ORLANDO, Fla., March 22, 2004 — With an agenda packed with events, sessions, and a wide range of networking opportunities, Microsoft Business Solutions has launched its eighth annual conference for North American customers. While the actual conference lasts four days, the collaborative relationships born at Convergence continue to grow and evolve long after the final sessions draw to a close.
In addition to the official agenda, Convergence is about networking. “Over the years, the face-to-face interactions that are the cornerstone of Convergence have proven extremely valuable to our customers,” says Lynne Stockstad, general manager, global product management, Microsoft Business Solutions. “Convergence is an ideal forum for customers to meet face to face with Microsoft team members, fellow customers, business partners, and vendors who truly understand the challenges they face.”
While the primary benefactors of Convergence are customers, Stockstad says that Microsoft benefits as well. “Microsoft Business Solutions develops and enhances technology to help its customers increase productivity and streamline business processes,” she says. “Customers who use the technology every day are the ultimate authority on what works — and what doesn’t. The feedback customers share with us at Convergence has provided extremely valuable guidance as we invest in and enhance our solutions.”
But some of the biggest benefits of Convergence, according to Stockstad and others, are realized long after the conference is over.
Collaborating at Convergence — And Beyond
“The relationships that are formed at Convergence help our customers maximize the value they derive from their investments in Microsoft technology and services,” Stockstad says. “And those relationships don’t end when the conference does. The collaboration that takes place as a result of relationships formed at Convergence is year round.”
The West Michigan Solomon Users Group is one example. Started two years ago, the group is the brainchild of Dave Echelbarger, director of the technology solutions division of Echelbarger, Himebaugh, Tamm & Company (EHTC), an accounting firm in Grand Rapids, Mich. EHTC is a Microsoft-certified Business Solutions reseller specializing in organizations with annual revenues between US$10 and $50 million that are project- or distribution-driven and those in the healthcare industry.
Four Wednesday mornings per year, between 25 and 30 Microsoft Solomon customers gather around a U-shaped table in a classroom at EHTC’s office. Beginning at 9 a.m., the four-hour meetings focus on one central theme — how to use Microsoft Solomon in the ways that works best for them.
“Our customers wanted something that goes beyond bringing a consultant on site,” he says. “Our goal was to bring Microsoft Solomon users together so that they could learn from one another. There’s no better resource for learning than the knowledge fellow users have developed from their experience.”
Echelbarger’s customers agree.
Becky Lehman is an accounting system specialist with the Holland Board of Public Works in Holland, Mich. Lehman relies on Microsoft Solomon to track inventory and to manage a payroll system she says is unusually complex. “We use the Project Controller module in Microsoft Solomon to gather information and then automatically organize it,” she says. “We have a utility union, employees whose payroll is related to projects, and three different plants that operate around the clock, which requires shift premiums. Microsoft Solomon does a great job at keeping track of all that.”
Two years ago, Lehman was encouraged to attend Convergence by EHTC. Since then, Convergence has become the one event she looks forward to every year. “It was an awesome experience to meet so many people who are in the same boat,” she says. “I met lots of people, and we talked in-depth about how we use the product, the similarities and differences we’d encountered. Most of the people I met that first year were from Michigan, but if we hadn’t been at Convergence I don’t think we would have met each other.”
To share the knowledge with people who hadn’t attended — and to keep in touch with those who had — Lehman was enthusiastic about the users group. “It’s a good place to come together and learn how other people are using the products,” she says. “One of the members recently did a presentation on financial reporting software that works in conjunction with Microsoft Solomon. Even though we’re not all using that technology, it was interesting to all of us to learn more about the value of combined financial reports. And it’s so helpful to learn from someone’s experience rather than from a manual or documentation.”
In addition to learning, Lehman has shared her experience with the group. “I did a presentation on using Crystal Reports inside of Microsoft Solomon,” she says. “It was helpful for people to be able to see how to download, export and just generally make the whole process work a little easier.”
