– Renee Thomas, Director of U.S. Sales and Field Marketing (http://www.esker.com), says:

It is nearly impossible to evaluate any aspect of the current business environment without first considering the lingering impact of the global financial crisis. In its immediate wake, companies large and small were forced to make drastic changes, many of them having to adjust their staff count downwardly to cut costs and stay competitive.

Consider customer service (CS) management: although modern order processing is largely technology-driven, it still requires a significant amount of human intervention to ensure accurate order fulfillment, keep hardware and software systems running smoothly, and maintain customer satisfaction. When the economy came to a crashing halt in 2008, a chain reaction was set off. Weary and cash-strapped customers stopped ordering from companies; in turn, these companies, needing fewer employees to process orders, reduced their headcount.

But that was then and this is now. Things are all back to normal, right? Any company that processes customer orders knows that “business as usual” is anything but. While the still-delicate global economy has rebounded to a reasonable level of stability, new challenges are emerging for companies as order volumes creep back to pre-crisis levels and the need for a secure and sustainable business model grows greater than ever.

Identifying the Unique Challenges Facing CS Management

More orders, less revenue

The good news is that the economy’s slowly-but-surely bounce back has resulted in more order volumes for many CS management teams. The bad news is that, for a lot of companies, the orders being received are for much lower amounts making the impact to the bottom line much less. To make things even trickier, some companies’ customers are actually placing orders more often than they did pre-crisis but for less dollar amounts tied to each order. Since every new order coming in needs to be processed, this means more time, effort and resources have to be utilized, impacting everything from first-call resolution and customer satisfaction to workflow balance and order accuracy.

Headcount balancing act

Because a majority of companies still process a significant percentage of sales orders manually (i.e., using paper), it would seem like the logical solution would be to hire more people in order to compensate for the increase in orders. However, when volume is high but the revenue it generates is less, it’s hard to justify bringing in additional staff members. After all, making sure you have the right number of CS representatives to avoid downtime or overload is hard enough in “normal” circumstances.

Therein lies the central dilemma. Companies are coming to terms with the need to support their order growth as the economy recovers, but can’t necessarily rationalize or afford to dial up headcount. It begs the question: how do you manage growing order volumes with fewer people to process them?

The madness of “manual”

While the first two challenges are relatively new developments born out of the aftermath of an economic crash,  countless CS management teams have always, and are still, hobbled by an ever-present third obstacle that has become more transparent in this new age of efficiency — manual order processing.

Companies that task their CS staff with time-consuming and labor-intensive activities (e.g., picking up, collating, distributing, entering, retrieving paper orders, etc.) know that on any given day they might have to pay the price in returns, restocking, credit notes, write-offs, wasted materials, additional shipping costs and customer dissatisfaction from any of the errors brought on by manual touch points. Even simple changes to an order or trying to track down an order (on the fax machine, at the printer, with a CS rep, etc.) can throw an expensive wrench into the system. With emphasis on cost-control and efficiency amplified, it is easy to see why manual order processing is a proverbial millstone around the necks of so many companies.

Why Sales Order Automation Makes Sense

Order automation is rapidly gaining attention for its ability to erase many of the ever-present obstacles in today’s CS world. By boosting productivity (multiplying the number of orders that can be processed per person/per hour), automation solutions allow CS management to: a) gain visibility into order volumes, b) enhance the ability to accurately forecast and measure workload, c) free up CS reps from manually entering order data and shuffling around paper to focus more on the customer, and d) avoid the costs of hiring additional staff. In short, order automation can lead to processing more orders, in less time, and with the same (or sometimes fewer) resources.

One worldwide manufacturer that processes over 300,00 orders annually leveraged an inbound sales order automation solution to reduce its processing time from hours to only 5-10 minutes. Prior to implementing the automation solution, this company employed 23 CS reps to handle the manual entry of each order line item. The reps were constantly being bogged down with key order entry, which placed a strain on resources and negatively affected customer satisfaction. After considering hiring more people, the company instead chose to automate the process, leading to an improved customer experience, increased speed and fewer errors. Order entry accuracy can rise to virtually 100 percent with automation, resulting in less reprocessing and fewer returns that can have a heavy impact to the bottom line.

Not so Fast … the Downside of EDI

Despite the availability of mature and proven technology to automate sales order processing and countless success stories of industry peers, companies across the country and around the world continually stick with antiquated manual order processing methods. Why? A lot of the hesitancy falls squarely on the shoulders of one pesky acronym: EDI.

Customers unwilling or unable to use EDI

Originally predicted to be the easy-to-use and universal alternative to fax, electronic data interchange (EDI) has not created the rosy reality we all envisioned. The fact is, a lot of customers are simply unwilling or unable to leverage EDI, insisting on sending orders via fax or email instead. Larger corporations may have the sway to bully their customers into using EDI, but small to mid-size businesses are forced to accept fax and email orders rather than refuse business (really, who’s going to turn down an order?). The bottom line is that no one is able to get 100 percent of their customers to switch to EDI. This forces companies to process orders in a number of different ways, negating much of the efficiency EDI was meant to create.

