E-Business Customer Service Success at H.B. Fuller Company

  • Written By: Olin Thompson
  • Published: September 15 2001

Company Issue   

H.B. Fuller Company is a global specialty chemicals manufacturer with annual sales in excess of $1.3 Billion. The company markets and manufactures thousands of products-including adhesives, sealants, and coatings-used in products ranging from "automobiles to envelopes, and cereal boxes to satellites." H.B. Fuller sells to customers directly and through distributors in more than 100 countries.

H.B. Fuller North America (HBF NA) is the largest division, and forms the umbrella over much of H.B. Fuller's North American sales and operations. It includes the corporation's mainstay strategic businesses of adhesives, sealants, and coatings.

Company Problem   

Bonnie Nord, Customer Service Manager of HBF NA's Customer Service Department, who has been in Customer Service for the last 27 of her 31 years at the company, was sure there was a way to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of her department. Nord readily acknowledges that her team spends an inordinate amount of their time answering questions related to order status-not only for customers but also for the many sales reps in the field who call in on behalf of their clients to determine or to change delivery dates, find out trucking information, inquire about backorders or incomplete shipments, and to resolve credit issues.

Nord estimates that 80% of the Customer Service Department's time has historically been spent finding or providing information required to either resolve a customer question or to enter an order into the system. This includes tasks related to product information and order status, such as calling the plants about ship dates, getting technical product information, determining logistics, and other information. According to Nord, it is not unusual to "answer the same question about an order over and over again."

Nord has been convinced for some time that if customers could get their hands on the required information themselves, they would be better served. And, in doing so, the Customer Service Department would be able to spend less time on repetitive and administrative functions and more time focusing on customer relationships and resolving more complicated customer service issues quickly for customers.

These realizations led to a series of objectives for H. B. Fuller's customer service initiative:

  • Improve Customer Service levels - In the increasingly competitive global marketplace, H.B. Fuller wanted to improve its level of customer service in an effort to engender loyalty and minimize attrition.

  • Improve support of distributors - Make improvements both in terms of giving them better access to product information and directing business to them.

  • Increase the Customer Service Department's time for higher value added activities - The majority of time was spent answering questions related to order status, product inquiries, and pricing information-for customers as well as for sales personnel in the field.


The H.B. Fuller Store (www.HBFullerStore.com) was launched in March 2001. The eStoreFront application offered by Stratyc (www.stratyc.com) features full integration to H.B. Fuller's PRISM ERP system, enabling real-time and accurate information exchange for all the business units under the HBF NA umbrella.

HBFullerStore.com provides:

  • Up-to-date order status information, plus the ability to place or change orders for customers and distributors

  • GlueLink (www.GlueLink.com) provides a "distributor locator" function to identify local distributors based on zip code.

  • The ability for customers and distributors to place their orders online, with direct integration to PRISM for real-time product, pricing and order status information. All information shown is specific to that particular Customer/Distributor, who must register before entering the site.

  • Detailed product information, including Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and Technical Data Sheets (TDS) information, accessible both to end-users and to distributors who carry the product line.

H.B. Fuller found that providing key information such as product information and order status details, enabled customers and distributors to get the information they need, when they need it, without requiring a call to the Customer Service department. . In addition to providing improved convenience and service, it also decreases costs associated with providing this type of information the traditional way, via the Call Center.


The value received from Web-based customer service is proportional to the number of customers and distributors who utilize the method. H. B. Fuller has seen a steady rise in those numbers since the March 2001 launch of the site. H.B. Fuller has learned that is is necessary to have campaigns in place to boost adoption rates among both customers and suppliers. It anticipates significant value when usage reaches critical mass.

Before HBFullerStore.com, nearly 80% of Customer Service Dept calls were non-revenue generating inquiries related to product information, order status, or MSDS requests. It is estimated that telephone and fax inquiries will decrease by 40-50% as a result of being resolved online, dramatically reducing the need for personnel and associated phone costs. For example, approximately 54,000 MSDS and TDS forms were mailed or faxed out to customers and distributors who requested them. It is estimated that each such request required at least 10 minutes of personnel time, resulting in tremendous expense. Based on actual results to date, it is estimated that the Website reduces the number of MSDS/TDS requests requiring manual efforts by at least 30%

Sales personnel spent approximately 20-25% of their time following up on customer questions, status inquiries, etc. resulting in a lost of foregone sales opportunities It is estimated that providing product and order status information to customers/distributors online will free up to 25% of the sales team's time, thereby giving them more time to generate incremental sales.

Lessons Learned   

Looking back, H. B. Fuller provides us with a number of lessons. Perhaps the most important is the fact that it takes time to get trading partners "on board" with eBusiness initiatives. To accelerate the adoption rate, start communicating your plans early and often. These programs must be driven by the sales and marketing organization.

The H. B. Fuller experience shows that there are many tasks that have been done manually that can easily be handled online at a fraction of the cost. This can translate into a reduction in cost or the freeing up of time for higher value added activities.

Making key information available to trading partners can also result in a dramatic increase in service levels. While some enterprises question the "loss of the personal touch" trading partners actually find the ability to get the information they want, when they want it both easier and of higher value than the old method of phones or faxes.

About the Author   

Olin Thompson is a frequent contributor to TEC on the subject of the Process Industry. He has over 25 years experience as an executive in the software industry with the last 17 in process industry related ERP, SCP, and e-business related segments.

He can be reached at Olin@ProcessERP.com.

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