As the demands of consumers continue to increase, response handling and fulfilment company, Orbital, has equipped itself with he technology to keep pace. Thanks to a new end-to-end ERP system from multichannel retail specialist, Columbus, the organisation is providing its clients the enhanced flexibility and functionality they need to better serve their own customers. Its business base is expanding rapidly as a result.
Orbital Response is a division of Orbital Marketing Services Group. Established in 1972, the Orbital Group has become significant business, employing over 550 people in nine locations across the UK. The company was recently acquired by Menzies Distribution, a division of John Menzies plc. Originally a B2B operation serving the travel industry - delivering holiday brochures, airline timetables and other literature to travel agencies - the Orbital Group has evolved its services over the past 40 years in response to changing markets and customer demand.
The Orbital Response story began 12 years ago, when the company identified it needed to diversify further to capitalise on burgeoning mail order and, later, online shopping markets. “It became clear home shopping was increasing at such a rate, it needed to form a key part of our growth strategy,” explains Orbital Response Director, Nick Williams.
That strategy has borne fruit and today Orbital Response provides an extensive range of outsourced marketing services, from call centre operations, order processing for mail order and Internet retailing, to pick/pack/dispatch and direct mail services and a significant portion of business still comes from its roots in travel fulfilment. At peak times, the company processes up to 20,000 orders a day. Fortunately the busiest time for the travel industry (January), doesn’t coincide with the pre-Christmas peak for online and mail order fulfilment.
This number of transactions calls for some serious IT support and Williams says that over the years the business had acquired more than a dozen disparate systems to support its expanding range of services: “Some were off-the-shelf and others developed internally. They were doing different things but with areas of overlap and little or no integration. There were also the usual support issues inherent with legacy systems.” So in 2008, with growth on the agenda Orbital took the bold decision to invest in a new system - just as recession was starting to take hold. “Our system wasn’t broken as such,” explains Williams. “It just wasn’t quite fit for purpose; there was a lot of risk around it with duplication and unnecessary effort going in to it. We saw the potential for growth and the limitations of the existing infrastructure. It had served us well, but in order to drive the business growth we could see, with new clients, new services and new sectors we knew we needed to up our game.”
Because of the diversity of the Group, parts of the business remained robust during the economic downturn. “We were still making money, and the view was taken if we still want to be making money in five years, we invest now. And we’re very glad we did,” Williams says. Orbital decided to implement ColumbusMCR, a fully integrated ERP system built on Microsoft Dynamics AX. An end-to-end solution, ColumbusMCR provides comprehensive control over multi-channel sales, CRM, catalogue management, promotions, procurement, fulfilment, warehousing and customer service. The system is hosted at the company’s head office in Ashford, Kent, where its call centre is also based.The system operates across the two primary Orbital sites (Ashford and the main fulfilment in Rushden, Northamptonshire) with the potential to roll out to other locations. At peak times, the system has more than 70 users: orders entering via the call centre or third party websites, are processed in Ashford then called off by the team at Rushden. The business is able to provide for the different stock-holding requirements of clients - some hold stock at the Rushden site (or operate on a drop/ship basis), others deliver direct or use a third party distribution service.
Having a single integrated application running all areas of the business has created major efficiencies for the organisation. “We’ve had systems in the past that have been bolted on, or patched together, but now within a few mouse clicks the people in the call centre can see what’s in stock; what’s on purchase order; when it’s expected and so on. That’s a massive benefit.” Orbital Response had already decided its preferred option was to buy an off-the-shelf package and use in-house resources to customise and deliver bespoke enhancements for customers. “The alternatives were to buy another off the-shelf package managed by a third party; have a third party develop a bespoke system; or build one inhouse,” says Williams. “We had some skill in-house, plus we’d previously had some success subcontracting software development to India, but realistically ‘off-the-shelf’ was the most desirable solution for the business.” Williams’, firm belief is that the choice of implementation partner is at least as important as the system itself, and he has experience to back it up. “I didn’t think having a Microsoft system could ever be seen as a negative,” he explains. “But we did come across one potential client who liked our pitch, how we worked and our pricing, but because they’d had such a negative experience with a Dynamics AX reseller previously, they wouldn’t entertain the idea of working with us. You cannot underestimate how important it is to choose the right implementation partner. It is critical, absolutely critical.” Williams says that technology has been a deciding factor in winning the last half dozen contracts - some of them, very significant. Indeed, although the original priority was for Orbital to migrate its existing 50 customers to the new system, the first company to be transferred to the system was in fact a new client. Having itself recently implemented a Microsoft CRM package, which integrates closely with Dynamics AX, Orbital’s new system was a big tick in the box for them.
