Selling an extranet

Just as researchers at rhône-poulenc rorer Pharmaceuticals Inc. must swallow a healthy dose of patience before discovering a drug breakthrough, customer services executives at the company have learned that—even on Internet time—a few years of persistence and a little outsourcing can lead to an industry-leading Web site.
Written by Matt Hicks, Contributor on

Just as researchers at rhône-poulenc rorer Pharmaceuticals Inc. must swallow a healthy dose of patience before discovering a drug breakthrough, customer services executives at the company have learned that—even on Internet time—a few years of persistence and a little outsourcing can lead to an industry-leading Web site.

About two years ago, when the U.S. pharmaceutical arm of $14.8 billion international life sciences company Rhône-Poulenc S.A. launched its extranet for drug wholesalers, its customer services department led the effort. But the IS personnel at the Collegeville, Pa., company remained skeptical—especially of supporting it themselves. They wanted to avoid the cost of new servers and network components and the complications that come with hosting sites, said Jeff Jagiela, Rhône-Poulenc's director of customer services.

So Jagiela turned to outsourcing. Rhône-Poulenc used Broadreach Consulting Inc., in Philadelphia, to help plan, design and host the new site. Broadreach worked with two IS staffers responsible for IT within customer services who helped plan and review the site.

Gradually, Jagiela's efforts gained the support of IS. While it has yet to lead to any hard-numbered savings for the company, the site is helping customers do for themselves what customer service representatives used to do for them, tasks such as gathering product specifications and prices and tracking orders.

Today, Rhône-Poulenc is considering hosting the site itself to increase the speed with which it interacts with the company's back-end mainframe system. That system, implemented in 1991, is called COSMIS (Customer Order Services Management Information Systems). Currently, the hosted Web server and COSMIS communicate over a 64K-bps connection.

The change in attitude has come in part because of the satisfaction of the 3,500 customers that visit the site each month. Jagiela and Broadreach have conducted surveys of drug wholesalers' needs from the beginning, and in mid-1998 the customer services site won a technology award from the National Wholesale Druggists' Association.

The relaunch of the customer services site in September saw the relationship among Jagiela's customer services group, IS and Broadreach do an about-face. "Now that we've brought a business case [forward, IS has] been a strong supporter," Jagiela said.

Bringing outsourcing in

IS staffers worked with Broadreach to revamp the site with real-time product availability and order status information for wholesalers. It also has a limited amount of order entry, though the majority of customers already used electronic data interchange to order products, Jagiela said.

Tying the Web site into COSMIS was essential to making real-time data available, and it couldn't have been done without strong IS support throughout Rhône-Poulenc. IS and Broadreach personnel searched for a bridge between Rhône-Poulenc's mainframe data and the site. They discovered that Rhône-Poulenc's mainframe development tool set—Sterling Software Inc.'s Cool:Gen—had add-on capabilities that allowed Rhône-Poulenc's IS department and Broadreach to develop the real-time connection between the IBM mainframe data and the Web site, which is based on Microsoft Corp.'s Site Server, said Chris Mileto, project manager for customer services and e-commerce systems in Rhône-Poulenc's IS department.

Working with Broadreach to prove a business case for the site was the key to gaining full IS buy-in in its latest phase. Starting with the first version of the site, Rhône-Poulenc and Broadreach conducted extensive surveys of potential users to know what they wanted from a site. Before seeking to tie the site to the legacy system, they also sought evidence of customer demand for the legacy information, said Terry Murphy, an IS senior manager at Rhône-Poulenc.

"The words 'customer focus' are all over our charters and mission statements," Murphy said. "We made calls to several of our customers to ask what they'd like to see on the [site]. They came back to us saying that they wanted real-time information."

Making it easier for customers to conduct business with Rhône-Poulenc was the site's primary goal, Jagiela said, but he said he also expects that it will help the company's customer service representatives be more productive. "We haven't even really started to realize how much this is going to change our business," he said. "[Al-ready] our customer support [personnel] are becoming more business analysts than they are order takers."

On the IS side, Mileto said Rhône-Poulenc's hosting of the site may take place within the next six months. That means the Broadreach relationship is changing to focus on strategy and planning. "Our role has definitely changed as they have learned more," said Rob Kelley, vice president for e-business development at Broadreach. "Our role has been to be at the vanguard in thinking of strategy and technology. Their IT organization went from being kind of in a peripheral role to a more central role."

What the customer services department has learned in its Web development is rippling throughout Rhône-Poulenc. Other departments now are seeing ways in which they can use real-time links to company data in legacy systems to improve their Web presence, Mileto said.

The next step for the customer services site is to find ways to leverage the legacy linkup. Possibilities include offering accounts receivable information, credit and debit services, and full-blown order taking, Jagiela said.

"Now that we've opened the door, with one hole out of the dam of legacy data, we're only limited by our imaginations," Jagiela said. "Every piece of data kept behind legacy [systems] is now Web eligible."

Those possibilities, combined with the transformation of the role of Rhône-Poulenc's IS department from that of top skeptic to strong collaborator, have put the company in a position to do on the Web what it strives to do in the drug industry—innovate for breakthroughs that make life better.

Case File

Company: Rhône-Poulenc Rorer Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Location: Collegeville, Pa.

The need: When Rhône-Poulenc's customer services department started a Web site in 1997 to share product and contact information, the company's IS department shied away from supporting it. So the company hired an outsourcer to host the site. Project leaders soon realized, though, that to reach the next level—linking the Web with the mainframe—they needed strong IS involvement.

The solution: The director of customer services sold the IS infrastructure group on supporting the project. He proved the business case by providing pharmaceutical wholesaler surveys that revealed that customers demand more real-time product availability information. IS took the lead in finding and developing a tool to enable the mainframe-Web site linkup.

What's next: Bringing hosting of the site in-house to increase transaction speeds.


Sterling Software's Cool:Gen, Microsoft's Site Server and services from Broadreach Consulting

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