do the measuring himself. Owner George Burgess cringes when he thinks of the chaos in the office--and in customers' minds--caused by the outmoded system. "We were going crazy," he says. "We couldn't get the right answers for our customers." George's son, general manager Jeff Burgess, agrees, adding that many time-pressed customers likely took their business elsewhere. "We were operating at a deficiency. There was no way we were going to grow," he says.

Unless, of course, the company invested in some new software. In October 1997, on the advice of a shopper he met in a computer store, Jeff tried out and then purchased an accounting package called BusinessWorks 12.0, from Sage Software Inc. (800-447-5700; basic package $1,295, additional modules $495 each), that came with a lifesaving (for BI) application called Image Library. A digital-picture database, Image Library has made the company's bulky binders obsolete.

These days when a customer calls, the reps need only click on a "picture" icon on their computers to pull up high-resolution photos of all the importer's products. The reps can then maximize the photos to full-screen size or even cut and paste them into a Word document. A "maintain parts" window allows the reps to record specific product information (like a water-intake valve's distance off the floor) for future customers. And a "comments" column in the window allows Jeff to enter details about promotions or discounts connected with particular products. (He used to distribute a slew of handouts listing discounts.)

To create the Image Library, Jeff manually scanned 600 of the product photos from the binders onto his PC's hard drive. He transferred the shots onto a writable CD and then uploaded them into BusinessWorks. For the other 900 products, he was able to get image files on disk from their various manufacturers.

Though constructing the database was time intensive, Jeff has no complaints. After all, before he had BusinessWorks, he was constantly adding pages to the binders when new vendors came on board and removing pages when a vendor was dropped. Not only was the process tedious, but it also left inventory from old vendors gathering dust on the warehouse shelves--inventory, Jeff estimates, that was worth about $50,000. He's now scanning photos of the leftover products into the Image Library to bring the products into the light of day.

Jeff says that today the length of the average customer-service call is down to only two minutes--a far cry from the phone tag his reps used to play with customers. And in the next few months he plans to import the Image Library onto the company Web site (it's currently being built), so his 26 independent sales reps can show customers product photos on their laptops. "This is a tremendous innovation," says George Burgess, noting that there has been a 50% increase in sales since the software was installed. From Jeff's perspective, however, the biggest benefit of Image Library is the order it has brought. "This software has preserved my sanity," he says.