Integrating Customer Portals into End-to-End Supply Chain Processes

There have been many ways that companies have attempted to exchange data and information with their trading partners over the years. One more recent method is through online customer portals. While these portals are meant to replace the manual processing of faxes and emails, they create their own integration challenges. What are some of those challenges? How are digital networks helping companies integrate customer portals into their end-to-end processes? And what are the benefits? Those are some of the questions I discussed with Gary Neights, Senior Director, Product Management at Elemica, during a recent episode of Talking Logistics.

Why portals?

When people talk about sharing data, electronic data interchange (EDI) immediately comes to mind. But online portals now offer certain benefits over EDI transactions, as well as some new challenges. I asked Gary for some insights on portal use in the process industry.

According to Gary there are three types of portals: supplier portals, logistics portals and customer portals. “Supplier and logistics portals are primarily used by procurement organizations to get materials and logistics assets,” says Gary. “They control the portals and try to drive suppliers to use them because it automates their processes and reduces their costs. Suppliers don’t always like to use the portals because it can be extra work for them.

“Customer portals are run by customer service so their smaller customers have a way to place their orders, much like when you go to Amazon to buy something,” continues Gary. “Customers don’t always like to use them because of the extra work, but they will go to get visibility and the status of their orders.”

Portal challenges

I asked Gary to elaborate on the challenges. He says, “Think of the customer service reps who have to go to five or ten portals every day to check for orders. They have to remember the login IDs and passwords for each, and management has to train replacements on those things when a CSR is absent. The other challenge is translating customer data values into your data values. There’s a lot of moving parts.”

Digital Network Advantages

Connecting with multiple customer portals is similar to connecting to multiple trading partners, which is a key benefit of digital networks. I asked Gary how digital networks could help companies integrate customer portals into their end-to-end processes.

Gary explains that by integrating once to a digital network, customers gain access to all the trading partners on the network and the network is pre-integrated to the major customer portals and ERP systems on the backend. This way suppliers don’t have to manually log in to multiple customer portals. The order automatically flows through the network into their ERP.

“If you consider there may be a thousand suppliers who might have to integrate to a customer portal, and they can instead do one integration to the network, that’s a huge savings for them and the industry,” says Gary.

Another aspect of these interactions is the data translation issues Gary mentioned earlier. Gary notes, for example, “the same part number may mean different units of measure at different locations. Or a CSR may know that for a particular customer if the order is for over 5,000 lbs. send it in a tote and if it is less than 5,000 lbs. send it in a drum. So when you do the integration to the portals you have to put in those data translation elements because every company has their own business rules. It has to be scalable and configurable.”

Network Benefits

Gary next discussed some of the benefits he sees from using digital networks. He says customer service reps like it because they don’t have to keep querying multiple portals. “Their efficiency and job satisfaction go up while training costs go down. There is also typically an 8%-10% reduction in errors by eliminating keystrokes.

“The company has better visibility and reporting because the data is translated and normalized. There are also reductions in waste and working capital since companies tend to keep extra inventory to buffer for the errors and data problems that now can be eliminated without negatively impacting service levels.”

Moving up the maturity curve

How can companies assess where they are on the maturity curve in using digital networks? What next steps should they take to move up that curve? (Hint: explore your “touchless” connections.) I encourage you to watch the full video for Gary’s insights and advice on these questions and more. Then post a comment and share your own thoughts and experiences related to portals and how to best integrate them into your end-to-end processes.