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Cloud ERP software eases growing pains for emergency dispatch provider

Priority Dispatch likes Salesforce SaaS platform for ERP and CRM, but says integration was harder than advertised, and that simultaneous deployment was a mistake, in retrospect.

For 30 years, Priority Dispatch Corp. chugged along, growing steadily and running its business on a combination of homegrown order processing and customer service apps, as well as Intuit QuickBooks for its finances. But, three years ago, the company's executive team decided it was time to adopt a mature approach to IT with full-blown CRM and ERP applications, and they began looking at cloud ERP software.

"Fifteen years ago, what we built was probably cutting edge," said Ron McDaniel, chief planning officer at Priority Dispatch. "But then, we put our heads down and got work done, and when we looked up, we had fallen way behind."

The company had no project management software, nor did it have powerful back-office applications of any kind.

The situation became less tenable when, about 10 years ago, the Salt Lake City-based company, which distributes constantly updated emergency dispatch information in 25 languages to 911 personnel in 3,000 municipalities around the world, started seeing a new level of demand. Its revenue started growing much faster -- a good problem to have -- but it still relied on the same small business technology. That was, until three years ago, when company leadership finally cried uncle.

After evaluating just about every player in the market, Priority Dispatch narrowed its choices in cloud ERP software to NetSuite or a combination of Salesforce and FinancialForce.

McDaniel said the company, which employs 200 workers, in addition to about 350 contractors, ultimately chose Salesforce and FinancialForce because of its desire to keep integration simple. Both products run on the Salesforce SaaS platform, and Salesforce AppExchange promised an array of easy to integrate tools Priority Dispatch could snap on to its new systems.

Cloud ERP software deployment best done in phases

Then, the company made its first mistake: It opted to deploy everything all at once. In one big bang, in March 2016, Priority Dispatch brought on configure price quote and central billing applications from Salesforce Professional Services Automation (PSA) and supply chain management modules from FinancialForce and Avalara's tax management software. Predictable struggles ensued.

"It turned out to be a bit too ambitious," said McDaniel. "Getting people on board with that large of a wholesale change was tough. We probably should have done it in three-month cycles."

One of the early challenges was that the promised ease of integration didn't turn out to be quite as advertised, and tying together all the systems and data proved to be more difficult than expected.

Even so, McDaniel said it was worth those early struggles, as the company's new IT footprint has proven to be a vast improvement over what it was before. Most importantly, it has given field employees access to consistent information, and has enabled the company to easily incorporate feedback from one municipality into the content so that it can be updated for all the other clients.

What's more, Priority Dispatch can use Salesforce's multi-tenant SaaS environment to avoid potential software problems, as larger customers are likely to find any issues with the applications first, resulting in fixes being pushed out before the company encounters them.

The company's move to the cloud also emboldened it to take a risk: For the first time, the company has gone into the hardware business by starting to distribute tablets with the emergency dispatch content preloaded. And that process has brought about as much of a learning curve as the company's ambitious deployment of cloud ERP software did.

"Our first experience in Australia reminded us that we're not a hardware company," McDaniel said.

Specifically, Priority Dispatch wasn't ready for the barrage of support requests it faced. What is the warranty situation if the laptop malfunctions? What about maintenance? How does it even work? It even heard from users who wanted to keep their kids from using the tablets to download games. For a company that, in the past, only distributed software and paper, this was a whole new world.

Additionally, the first batch of tablets Priority Dispatch acquired for distribution had cellular capability, which meant it had to get a Federal Communications Commission license, even though it had no intention of using that function. Suddenly, a planned four-month project that was supposed to launch soon after the cloud ERP software and CRM deployment was delayed until March 2017.

Predictive analytics, visibility for customers on tap

Now that Priority Dispatch has these early hiccups under its belt, it has a better idea of what to look for: It's making sure future orders are for tablets that aren't equipped with cellular, and that the hard drive images are preloaded, so the company doesn't encounter problems with users' children hacking into them to download games.

And, naturally, once those problems are behind it, the company will have the peace of mind of knowing that it has the cloud ERP software it needs to effectively manage the distribution and management of those tablets.

As for additional capabilities, Priority Dispatch started using its FinancialForce PSA application to track the time its field staff spends at customer sites helping to adjust documentation and write policies, a process that can stretch as long as a month. Eventually, the company plans to use that capability to improve its management of employees' time.

"We know that we can track that and adjust tasks accordingly," McDaniel said. "The data is there, but we haven't done anything with it."

Down the line, McDaniel, who was in Las Vegas in June to attend FinancialForce's inaugural, stand-alone customer conference, anticipates using the predictive analytics available in Salesforce, and soon in FinancialForce cloud ERP software too, to enable Priority Dispatch to become more efficient in managing tasks such as reminding clients when it's time to get recertified.

But what he looks forward to even more is bringing customers fully into the environment and making them an active part of the company's ecosystem.

Once that happens, "they are no longer clients, they're partners," McDaniel said. "They're engaged in everything we do, and we have absolute transparency."

That's the dream of so many customer-focused businesses, and just over a year after emerging from the technology dark ages, Priority Dispatch is almost there.

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