Success Story: A & A Office Systems

Detailed Implementation Plan Makes for a Smooth Transition

 
John Meehan, Controller, A&A Office Systems

For many dealers, switching to new business management software ranks right up there with getting married or buying a new house as one of the most stressful tasks they'll ever face.

Even if their current software may be woefully out of date and actually keep­ing their business from moving forward, the prospect of changing systems is just too daunting and they end up doing nothing. It doesn't have to be that way. Just ask John Meehan at A&A Office Systems in Middletown, Connecti­cut.

Meehan served as the project champion for A&A's recent move to e-auto­mate and his carefully planned and just-as-carefully implemented conversion process provides a model of how to take most of the risk and the pain out of what is typically a high-stakes move for any dealership.

Nobody likes change and after more than 20 years on their previous system, the comfort level with the existing program was high through­out the dealership. But both Mee­han, who serves as the company's controller, and owner John Sullivan recognized more was needed if they were to give their dealership the tools demanded by a rapidly chang­ing and increasingly competitive industry.

"This business has changed so much in the past few years," says Meehan. "We don't just sell copiers anymore and as an independent, we're competing with giant national chains and direct selling manufac­turers who take no prisoners. We knew we needed a stronger tech­nology infrastructure to position our dealership for continued long-term growth."

After researching his options and talking to fellow dealers across the country, Meehan selected e-automate as A&A's new software platform. "E-automate not only has one of the largest installed bases of dealer­ships in the industry but just about all the other dealers I talked to were either already on e-automate or moving in that direction," he ex­plains.

"Those dealers told me e-automate was easier to use, gave them more and better information on their business and did a better job on connectivity with suppliers and cus­tomers," Meehan adds. "There was really no reason to go with any other option than e-automate."

But while the choice of a new system was clear, more than 25 years of industry experience had taught Meehan that a carefully planned implementation process would be critical.

"There's an old cliché about woodworking that says you need to measure twice so you end up cutting just once," he explains. "We took a similar approach to our conversion plan and put a lot of effort into up-front preparations so that we would avoid problems after we made the switch."

Meehan also took ownership of the process himself in a very high-profile way. "After we made the decision to move to new software, I stood up in front of our entire company and told them why we were making a change, what we were going to do, why we were going to do it and how long it was going to take," he recalls.

"I took sole responsibility for the conversion and made it clear that we would do whatever it took as a company to make it a success."

Sowing the seeds of a successful implementation

For Meehan, success came down to meeting two fundamentals goals.
"Number one was to make sure the conversion had no impact on our customers and number two was that we would maintain cash flow and be able to generate invoices and post cash from day one," he says.

Using those two basic goals as his top priorities for the entire conversion process, Meehan went to work. Step one: formation of a special planning committee made up of management from key areas of the dealership.

"We brought in our service manager, our office manager and our technology manager and, including me, we made up a four-person team whose responsibility was to ensure smooth implementation of the change," he recalls. To make sure the conversion process stayed on track, the team met once a week to review progress, make plans for the week ahead and examine any special problems or issues encountered with e-automate conversion team.

"The experience with our e-automate conversion team was outstanding and we cannot say enough good things about them. Angela Winter, our conversion consultant, was instrumental in converting our OMD data. We relied heavily on her guidance and expertise.

We had a project status meeting every Friday with our company conversion team and Angela made herself available via a conference call or ‘go to meeting'. She listened to our issues and challenges, asked questions and participated in the solutions developed. Angela highlighted the "critical path" tasks, made sure we understood them and completed them as scheduled."

Each committee member was also charged with developing a training plan for employees in their particular area, with a dedicated space set up in the A&A conference room where employees could come and take their training.

"Everybody had their own individual schedule of webinars that they needed to go through and we monitored their progress closely," Meehan recalls.

As the training program got underway, so did data conversion. "We had about 5,000 customers in our database and 6,000 machines under contract, including 4,000 machines on MPS programs," he reports. A&A spent about a month scrubbing the data, to get rid of anything that was old and not necessary, and clean up the information that would be moving to the new platform.

It was painstaking work at times but, Meehan reports, well worth the effort. Thanks to their careful, methodical approach, A&A's critical business data moved over to the new platform with very few problems. Once the data was converted, Meehan and his team went into testing mode. "I told our people they had to take 15% of the work they did every week on our existing system and put it into e-automate," he remembers.

"Not everybody liked that idea but I knew we had to learn how to run the new system properly if we were to avoid impacting our customers when we changed so I held my ground."

The testing phase of the conversion process ran six weeks, with staff going back and forth from their testing to their webinars to fully learn the system. And, notes Meehan, he insisted they take their webinars as many times as necessary to make sure they were where they needed to be.

Reaping the rewards

The staff at the dealership was familiar with the system and able to handle both routine procedures and some of the more complex issues from day one of the switch. "When we went ‘live' our on-site e-automate consultant was Lanila Shields and she was phenomenal. Lanila possessed a solid understanding of what was required to ‘go live' and how to direct our efforts into a smooth transition from our legacy system.

We prided ourselves in how well we were prepared and we felt that we were beyond the simple tasks of how to navigate around e-automate to place a service call, ship supplies or post cash. We wanted a consultant who would assess what we already knew and then take us to the next level. Lanila was this person. What impressed us most was her calm, systematic approach to training.

Her approach and personality provided training that was reassuring and calming to our employees," says Meehan. "From day one, our dispatch team could log calls and get technicians out to their customers, our customers could order their supplies and we were posting cash and able to cut purchase orders and receive goods. We really hit the ground running!" Adds Meehan.

"Change is never easy and there was some initial resistance when we announced the move but by the time we were ready to flick the switch and go live, our people knew e-automate, they liked what they saw and they were eager to start using it," he said.

Three months after A&A switched to e-automate, the dealership is running smoothly and the customers are happy.

The pursuit of continuous improvement

But even if Meehan's planning group is not meeting quite as frequently, he makes it clear there is still plenty of work ahead to make the most of all that e-automate offers. "After we went live, I told our team that we were basically at half-time on the project," he says with a wry smile. From making sure the basics are in place properly, the focus now has shifted to using the reporting power of e-automate and some of the other special features the program offers.

"Now that we're comfortable taking care of our external customers, we are putting more emphasis on supporting our internal customers with modules like the e-views and the Digital Taskforce," Meehan explains.

"All that will take time and you have to be realistic about it all. But so far we're very impressed and very pleased. Our primary goal was for the whole process to be transparent to the customer and we achieved that goal absolutely. And that made all the effort totally worthwhile."