What Should I Expect from an Inventory Management System?
Ask anyone who’s waited longer than they should to get prescription glasses, and they’ll probably describe the experience in terms of what their life was like before, and what it was like after. A theme will emerge, they didn’t realize how much they weren’t seeing. Similarly, if you’ve never incorporated an inventory management system into your business (or are still using the free plug-in for your accounting software), you can expect one thing to change as soon as you get one up and running: you’re going to see more. A lot more. You may not like everything that comes into focus, but it will forever change the way you do business.
When you strip away all the features, interfaces, devices and file menus, your inventory management system (IMS) is made up of one core building block: data. Data is the lifeblood of almost every digital application that’s ever been created. How you choose to view, interpret and eventually leverage your data is going to be the deciding factor in whether or not your business grows as a result of having implemented an IMS. Here we’re going to get into some of the more common ways that data takes shape, and how you’ll actually put it into practice.
Reporting. Simply put, you won’t find a single IMS anywhere in the world that doesn’t generate reports. The types and complexity of those reports will vary greatly, but the feature that sets the good providers apart from the mediocre ones is the ability to customize those reports. While you’re still in the process of evaluating IMS providers, raise your hand at some point during the sales presentations and ask them to walk you through the process of customizing a template, or creating a new report from scratch. If it’s something they’re good at, they’ll show you how those features work, and they’ll probably highlight a few other bells and whistles. However, if they mumble through a few quick answers and then pivot back to what they were talking about earlier, mark that down and circle it in red.
Notifications. If a report tells you about a thing when you want to know about it, a notification tells you about it when you need to know about it. Most of the non-freeware IMS providers have some form of notification system in place, but similar to the reports we talked about above, the ones that allow you to specify how you want to be notified are the ones you want to pay attention to. If one of your field sales reps only checks his emails a couple times a day but responds to text messages within minutes, that’s where her low-inventory notifications need to go. On the other hand, if her office sales counterpart never has any more than two unread emails in his Inbox, that’s where his overdue shipment alerts need to show up. One way or another, alerts and notifications need to be intrusive about getting your attention, and if the system you’re looking at doesn’t allow each individual user to specify what that means to them, you may need to keep shopping.
Downstream visibility. If the IMS provider(s) you’re looking at use QR codes to tag everything (instead of just bar codes), you’ve got a powerful new tool to evaluate. QR codes are nothing more than a visual/scannable representation of a website address, but that website stays up-to-date (and can keep you up-to-date) with important information about the products you’ve sold. For instance if the warranties are about to expire on a product you sold to fifteen different clients BUT you knew in advance to email them the renewal offers because your sales manager set up the right notifications, that’s the kind of customer service you want to be known for.
Software integrations. For three simple reasons, IMS providers that are already setup to integrate with a wide range of other software applications should be valued above those that aren’t: they’re time-consuming, they’re difficult, and they’re expensive. Why do you care? Because the provider that offers out-of-the-box integrations has been around longer than their competitors, they’ve (probably) got better software engineers, and they’ve got more capital to invest in their platform. If you don’t need it now and there’s a good chance you won’t need it in the future, this is a feature you can skip and save yourself a little budget, but if your operation is growing steadily (and that trend looks like it’s going to continue), this is going to save you a lot of headaches down the road.
Forecasting. This is your proverbial “crystal ball.” In ‘ye olden times, wrinkled, grizzled old soothsayers would roll the bones, read the tea leaves and extract meaning from rune stones pulled from oiled leather satchels in order to advise the ruler of the land. Now though we use algorithms and industry analysts and the whole thing works a helluva lot better. Some platforms offer it, others don’t, but what you’re paying for here is that little bit of advantage over your competitors when it comes time to determine what inventory you should have but don’t, versus what you do have and should probably get rid of. Make no mistake this is not an inexpensive feature, but if you can afford it, buy it, and hire as many smart people as you can afford to use it.
Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of assuming that because you benefit from implementing a new IMS, everyone will.
Foot-dragging. If your warehouse guys are still pulling orders with tickets printed on transfer paper (metaphorically speaking), you’ve got some work ahead of you. Depending on how you lead your troops into battle you may pitch them on all the ways this new system will make their jobs easier, or you just might tell them this is the way things are and if they’ve got a problem with it don’t let the doorknob hit ‘em in the ass on the way out, but you’re making a change to the way people do their jobs every day, and some folks just aren’t going to like it. When those people complain, do NOT tell them they’re wrong. Validate their opinion, remind them how important they are to the organization, and steer them back in the direction of how this new system benefits them and all the coworkers that depend on them. Time and perseverance are your two strongest allies in this fight.
You might find a few things you didn’t want to see. For generations, writers have been told by older, more experienced writers to, “murder their darlings,” and like it or not you may have to do the same thing. The idea here is that at some point along the way you may have come up with a new idea for the business that by all outside appearances is doing well (“…this eCommerce channel is going to KILL our competition!”), but is actually failing spectacularly and needs to be stopped as soon as possible. Centralized, analyzed, cold hard data is unbelievably good at shining a light on bad ideas, and revealing them for the stinkers that they are. Swallow your pride, pull the plug, and put that money back into the areas of your business that made you successful.
Job elimination. This is the hard part. You got into this business to do good work and to surround yourself with good people, but moving things forward means occasionally leaving a few of those people behind, and unfortunately, that’s life. Retrain and reassign as best as you can, and just remind yourself that you’re never going to get the entire herd from this watering hole to the next one.
Circling back around to one of the points we made at the beginning of the article, implementing a new IMS system is (conceptually) nothing more than extracting data from your organization and leveraging it to grow your business – and the old “garbage in, garbage out” adage has never been more true than it is here. The consequences of choosing the wrong system (or implementing the right one poorly) could be very costly to your business, so take your time, ask LOTS of questions, and when the time comes, listen to the story your data tells you.