DuPont Jumps Out Of Dark Ages Into E-Commerce

Automotive paint arm revamps its customer-service system with a B-to-B portal

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

December 6, 2001

4 Min Read

Nearly two years ago, executives at DuPont Performance Coatings decided it was time to leave behind the brick-and-mortar age and embrace E-commerce. At the same time, the executives at the $3.8 billion-a-year automotive paint arm of DuPont & Co. targeted customer service as the top priority of an E-business strategy.

"We had almost nothing, just a call center where customers placed manual orders," says Catherine Marchand, DuPont Performance Coatings' E-business strategy manager. "We were really in the dark ages and not representative of all of DuPont." Meanwhile, competitive pressure was growing. The leading U.S. chemical manufacturer's market share was dwindling, largely because its top three competitors were partnering with other companies and developing ways to improve customer service.

So Marchand forged ahead with an E-business strategy that focused on selling more paint, improving customer loyalty, and leveraging existing technology. In the nine months since DuPont Performance Coatings launched its Web site, it's sold more than $1 million in products there.

The DuPont unit had an SAP enterprise resource planning system to integrate internal business processes, making employees more effective and reducing internal costs. However, the ERP system didn't extend to how the unit serviced customers and sold and distributed products. About 3,500 distributors sell DuPont's paint to 20,000 U.S. body shops. But the only way they could place orders was to telephone or fax them to sales representatives, who then manually entered them into the SAP system, creating the opportunity for errors.

DuPont's auto paint unit was in the dark ages, Marchand says.

Marchand knew she could cut costs by creating a Web interface for the SAP system. That way, customers could enter orders and check their status using Web browsers, freeing DuPont's staff to handle more important jobs. "We have a lot of manpower that's performing non-value-add work, like order entry," she says. "Those people could be redeployed to better service customers or do sales and marketing."

To make this possible, the Web site needed to be updated, Marchand says. That meant converting a static catalog into a more-attractive means for customers to get information and making the portal the main destination for paint distributors to get up-to-date information. DuPont used E-commerce software vendor Comergent Technologies Inc.'s Distributed E-Business System as its order portal. It also had Bowstreet Inc. automate and assemble a business-to-business portal that could be customized so that distributors using Web services would have a personalized experience. Computer Sciences Corp. helped develop the overall strategy.

Since DuPont launched the portals in March, distributors have been able to log on with a name and password and access information on their accounts, place and change orders, and check order status. That all was integrated with the back-end ERP system to ensure continuity with internal processes.

There are two ways to enter orders into the system. Customers can go to DuPont's Order Management System private marketplace using a Web browser and shop via the catalog. When the order is entered, the browser is connected to Comergent's Commerce Manager, then the order is converted to a cXML message and sent to SAP via middleware that handles the mapping from a cXML message to SAP format. The second approach lets a distributor enter an order in its proprietary point-of-sale system. The order is converted to cXML format and sent over the Web to DuPont. There it's received by Commerce Manager and follows the same path into SAP. The one tricky thing is that DuPont has multiple SAP systems--different versions and geographical locations for different servers, says Tom Nascal, senior VP of product marketing at Comergent. "We created a central place where orders can be captured, and then we can facilitate them with the right back-end system," he says.

That's done using business rules that were established at the beginning of the implementation. Though all online transactions are entered into the central Comergent system, they're distributed to the appropriate back-end system. For example, a transaction coming from a customer in the New England sales district will automatically be routed to the server that manages product availability information for New England.

DuPont is looking to tighten relationships with its distributor's customers--the body shops that actually buy and use the paints. That means offering online access to safety manuals and instructions on paint use. That's challenging, because DuPont must balance its need to protect competitive information on its paint formulas and provide enough information to meet government regulations of chemical usage that body shops need to be aware of when mixing paints.

Still, Marchand knows that a complete E-business strategy must be well thought out and executed, addressing one customer need at a time. "We have very broad foundation to build on for the future," she says. "We know we have to focus on key deliverables rather than do everything at once."

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