IT execs prod more value from transactions

IT executives from retail and manufacturing companies agreed yesterday that customer relationship management systems mesh well with supply chain data to keep costs down and increase business opportunities. But retailers have an advantage over heavy manufacturers, despite having far more customers to track, they said.

Speaking at Computerworld's annual Premier 100 conference here, Roger Gurnani, CIO of Verizon Wireless Inc., said his company has been able to use data on more than 29 million customers to develop programs to cut wireless user turnover, create new services, control inventories and better manage product obsolescence. The heart of the decision-making data stems from Bedminster, N.J.-based Verizon's billing system, he said.

"All our front-office systems tie directly to our centralized billing system," Gurnani said.

But it's not enough to link point-of-sale (POS) systems into the billing program, said Gurnani. To get the full benefit, Verizon links its POS transactions to supplier inventories so products can move directly from the cell phone maker to specific retail outlets.

The Men's Warehouse Inc. uses its POS application "as the focal point for customer information," said Jeff Marshall, CIO at the Houston-based retailer.

Marshall's firm is integrating the individual customer POS transaction data, which goes back a dozen years, into back-end systems so sales managers in its 700-plus retail stores can see what future inventory will be carried. That way, he said, store managers can help customers "plan for future buys by knowing what's coming out of inventory."

For Eastman Chemical Co., it's much more difficult to get to know customers, said CIO Jerry Hale. That's because his business makes products for companies that sell them to the ultimate end user.

"We don't really understand our customers' customer or our suppliers' supplier," he said.

However, according to Hale, the Kingsport, Tenn.-based company has shifted 13% of its sales to online, conducting more than 2 million electronic transactions. That's helped Eastman Chemical hold more inventory in the supply chain and reduce mistakes in order entry.

Richard Fishburn, vice president and CIO at Corning Inc. in Corning, N.Y., agreed. "Our customer is the customer of another customer," he said. "It's difficult to know their expectations."

However, customer information can be used something other than developing new business or increasing existing business.

"One of the most important things IT can do is identify the customer you don't want," Fishburn said. That ability is particularly important for Corning, where a plant's manufacturing processes can be expensive to dedicate to an unwanted customer, he said.

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