As I reminisce about past ERP implementations, one continual struggle was cleaning up product data. ERP systems normally have a number of fields or attributes to categorize products. Usually these are simple, one-level categorization fields, as opposed to multi-level eCommerce taxonomy. Examples would be stock status, price line, selling group, general ledger group, reporting group, etc. The problem wasn’t teaching people how to use the software’s functions and features to do the cleanup; it was getting the right people to work together to complete the task because they couldn’t be further apart! The person with the deep tribal knowledge of the products and categorization was typically a seasoned industry veteran. The person who could manipulate the data quickly was a database analyst that was relatively young and probably had no knowledge of distribution or the products they sold. One looked at the other as a stubborn old timer while the other saw a young whippersnapper. It was always a challenge to get these two very different people to work well together.
As I look at an eCommerce implementation, I can draw some parallels. The system with deep tribal knowledge is the businesses’ ERP system and the “young whippersnapper” is the eCommerce system. The struggle is also the same: getting these two very different systems to work together.
It’s an absolute necessity to connect your ERP with your eCommerce site. The question is, how do you create that connectivity? There are two ways you can go about integrating your ERP system data with your digital commerce platform. The first is by creating the façade of integrated systems using data exports and batch imports to share and store information. The second is by using real-time APIs (which stands for application programming interfaces) to connect the systems and provide instantaneous updates. There are many reasons why integration using APIs is the better choice, but that’s not to say there aren’t instances when data exports/batch imports are a suitable solution.
Your ERP system is the main IT asset of your business; it manages and integrates critical data across the enterprise – from supply chain and operations to finance and human resources. Some of that data must be shared with a company’s eCommerce site so that it can access key information such as customer data, historical transactions, and, most importantly, pricing and availability.
Some distributors have an ERP-based eCommerce system, which relies solely on ERP data. Examples are Eclipse’s Web Order Entry system and Prophet 21’s B2B Seller. While these types of systems provide a direct integration to the ERP, I caution businesses from feeding just their ERP data to their site – especially product content. Most ERP product data lacks quality and detailed information buyers need to make a purchasing decision and can negatively affect their user experience.
Whether you have a standalone eCommerce platform or an ERP-based solution, an ERP feeds important data to those systems. The key is knowing which data and tasks on your eCommerce site necessitate real-time feeds using an API and which don’t. Just as important is knowing which system is the source system of record for the data in the first place. In the end, it comes down to having the right technology tool for the task. At Unilog, we do a very good job delineating what should be a real-time integration and what should be redundantly stored and rendered via an import/export.
Which data or tasks require real-time API calls?
As you look at the data that is fed into your website, there are critical touchpoints that must be displayed in real-time:
- Real-time pricing and availability
Buyers want to know that the price and availability information they see on your site is correct. If a price differs from your catalog or brick-and-mortar store, it can cause confusion, frustration, and potentially lose a sale. But, if your online stock availability doesn’t match what you actually have in your inventory, the consequences can be worse.
Let’s say a contractor customer receives a call from one of their customers that their boiler is not working and they have no hot water. In this emergency situation, the contractor checks your site to see if you have the specific relief valve needed to fix the problem. Your site says you do, so they place their order and arrange to pick it up at your store location. If the inventory data is not being fed to your site via a real-time API call, chances are the customer is looking at outdated quantity-on-hand information, which means you either have to call the customer to tell him you don’t have the part, or they find out the hard way when they show up to your store to pick up the item. You’ve not only wasted their time, you possibly lost a customer and their trust in your eCommerce system.
An ERP API prevents inconsistent or outdated pricing and availability by calling to the ERP system from your eCommerce system as opposed to updating your website with static ERP data. Moreover, it increases efficiency by taking the burden of manual updates out of the equation.
- Customer account information
Your customers want to know that if they log into your website portal to access their account, they will see real-time account information such as their open bids, current orders, and account balance. It’s just like with a personal credit card account. When you log in to your account, you can see all your transactions and payments up to the minute. Who doesn’t appreciate and, frankly, expect this type of real-time visibility? But the only way to create this immediate access to account information is by using a real-time API call to send the data from your ERP to your website.
Remember, day in and day out, your customers are placing orders, submitting RFQs (requests for quotes), and making payments, which is why they need to see this information in a real-time fashion.
While I’ve highlighted a few situations where real-time APIs are table stakes, there are instances where up-to-the-minute updates are not as critical. For example, say your company offers a rewards programs where customers earn points for purchases they make. I don’t feel rewards points necessitate a real-time API because your customers probably aren’t making purchases and then immediately checking their rewards points status. If it takes a day or two to update a customer’s points in their customer account, that’s usually acceptable to them. Sometimes export/imports are a more cost-effective solution for specific tasks and, at Unilog, we’re here to help identify those tasks for you.
The arguments (and rebuttals) for not integrating systems
You may say it is cost prohibitive to use an API for your ERP because you have an older system that does not have a public API available. I get it; some of these ERPs are from the 1970s and 80s and they may have functions and features that are industry-specific for you, so they can be hard (and expensive) to replace. Alternatively, it can also be expensive to hire someone to write an API for your ERP in order to make the integration happen.
At Unilog, we never question the ERP you use to run your business. We understand the technical debt you’ve incurred and the cost required to migrate from that system. We respect your decision to stay with your ERP, and that’s why we developed CP Broker, a cost-effective middleware solution for older or custom ERPs, as well as other disparate data sources that lack connectivity to eCommerce software. CP Broker bridges the gaps so you can offer real-time data across your systems without having to invest in a new ERP.
Our eCommerce platform is a powerful, all-in-one solution built specifically for small to midmarket distributors, manufacturers, and specialty hardgoods retailers. Flexible and scalable, our software integrates with a host of business applications including customer relationship management (CRM) systems, business intelligence tools, payment gateways, shipping carriers, and more than 17 ERP systems.
ERP integration is absolutely paramount to a successful site. It ensures consistent and accurate data across your systems, which supports an omnichannel experience your customers want. Beyond the advantages for your customers, ERP integration brings more agility and efficiency to your business. It’s a win-win situation. If you’d like to learn more about our ERP integrations with our award-winning eCommerce solution, drop us a line.