Well, That Went Better Than It Could Have…

In my last article, I did my best to let you know the processes our company went through to determine if the time was right to update our dry cleaning software system. I attempted to identify the positive attributes of our current system and assess its deficiencies as well. Most of the strengths attributed to our former system were cost related (meaning it was paid for) and my staff’s familiarity with the software. However, because of the age of the system, suspect vendor support and concerns about data security, I was convinced this package was limiting our ability to grow and effectively serve our customers. In short, it was determined that any benefits of maintaining the status quo would be short term when compared to the negative impacts we could experience down the road, such as lost opportunities and limiting our ability to serve current and future clients.

Although it took months of (mostly) subjective analysis to decide if we should move forward with a change in systems, I finally determined it was the right time for our business to install a new dry cleaning software package. Now that the decision to move ahead was made, the question became, “Which system do we implement?”

It was easy to get caught up in the hype and the bells and whistles the different dry cleaning software vendors offered with their respective products. We did our best to cut through the smoke and determine how each of the systems we looked at would work best for us and how each program would impact our clients, our staff and our budget. Again, this was an incredibly detailed process. Some programs offered features that, although impressive, we would never use. Other systems offered limited growth potential or had limited flexibility. We talked with cleaners who were either critical or quite pleased with the technical support provided by the respective vendor. And of course, we looked at the pricing of the systems and related hardware.

Sometimes, the analysis seemed overwhelming. I knew regardless of which vendor we went with, the resulting impact on our day-to-day operations would be incredibly significant. I also realized there would be substantial up-front investments of money and time. I hoped and prayed the decision I was about to make would result in helping our little dry cleaning business meet our goals and our customer’s needs. There were times when I wondered if flipping a coin would be the best way to choose as there was not a clear-cut obvious choice. Each vendors’ products had their strong points and their deficiencies.

Although it was not an easy decision, we (meaning I) determined that SMRT best fit our needs. As I noted in my prior article, this is not intended to be an endorsement of a vendor. Based on our needs, staffing and budget, this was the vendor that checked more boxes than other dry cleaning software packages we considered. Since changing operating systems has such an important impact on your company, please take the time to do your own homework and choose the system you determine fits your company’s needs the best.

As difficult as this decision was, the really hard part was still coming – transitioning to the new system. Because of the configuration of this new system, we knew going in this change would have a serious impact on every part of our operations – counter, assembly, routes, client interactions, billings – they were all going to be dramatically affected. This was simply because of workflow and operational differences between the two systems. Going from paper tags to barcodes in garments would also have a big impact.

Furthermore, our existing system was old. I mean really old. That meant most of our current peripherals such as printers were obsolete and could not be used with our new system. Much of the data in our former dry cleaning software was also not up to date, especially certain contact information like e-mail addresses, mailing addresses and cell phone numbers. In fact, many of the phone numbers we had were no longer valid as several were land lines no longer used by our clients. When determining the new hardware requirements, we had to make sure our printers were compatible and fit our new operating requirements. We also embarked on a continuing effort to update client data to facilitate some of the communications tools incorporated into our new systems that were not available (or at least not properly utilized) in our previous package.

As the date of our implementation continued to draw near, I was concerned about our readiness to flip the switch and go live. However, when our current tag printers failed to operate because of program changes in preparation for the new system – I realized there was no turning back. For a week or so prior to the conversion, we found ourselves in a hybrid situation – printing receipts but hand-writing tags. I must admit this situation created some confusion and caused us to deflect some of our attention away from some issues we should have been addressing to get ready for the conversion.

When the conversion came, I was as nervous as a bank robber in a police station elevator. Had we prepared for this day as well as we could have? How would our clients respond? Would our staff understand how the new system would work? Can our route drivers deal with the new automated systems as opposed to the manual manifests they formerly used?

Some of my fears came true, but fortunately, most of the big ones were unfounded. The data transfer went pretty well with only some minor issues noted. Operationally, we did have some trouble adapting to barcodes at the counter and in our assembly area, resulting in an increase in unaccounted for garments (and a few more claims) than normal. We also were guilty on occasions of trying to use old methods that were no longer appropriate. Old habits can be difficult to overcome.

The impact on clients was more seamless than I had anticipated. Some personal calls to customers helped to overcome some obstacles we initially encountered, and we discovered most of our route clients were enthusiastic about paying their accounts as we delivered their garments rather than receiving monthly billings.

As I am drafting this article, we are three months into the transition. Here are some of my experiences, observations, and suggestions (along with some offered by their support team) that may be helpful if you go through a software transition.

One of the best things we did was to get our team as involved and informed as much as we could prior to the system change. There will obviously be some concerns on the part of your team members about the impact this transition will have on their jobs. Encourage questions. Communication is key. We tried to keep our staff informed and enthused about the forthcoming changes and it did help to keep frustrations to a workable level. Did I say encourage them to ask questions?

Prior to the change, review the data to be transferred to the new system for accuracy. Consider taking a physical inventory prior to the transition to minimize errors. Our former system did not report our finished orders inventory properly and, although we tried to minimize errors, several did transfer over to the new system. Garbage in, garbage out.

With respect to our routes, the transition has been one of steady progress. Weaning our drivers off a paper manifest is taking a bit longer than anticipated. In fact, to date we are still listing a paper manifest in addition to using the new systems capabilities. As time goes on, we are learning more about handling exception items and will soon begin to rely exclusively on the tablets. On the positive side, using the new client interaction capabilities has significantly reduced our driving time and mileage as most “empty” stops have been eliminated.

There were a couple of operational miscalculations I made going into the system change. One was the amount of time and effort it would take to input garment information into the system while barcoding. I really believed that within a six-week window we would see a significant reduction in the time it took to check garments in. Only now are we beginning to see the time savings benefits of barcoding because of the repetition of clothes we had processed previously. Secondly, I wish we had installed cameras when we initially transitioned to the new system. A very small investment in a webcam has helped to identify orphaned garments more rapidly and has reduced the time required to track down missing garments in our order assembly area. Oh well, better late than never.

All in all, I do believe this process was a success. We hit a few bumps along the way, but none have been insurmountable. The overall reaction by our customers has been extremely positive. In particular, clients seem to like the automated messaging features and the ability to track their orders. We are beginning to see improvement in our cash flow and order tracking has become much more efficient. There are a few minor procedural issues we continue to work on, but our understanding of SMRT and the resulting efficiency is improving on an almost daily basis.

To summarize, I am pleased we made the decision to upgrade our systems. It has been challenging and there have been frustrations along the way. In the long run, I am convinced the resulting improvement in client services and operational efficiencies will have been worth the investment. This entire process has been a very collaborative effort between our employees, our software vendor (especially their implementation team), and our hardware provider, PCLiquidations.com. With their help, this has been as seamless as it could have possibly been. If you would care to discuss the processes we went through during this transition, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me, after all, we’re all in this together! My e-mail address is info@sanddollarcleaners.com or you can message me though our Facebook page. I look forward to hearing from you.

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