Tough IT decisions for U.S. company expanding into Canada
by Stefan Dubowski –  With its old-fashioned customer order-selection system, Cleveland-based light supplier Lighting Max Inc. realized it would never get to expand into Canada. But even after updating the order-taking technology, the firm didn’t exactly have the easiest time convincing customers to use it.

It’s a classic situation: better technology, potential time savings, faster processing – reluctant users. “Just because it’s better doesn’t mean they’re going to say, ‘Yes, we’re going to do it,’” says Steven Shaffer, Lighting Max’s CEO. So how did this company convince end users to embrace the new technology? Patience and some difficult decisions definitely played important roles.

The old order-selection system (1999 – 2006) was relatively simple, and built for an era in which broadband connectivity was far from ubiquitous: customers (home builders, designers, and electricians) had Lighting Max applications on their computers. They’d create the orders in the apps, and the programs would generate PDFs, which could be e-mailed to Lighting Max, where clerks would manually recreate the order in the company’s ERP system, built on technology from Winward Software Inc. in Penticton, B.C.

But this was time consuming, and it invited data processing errors. The PDFs didn’t always sport the same prices that the ERP system had – if the customer’s client-side application hadn’t been updated for a while, the prices would be out of date, and Lighting Max would have to default to the customers’ prices.

“To do updates was a real pain in the butt,” Shaffer says. “I used a program called LogMeIn Rescue, so I wouldn’t have to go out to the site to do the updates. But you had to schedule the time to do that with the person, and we had 50 or 60 computers in the field we had to update.”

Adding more computers to the system would have been difficult. So when Lighting Max decided it was time to expand northward and open a Toronto office, the company knew it had to update the order-selection platform.

“We were in Cincinnati and Charlotte, and we had a handful of customers in each,” Shaffer says. “But it was a huge obstacle to move forward and update anyone’s systems. Coming up here… added more complexity. The U.S. has a simpler tax system. Here, the tax system with the GST, PST and HST was more difficult. Add duty to it and the exchange rate, and you really had to have an online program that can address everything and have one place to do the updates.”

Lighting Max worked with Stow, Ohio-based IT services company AtNetPlus, which developed an XML import mechanism, allowing users to select orders online, and have their choices sent directly to the ERP system. “There was a lot of testing back and forth” between AtNetPlus and Winward, Shaffer says. “That was huge. It took them about a month” to find the right formula, he explains.

It certainly works now, and “it’s a pleasure,” Shaffer says. Prices are always correct, and there’s little room for data-processing errors.

Still, that doesn’t mean all of the customers were happy to use the new system.“All of a sudden they had to learn a different program – even though the program was obviously easier,” Shaffer says.

It took time to get the customers on board. “We would go out and demo the program… and walk them through the different steps. They wanted us to come for the first few sales. We would sit down with them and go through the sales with them. Not everybody needed it. Ironically, some of our best salespeople from the customers needed to have their hands held more than others. But they got it.”

Unfortunately, Lighting Max also had to make a tough decision: just one of the 60 or so customers didn’t have high-speed Internet access by this time, and wouldn’t be able to use the new order-selection platform. Lacking the resources to continue support for the previous offline system, Lighting Max essentially cut the client off. “They weren’t the biggest customer,” Shaffer says. “That was pretty key.”

Shaffer says the company saves about 35 minutes per order now. And it’s easier to add new customers – important as the firm ramps up its Canadian operations, where the company expects to grow substantially. The Toronto office has been open since early 2009, and so far Lighting Max has added 10 new partners, focused on the Greater Toronto Area for the time being.

Despite the state of the economy, the move to Canada still makes sense, Shaffer says. Compared to various U.S. municipalities, Canada’s biggest city is relatively stable. “I knew the economy would go down, but when they’re doing 22,000 building permits a year, that’s the envy of anyone down south.”