At the annual user conference of Epicor Software, aptly called Insights, we saw their strategy for bringing along their customers as they continue to modernize their rich portfolio of mid-market enterprise solutions.
Full Article Below -
In his opening keynote address at Epicor Insights 2016, President and CEO Joe Cowan said that the theme of the conference was growth: new sales, profit, products, industries, and geographies. He introduced their new tag line—“Grow business, Not software,” which reflects the company’s move to the cloud, as well as their sensitivity to their customers’ mid-market IT budgets. He went on to say, “Everything is done with an eye to the cloud,” that Epicor will be a ‘cloud-first’ company, and that all of their major products will have the ability to move to the cloud. He clarified that last statement by saying that while Epicor offers a number of solutions in the cloud today, other solutions are coming in the future. Of those, some products will be multi-tenant (requiring re-architecting in most cases) and some will be single tenant (i.e. simply hosting a single tenant version for each customer). He also laid out many other dimensions of modernization of their technology stack and service offerings.
Achieving this pivot to the cloud has not been a simple task. Over the past four decades, Epicor has built up a rich portfolio of industry-specific ERP functionality—aimed primarily at mid-market manufacturers, distributors, and retailers.1 The company’s core ERP solutions were largely developed prior to the Internet/SaaS age. Their customers are in many cases content to stay on older versions of the product (“if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”). However, their customers also don’t want to miss out on the latest technology advances such as cloud, mobile, BI, social networking, and so forth. This tension is the backdrop for much of the Epicor strategy.
Epicor was actually one of the first of the traditional on premise ERP vendors to take the leap to offer a true multi-tenant SaaS architecture solution as Epicor ERP was launched in December 2008 ‘multi-tenant ready.’ Epicor tested the market for SaaS with the launch of Epicor Express in 2010 geared to very small manufacturers and soon realized that the appetite and need for true cloud ERP was broader than that. The latest version of their full featured ERP system, Epicor ERP, is architected to support multi-tenancy (or on premise, if desired) at every layer. Furthermore, in driving to be a ‘cloud-first’ company, Epicor is moving from their traditional 12-18 month release cycles to eventually get to more frequent releases.
Joe Cowan pointed out that moving to the cloud wasn’t just about changing the architecture of their software (not to diminish the size of that task), but also putting in place new accounting systems, the ability to do subscription billing, and incorporating data center capabilities with high security, high availability, failover capabilities, and everything needed to meet strict enterprise-grade SLAs.2 He said, “The amount of investment we are doing is the real news. We are positioning this company to become truly a cloud company.” He added, “We have 20,000 customers using about 60 different products. Some of those products will be growth products, others will be maintenance. We are committed to providing roadmaps and paths for our customers to move forward. Most don’t want to switch platforms overnight. Yet they want to add ecommerce, mobile, and business intelligence. So, we will continue to add on and extend the life of those platforms where it makes sense. But you reach a point when a platform is 20-25 years old, they need a path forward. We have put together a technology center in India to help with that migration. We are working on having crisp sharp implementations that help them get up and running quicker. This requires a massive change in the organization and massive investment in the infrastructure.”
Reducing Implementation Times: Customization vs. Standard Configurations
In the past, Epicor tended to leverage the inherent flexibility of their platform to customize it to work in whatever way the customers wanted. They are consciously changing to a more prescriptive, pre-configured template-driven approach, with standard integrations. They said that by leveraging industry templates, they have reduced implementation times by 40%. They also have more phased implementations, to get rapid time-to-value with a more focused footprint and then build on that in phase 2 and 3.
Investments in Service and Support
Cowan talked about the changes he’s been leading since taking over the firm almost three years ago. Most of the changes he talked about were not about new functionality. He showed a quote from Michael LeBoeuf—“A satisfied customer is the best business strategy of all”—and used that to talk about how he’s changed the performance metrics of senior management so that a portion of their compensation is based on customer satisfaction. He said Epicor is working on becoming easier to do business with, unifying their multiple support systems into one system called EpiCare, working on ease of implementation via templates and services, and making their products simpler and easier to use. Epicor now has about 1,000 consultants and 1,000 support personnel3 helping to implement best practices.
They are also making efforts to listen and better understand areas needing improvement by doing Voice-of-Customer surveys (2,500 responses last year) and many other ways of getting customer inputs, and putting in place a closed loop process to ensure that changes attempted are actually taking hold. They are constantly measuring their Net Promoter Score and working on improving it. In fact, they are trying to take a data/metrics-driven approach to drive improvements—measuring all aspects of their customer’s experience, not just the support experience, but overall ease of doing business, quality, success of implementation services, and so forth.
