In 2017 our firm embarked on the biggest system implementation yet: NetSuite, an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. It took six very intense months to become operational, but the full implementation lasted a year because we had bugs and problems that needed to be resolved. Because NetSuite interacted with all the departments of the company, bringing the system online was going to affect everybody.
Prior to implementing NetSuite, we had a very basic accounting system; it only took care of fundamental transactions, such as bills and invoices, and it produced fixed customer statements, accounting reports, and financial statements. While it was a good system for a startup, we realized we had outgrown it.
We now needed an ERP, a system that links a company’s transactions from the origin to the end, from purchasing to accounting and into sales. We wanted a system that would take a purchase order from creation to the approval process to the billing function. In an ERP, the bill can then only be paid if the underlying purchase order was approved, allowing for more control on our end.
The same follows on the sales side because the Customer Relationship Management system is integrated within the accounting module in NetSuite. A sale that has been completed is linked to invoicing, which then directly ties to the financial statements. A variety of steps are connected and become more automatic when the system performs the entire process. Please refer to Netsuite: How to Select the Best ERP to learn more about how we chose NetSuite.
During the implementation, we faced many challenges and learned many lessons. It took much work, but in the end, it was worth it. There were some things, however, that I wish I had known beforehand and that we only learned through experience.
Oversee the Implementation Team
NetSuite required us to work with an external consultant to implement our ERP. The team set up the modules in a way that worked for our company. First, they interviewed us to learn how we worked and what we needed by group. Then, they presented a plan for how they would implement each area and started programming; finally, we were trained.
Throughout the implementation process, we were very involved and asked many questions. I found it hard, however, to verify that the consulting team was programming what the company needed and wanted. We could not see the final product until the end, and we did not have much time for modifications.
I realized that only the final user knows what is needed. From our experience, I recommend constant communication and updates for approval. Don’t assume that the final product will all turn out as it was visualized, as each company is different.
Be Prepared to Pay More
As we were implementing the system, we discovered we needed enhancements to make the system personalized to our needs. Those enhancements cost more. In our case, we decided to complete only the original scope of the implementation. We wanted to test out the system at that level to see how well it worked for us before moving forward with more developments.
After working with it for a few months, we ranked our desired enhancements by priority to include automatic invoicing and automated contracts generation. As a result, we have spent the last couple of months developing them.
If Possible, Learn How the System Works
In our case, the implementation team left the system operational, but we had a different standard that we wanted to reach. Luckily, NetSuite has a very descriptive database where anybody can learn how it works. We did not have someone on staff with that specific training, so I became the administrator/programmer by default.
It was a very busy few months. There were many requirements from the team, and it was a very intensive learning experience for me. We ultimately programmed the system in the way we thought was most beneficial to us. Learning how the system works had a hidden benefit: I saw things that I did not know were possible, and which I was then able to include in the program. Consultants have no way of knowing as much as a business owner or manager knows about the respective business. As a result, we ended up with a much better work product because I was forced to get deeply involved.
Reduce Errors by Automation
One of the biggest benefits of ERPs is that everything is customizable. Each module has a screen, and in NetSuite, I was able to customize all the screens to make sure they served our needs. If there was a piece of information we needed to obtain, we simply made that field mandatory, meaning that the screen cannot be saved unless the phone number, for instance, is added. Making a field mandatory is a form of automation.
We also added workflows to cut out manual steps, as they automatically execute actions given a set of parameters. Our firm sells apartments, so one of our workflows is that when we select the apartment number, the rest of the screen fills up with the apartment’s size, location, accounting center, and price. This workflow saves us time and reduces errors.
Design in a Way that is User-Friendly
Transitioning to a new system can be very intimidating, so it is important to ensure the interface of the system is as user-friendly as possible. There is not much that can be done about the design of the system itself, but certain adjustments can make a big difference. Some examples include:
Make the screens similar: If a few screens have the same fields that appear repeatedly, those fields are placed in the same location each time. That way, the eye knows where to go, and each screen seems familiar.
Help on the fields: In NetSuite, we can add help options for all the fields we created. We are in the process of adding help features to all those fields to help both new and existing users.
Organize reports: We currently have over 80 custom reports for the company. Due to the sheer volume of the information, we cataloged the reports by department and then by function. This way, they are easy to find.
Find an Administrator
Running an ERP requires constant attention and should be managed by a professional. We were lucky to find a great administrator who has also been overseeing the enhancements we are currently developing for the system. This moderator handles training and requirements for the team, which turned out to be more frequent than we originally anticipated. She also ensures that the ERP’s workflows align with the firm’s overall processes.
Implementing an ERP system at a firm is a big step but can also be a very rewarding one, as the benefits far outweigh the costs. Nevertheless, the more the downside can be reduced the better.