Special Section Mailing & Fulfillment -- Finding the Right Fulfillment Software
By Tom Quinn
The addition of fulfillment services is a natural business extension to the printer's core competency and has the advantage of allowing printers to differentiate themselves as solutions providers for their existing and potential clients. However, while the storage and shipment of materials that have been printed for a client appears to be a simple task, many printers have found the transition to be very difficult.
There are many reasons why this is a more difficult transition than originally expected, but one of the primary reasons is always found to be the software system chosen as the fulfillment operating system (FOS). The following simple guidelines are provided for printers to follow when selecting their FOS.
1. Match the software to the application. The majority of printers will enter the fulfillment industry by managing sales collateral for their clients. The sales collateral fulfillment application will include the storage and shipment of material to the sales organization of the client, and servicing other marketing and sales requirements for the client.
The other activities could include trade show support, seminar support, lead inquiry fulfillment, premium fulfillment, and also to support minor product fulfillment programs. It is important to choose a fulfillment software package that has been designed to complete these specific applications.
2. Focus on the back end. To be successful in the fulfillment business, there is only one metric to control—inventory accuracy. This metric is one of the defining characteristics of the fulfillment industry and one that is not nearly as critical to the success of a printing company. Therefore, when choosing FOS, the capabilities of the warehouse management system portion of the package are the most critical factors to evaluate.
The focus of the software vendor will be in demonstrating the sizzle of the Web-based front-end capabilities. However, the software manufacturer's understanding of the complexity of how a fulfillment warehouse operates; the continual movement of product in and out of storage for projects; the requirement for rush order handling; the arrival of product which is not expected or identified; the management of many clients within one warehouse operation; and many other unique factors must be incorporated in the basic software.
3. Front-end capabilities. To be competitive in the fulfillment market, it will be important to provide a fulfillment solution that incorporates a Web-based solution. The FOS should have an order entry module that incorporates a shopping cart for easy order entry by anyone. The capability to assign a password and ID to a specific set of users is necessary to restrict access to certain parts of the inventory.
The order entry module should also have the ability to accept downloads of data files, allow for manual order entry, and allow easy interface to other systems and the client's Website. The graphics capability of the Website needs to be acceptable for most sales collateral applications and have the ability to be modified to look like the client Website, if required. The client users should be able to access the Website and easily retrieve information and construct reports.
4. ASP vs. standalone systems. There are two models available in the market to purchase and install the software capability to run a fulfillment center—standalone and application service provider (ASP).
The most common model implemented is the standalone, which requires the fulfillment center to purchase servers, install networks and provide all the service for the system within their facility. The installation and upkeep of the system is the total responsibility of the user. This gives the user total control over the success of the operation.
The standalone model will require personnel who understand SQL databases and programming, networking, e-mail technology, Web server administration and how to make the client application work in the software. The ASP model utilizes the software provider's system and everything is controlled and maintained by the software provider.
5. Training and support. Thoroughly investigate the training and support provided by the software vendor. It is important to remember that this new business to be incorporated into your existing business is quite different, and you will be crossing over from the manufacturing sector into the service sector of business. Check references and especially talk to printers who have utilized the software and listen intently to their evaluation of the training and support provided by the software vendor. The vendor's ability to react to your needs and to assist when a critical problem is being experienced should be key factors in your decision process.
Most of the software vendors supporting the fulfillment industry can be found on the MFSA Website. Visit www. mfsanet.org and choose the "Find a Supplier to the Industry" section in the left hand bar.
Tom Quinn is director of fulfillment services for the Mailing and Fulfillment Service Association.