A New CTO in Town
Cowan introduced Himanshu Palsule, the new CTO of Epicor (formerly the CTO of Sage). Palsule talked about different dimensions of the Epicor technology strategy. He said they will provide some ability to customize in cloud versions, but not the same amount as found in the on premise version. He described their use of ‘separation of concerns’ principles, dividing their architecture into three distinct layers: 1) user interface/device layer, 2) business logic, 3) backend database and reporting/analytics. This in turn supports their mobility strategy, where they are using a mix of HTML5 and OS-native code for the UI using RESTful APIs with token-based authentication to integrate the mobile devices into each of their major systems.
Palsule discussed how today’s enterprise users are placing a premium on simplicity, removing complexity. I agree and believe we are seeing an industry-wide awakening on this point, especially among the more mature solution providers, who have built up deep and rich functionality over the years, but who are being challenged by newer providers with cleaner, simpler paradigms of use. What good is all that rich functionality if very few people are able to use it! Palsule said that when Epicor has taken their own rich functionality and simplified it, often their users will say, ‘thank you for those new features you added.’ He said they are taking user experience very seriously and will be creating usability labs. And he said it’s not just about product usability, but the whole ease of doing business with Epicor—implementation, integration, installation, and support.
Integration and Migration
Epicor knows it can’t do everything and that getting to that ‘last mile’ of specific, specialized functionality often requires integrating with specialized partners, both cloud and on premise. Palsule said they are working at exposing more APIs with more granularity, while locking down and deprecating some areas that could cause problems with future releases, adding, “We can’t leave customization trap doors that don’t survive upgrades.”
Keith Cote, Director of IT at Epicor customer UFP Technologies, talked about how they leveraged the pre-integration of Epicor ERP with ADP payroll and how they integrated Epicor with their EDI, time sheet system, Salesforce, and other systems they were using. Keith said the integration was relatively easy and allows them to combine data from their ERP system with these other apps, such as compare payroll hours accrued with the time recorded in the manufacturing system, to accurately capture all of their costs. Another Epicor customer, McDougall Energy, talked about the ease of converting from Epicor ERP version 9 to version 10. Epicor continues to invest in building tools to make these conversions and migrations less painful and easier.
Epicor has a ‘Social Enterprise Framework’ which is currently built into Epicor ERP. This allows employees to tag the ERP entity or transaction they are interest in, such as a customer, supplier, order, and so forth, to then be notified whenever something happens related to that entity. For example, when ‘following’ a customer, you might get notified each time they make a purchase, take a delivery, call support, get put on credit hold, etc. The framework also allows users to collaborate around transactions, such as an engineering change notification or a service ticket, with back-and-forth messages between the parties to be associated with that transaction or object. Epicor provides their own ‘Social Network Client,’ but the system is architected to be able to plug in other social network clients as well. Architecturally it can allow participation by external partners, such as suppliers, customers, and service providers, but first Epicor is working on strengthening the security mechanism to ensure that those external parties can only see what they are authorized to access.
The latest release of Epicor ERP has a wide range of specialized capabilities. I’ll cover just a couple to give a flavor of the kinds of things it can do. I saw a demo of Configurator. The demo simulated a manufacturer of picture frames who set up their website so their customers (or sales rep) could easily see and select the picture frame size, material, type of glass, and so forth from drop down menus. The manufacturer could set up their own rules using formulas and look up tables about what combinations of configurations to offer and what’s valid. For example, once the user selects a certain size frame, it could restrict the available materials to only those available for that size (or vice-versa). If desired, for each unique configuration, the Configurator can dynamically create a corresponding unique part number to be used in the order, without adding all those unique part numbers to the part master.4 When I asked what kind of Epicor clients were using this tool, the first example given was a boat manufacturer, and other examples were a provider of equipment for restaurants and bars, and energy companies. A capability like this could be an important differentiator for certain types of mid-sized manufacturer that needed it but could not afford to buy a full blown CPQ5 system.
Manifest is another example of a specific capability needed by some mid-sized manufacturers and wholesale distributors. It provides automated multi-carrier shipping for both parcel and LTL6 shipments. It can generate international paperwork for ground shipments,7 such as NAFTA certification. It provides support for ACE8 compliance (electronic submission), kicking in just for those shipments that need to be entered into ACE (e.g. going outside of North America and greater than $2,500 in value). It actually takes the user out of the Epicor system and over to the federal government’s online ACE portal, pre-populating the fields there with information extracted from the Epicor system. It also lets the user compare rates to pick the most economical carrier and mode. This is a useful system for someone with these kinds of ground transportation management needs, without having to buy a full-blown TMS system which could be overkill for many Epicor mid-sized customers.
Bringing Their Customers into the 21st Century
While many of the solutions Epicor delivers were born in the 20th century, they have been making major investments to modernize their solutions and provide a path and tools to bring their customers along. When it’s time for customers to replace an older system that no longer meets their needs, there is a real danger for the incumbent solution provider to lose that customer. Epicor is working hard to make sure that moving to the latest and greatest Epicor solution is the path of least resistance (and best results) for their existing customers. It seems many of their customers appreciate how Epicor is helping them advance and grow their own businesses.