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Lawson Products pins hopes on database analytics

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Lawson Products sells and distributes a huge number of products—including screws, rivets and related fasteners—to the aerospace, agricultural, automotive, construction and transportation industries. Still, the 55-year-old company based in Des Plaines, Ill., has had to cope with increasing competitive pressure, data scattered across business units and a reliance on ineffective legacy systems and mind-sets.

The company's 2007 sales of about $520 million was virtually unchanged from 2006. Revenue growth excluding acquisitions has been fairly slight since 2002. Further, because of its reliance on a huge but independent sales chain, the company found it had little ability to analyze customer data or track the results of its marketing efforts.

"This is a family-owned business, and has been doing business successfully for a long time," said Lisa Kaplan, VP-corporate marketing at Lawson. "But it needed to change to keep up with the competitive set. So people like myself were brought on board to begin touching customers in a way we hadn't before."

The company, which relies on a channel of 1,600 independent reps, had no "actionable information," Kaplan said. Prior to her arrival five years ago, Lawson had no marketing department at all.

Lawson turned to marketing firm Extraprise, whose main product, called i2i, is a conglomeration of commercially available software tools packaged under a common user interface. For Lawson, Extraprise put together a platform that at its core consisted of Microsoft's SQL Server database. In addition, Extraprise used a database cleansing tool from Firstlogic to make sure the flow of contact information into SQL Server was as accurate as possible.

To examine the newly cleaned data and formulate campaigns, Extraprise then added a database analytics system by Alterian. Another tool, already used in-house by Lawson, is a reporting and dashboard package by WebFocus. The whole process is supported by Extraprise's ongoing consulting services.

"Lawson didn't have many systems and processes defined around marketing," said Chris Baribeau, an Extraprise marketing strategist. "Our first challenge was collecting the data, putting it in a form to support Lawson's marketing needs." Baribeau said that Lawson had about 15 different databases companywide, such as Excel spreadsheets, Access files and mailing lists. All were dumped into SQL Server, cleansed by Firstlogic and examined by the Alterian application.

Kaplan said the initial task for the Alterian analytics tool was life cycle marketing, focusing on customer retention. "We had a lot of churn," she said. "We're attacking pockets of the business, and we'll see more this year. But already we're doing a better job of acquisition, penetration and retaining [at-risk] customers."

One big initial surprise from the effort, Baribeau said, was recognizing that customers tend to become inactive much more quickly than originally estimated. "After testing, we found you don't have a lot of time before a customer is inactive and must be treated as a win-back situation," he said.

Because the program is only a little over a year old, the effort's ROI is still a bit vague, Kaplan said.

"The process has given us good direction on where to point, to make refinements," she said. "For the future, we're trying to drive more volume through the tool with greater impact."

However, the process has enabled Lawson to better identify its best potential customers; best products and specific pricing; and ideal industries and customers. Analytics, in turn, is helping predict attrition, as well as life cycle, segment and product marketing, as well as lay the groundwork for improvement in each area.

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