Different formats/templates/layouts

Even if you do have customers using EDI, it’s not uncommon for them to alter the format of their EDI transmissions. Plus, only a small number of customers actually use the EDI 850 standard purchase order format, which is essential for ensuring optimal results. To handle all of the different order layouts, companies will often invest in different tools/technologies that command large sums of time and money to implement and maintain, and place a strain on the IT staff that have to go in and modify the formats. The lag time it can take IT to modify a customer’s EDI format can be days or weeks, causing the individuals at the order entry level to print the EDI transmissions and manually input them — a very time-consuming process.

Turning Fax and Email into EDI-like Process

After learning about the difficulties of EDI, it’s not surprising that so many companies are cold to the idea. But that doesn’t mean hope should be abandoned. After all, order volumes are still going up for a lot of CS management teams and the ability to stay competitive hasn’t become any less important. Resorting to the default method of hiring more staff will help your ability to process more paper, yes, but does nothing to address the underlying problem.

Companies must accept that fax and email orders are inevitable, and therefore, pursue a strategic solution that does the same — one that more efficiently and cost-effectively processes fax and email orders. Such a platform (implemented either through in-house software, or via the cloud) should have the capability to:

§  Go beyond fax/email and provide visibility into the entire process

§  Have front-end setup (so if a customer calls to place an order you can enter it there as well)

§  Work with existing systems you have already invested in

§  Convert fax/email orders into EDI, essentially treating all orders the same

§  Overcome the limitations of OCR and multiple templates with intelligent technology, such as Esker’s patented Dynamic Document Capture, which reads documents, grabs relevant information (e.g., PO number, etc.), and actually gets smarter the more it’s used

§  Achieve 100% throughput to handle exceptions and manage all of your orders on a unified platform (so you have full view at the individual order level of where an order is the moment it comes in)

§  Bring together all the necessary functionality for unified customer communications

The ideal solution would be able to capture data from orders received by fax, mail, email and print as well as electronic documents. For example, Esker Sales Order Processing solutions not only support existing EDI structures, they enables companies to leverage additional value from them by expanding the range of information sources from which EDI files can be generated. These types of solutions help businesses fill the EDI automation gap and increase the percentage of order volume processed via EDI to gain additional efficiencies without altering their existing business procedures or IT infrastructures. Companies are able to treat all of their customers, large and small, as EDI-enabled — even if they are not. And for non-EDI transactions, order information can be fed directly into ERP applications via Business Application Programming Interface (BAPI) mechanisms.


To recap, CS management teams are continuing to shake off the effects of the last half-decade’s economic turbulence. Order volumes are on the rise, but do not necessarily warrant the need to re-staff. It’s in this “limbo” stage of uncertainty and opportunity where decisions are made ever-the-more important because they can mean the difference between falling behind and forging ahead. Fortunately, novel approaches to managing order volumes and staying competitive — such as a unified platform that goes beyond fax and email — are emerging, and act not only as an immediate boost but as a high-functioning and sustainable business model for the future. 

About the Author

Renee Thomas
Director of U.S. Sales and Field Marketing
Esker Americas

As Director of U.S. Sales and Field Marketing at Esker, Renee is on the leading-edge of customers’ document process automation needs. Her regular interactions with clients, as well as involvement in user conferences, analyst relations, trade events and strategic marketing plans, play a pivotal role in helping to shape and enhance the development of order processing, accounts payable and accounts receivable solutions.

Renee joined Esker in 1998 and became the Director of Americas Field Marketing in 2001. Previous to Esker, Renee held a Corporate Communications role at Westinghouse where she led employee and management communications, events, PR, and collateral development. Renee graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in Communications, and in 2000 she received her MBA from the University of South Carolina.

About Esker

Esker is the worldwide leader in document process automation solutions. Addressing all types of business processes, from accounts payable and accounts receivable to order processing and procurement, Esker cloud computing solutions allow companies to automate the reception, processing and sending of any business document with one platform. Esker helps over 80,000 companies across the world to reduce the use of paper and eliminate manual processes while improving their productivity, efficiency and environmental impact.

With 36 million Euros in sales revenue in 2011, Esker operates in North America, Europe and Asia Pacific with global headquarters in Lyon, France and U.S. headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin. Esker is listed on the NYSE Alternext in Paris (Code ISIN FR0000035818). For more information, visit www.esker.com. Follow Esker on Twitter (News – Alert) at twitter.com/eskerinc and join the conversation on the Esker blog at www.quitpaper.com.