Roger Tjoelker is CFO with Feyen Zylstra, which offers electrical contracting, service work, communications services, and systems engineering — primarily for shop floor automation. Based in Grand Rapids, Mich., Feyen Zylstra employs between 200 and 250 people.
Tjoelker relies on Microsoft Solomon for accounting, but more importantly, he says, for the project management capabilities delivered via the Project Controller Module. “We rely on it to automate revenue recognition, which is big for us,” he says. “Not only does the system do it well, but it gives us a means to have an estimate-to-complete put in. That helps us a lot in terms of budgeting and labor management. We’re also automating billing considerably more than we used to.”
The interactions at Convergence, Tjoelker says, are what have kept him coming back for five years.
“It’s a great opportunity to meet the people who are working on the product, who determine where it’s going,” he says. “They’re very available. I give them feedback, and they listen. There are also a lot of third-party businesses that write software that works with Microsoft Solomon at Convergence. If I’m looking for a product to help me with document imaging or electronic funds transferring, for example, chances are good that a couple of companies will be there to answer questions and give me ideas.”
Tjoelker belongs not only to the Michigan users group, but to a national one as well. Both, he says, are valuable resources.
“Attending the meetings here is a good way to build connections with other people who I can be a resource to and vice-versa,” he says. “I always learn quite a bit from the presentations, and the presentations are kept on the Web site so it’s easy to go back and reference them. Every time I go I learn something and meet new people.”
The national group is for Microsoft Solomon users in construction-related industries. The group meets at Convergence and also at other locations during the rest of the year. “In the national group we definitely have the opportunity to influence how the product gets enhanced and modified,” he says. “A couple of Microsoft executives attended our meeting recently. We had worked together to prepare a list of enhancements we wanted them to consider making. They listened very closely to us. In the past, after giving input, we’ve seen results.”
This year marks Steve Wierenga’s fourth trip to Convergence. Wierenga is vice president of IT for Ajacs Die Sales, a family owned business his grandfather started in the 1960s in Grand Rapids, Mich. The company’s primary customers are automotive suppliers. Ajacs, he says, has used Microsoft Solomon — the “lifeblood of our company” — since the days of MS-DOS.
“One of the most profound things about Convergence is the energy that’s conveyed,” says Wierenga, who won a Pinnacle Award in 2001 for excellence in customer service. “It’s so energetic you can catch the wave of enthusiasm and roll with it. It’s infectious, and the opportunities for networking are endless.”
And the networking, he says, yields tangible results. “I always walk away from Convergence with ideas about how I can improve our business,” he says. “I went to a presentation once on the specifics of Application Server. A light popped on, and when I got back I worked with our reseller to address areas I couldn’t address on my own.”
The result: a Microsoft Solomon customization that lets Ajacs send invoices, order confirmations, and advance ship notices as part of the order steps. “Things are completed, automatically, based on our customers’ requirements without user intervention, stamps, or paper,” says Wierenga. “The automation increases accuracy and has a positive impact on our reliability.”
Wierenga says he was happy to share his Application Server breakthrough with the West Michigan Solomon Users Group. “This group was started to bring ideas back from Convergence and share them with people who hadn’t attended,” he says. “It’s great to hear all the different perspectives. So often we get stuck in doing our jobs that we forget to take a step back and consider different perspectives. There are so many ways to address issues that it’s a matter of finding the best way. The group is a great melding of minds.”
From Echelbarger’s perspective, the group is a forum for expanding vision. “People learn about things they can do with technology that they probably hadn’t even considered,” he says. “It’s gratifying to sit at a table, listen to the presentation, and watch light bulbs go on around the room. It’s a leveraging of intellect.”
And at the core of it all, he says, is Convergence. “At our next meeting we’ll share the best of what we learned at Convergence with those who couldn’t make it,” he says. “And that usually leads to more people going the following year, which in turn leads to more people joining the group.”