The move to the new system began with the warehouse management system in January 2009. With all stock transferred to the ColumbusRetail solution, the plan was to move customers over during a nine-month period. “There was no desperate rush and we wanted to make sure it was a planned and measured process,” says Williams. “But this new client win meant things were brought forward (it went live in April). “It was a bit earlier than we’d planned, but there was little point setting up a new client on an old system, which we planned to shut down six to nine months later. Actually, it was good to be given a bit of impetus and it certainly didn’t present any problems for Columbus or the system.” On the other hand, the migration to the new system was frustrated by the fact business was going so well. “We were winning new clients, and anything new immediately had to go on to the new system. In the end it took about two years before we finally switched off our old system.” Orbital’s customers, however, were unaware of the delay, and the move over to the new system went seamlessly. “We only told clients it was happening once we were ready. They were very happy with the service they were getting and the move to the new system didn't impact their business, other than enabling them to access additional functionality that wasn’t available before.”
A few years on Williams acknowledges that significant investment was required and has no regrets: “Ongoing support and improvement are part of the cost of doing business these days and it’s very difficult to do without it; and don’t forget we have to think about the service we are providing for our clients’ customers. “I would describe it as one of the best decisions we ever made. If we wound back the clock, there are some things in hindsight we’d do differently, but would the basic decisions remain the same? Certainly. And would we still buy the ColumbusRetail system? Absolutely.” The relationship between Columbus and Orbital is very positive. The two organisations have even partnered on other projects, with Columbus providing the front-end and back-office for customer websites and Orbital Response, the fulfilment services. “One client we pitched to last year was just implementing Dynamics AX and ColumbusMCR in their call centre. Using the same software from the same supplier reinforced their buying decision.” A key selling point of the ColumbusRetail system was its ability to allow Orbital Response to add its own enhancements and create bespoke functionality. “As a fulfilment house, a lot of what we do is clientdriven,” explains Williams. “Different clients want different things. For example, some want stock lists that show back orders, others want them to display suppliers, or how much stock has been used in the last week, and so on. “When catering for new requirements previously we were dependent on software suppliers to write specifications for additional functionality, which would inevitably be costly and timeconsuming because we were relying on external resource, and briefs were often misinterpreted. Now, we’ve got the flexibility to offer this in-house, so we write our own specifications and have a much greater level of understanding, allowing us to better meet client needs - and more quickly.”
Reporting has been a key area of improvement, with over 100 variations developed as a result. “Because the data exists in underlying SQL tables, we are able to manipulate it exactly as the client wants it to display. And all these reports are available in real-time via an online portal.” The real-time capabilities of the system have allowed Orbital to meet the growing expectations of tech-savvy consumers. “We have highly customisable automated emails for confirming orders, dispatch of products and so on, so our clients can improve customer communication and keep the end recipient up-to-date with their order.” Ultimately this has allowed Orbital to strategically expand its reach in to new markets and win new customers. Just five years ago the organisation leant heavily towards free literature fulfilment, with only 30% of its business coming from home shopping and mail order. Now more than 60% of business comes from this sector. “It’s allowed us to expand our client base. If we hadn’t made the change, we wouldn’t have retained some of our clients and we couldn’t have pitched for some of our contracts, let alone win them.” Orbital Response is handling more transactions now, but Williams believes the real benefit has been in what the business can offer. “We have the capability to handle more complex requirements now. That’s helped us to extend our work with certain clients. For example, several major charities began as simple mail order fulfilment clients, but we have been working with them to establish a web service whereby volunteers working in their High Street shops can request stock, which is then fulfilled from the charity’s or our own warehouse.”
Orbital has also been able to offer its charity clients the option to sell higher value items such as design label clothing, not available on the shop floor, which are then delivered to the customer’s local store ready for collection. It is additional functionality like this that has enabled Orbital to deliver exactly what the customer is looking for. “Having modern technology that’s well supported
and has a good track record sets us apart from the competition. It has delivered the flexibility and capability to meet ever-changing client demand in today’s fast-paced environment.”
The ColumbusRetail system will continue to grow and evolve with Orbital Response, as it expands its customer offering further still. Whilst Williams is staying tight-lipped about exactly what the company has planned, he does reveal greater integration with third parties is on the cards. Watch this space.