Lawson CEO maps customer-oriented strategy

Looking to slug it out with what has become a narrow field crowded with major players, midsize ERP vendor Lawson Software Inc. hopes to woo and keep customers through a renewed focus on its vertical strategy and increased customer care.

That's been the message this week at the annual Conference and User Exchange 2004 event in Atlanta. According to CEO Jay Coughlan, who delivered a keynote Monday morning, company-sponsored research indicates general dissatisfaction among customers of ERP apps.

"We see good companies brought to their knees trying to implement applications that are too complicated and too cumbersome and poor fits for the business at hand," he said in remarks prepared for the event.

Asked later in the day by Computerworld about those comments, Coughlan said that St. Paul, Minn.-based Lawson "needs to break away from the peer group."

To that end, he said Lawson will embark on a "1,000-day journey" to improve software stability, provide more quality services and help users with the process changes associated with business application implementation. "We need to raise the bar dramatically," said Coughlan.

Although he offered few details, Coughlan said the company will be looking to do things such as eliminate the need for software patches, add analytical sophistication to the suite and broaden its vertical offerings -- specifically in the health care and public-sector markets.

That message hit home with several users, a couple of whom cited specific areas they would like to see Lawson make improvements. For instance, users at Chicago-based Northern Trust Corp. would like upgrades to be more streamlined, said Barry Bonds, vice president and applications manager at the financial institution. The company runs a heavily customized version of Lawson Financials 8.02 on Sun hardware with an Oracle 9i database back end.

Bonds said that Northern Trust has had to deal with an "overwhelming amount of documentation" during upgrades, sometimes involving as much as 600 pages of information. In addition, because of customizations to the software, patches can require extensive testing to ensure there are no glitches. Bond said Lawson's announcement has made him "cautiously optimistic" that future upgrades will be more automated "so I don't have wade through all that."

Lawson's new quality approach could also be useful in helping free up IT resources, said Robert Smith, software administrator at Harford County public schools, based in Bel Air, Md. In November, the county completed an upgrade from Version 7 of Lawson's ERP suite to Version 8.03. "It sounds like a cliche, but we're always doing more with less people," he said.

Smith noted that some patches can create problems when installed, and the patches need a special version of the software to test the effects of the upgrade and ensure every critical function still works -- something he considers "unreasonable."

Lawson also announced enhancements to streamline the cash management portion of its Financials Suite to allow companies to handle high volumes of payment transactions without requiring that the data be hand-entered from multiple systems. It also announced its Retail Lease Accounting and Billing application, which automates the process of tracking and paying for leased property and equipment, and handles the accounting processes involved.

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