Manufacturers fighting to remain competitive today as their rivals roll out new capabilities are fretting over how they can capitalize on the digital renaissance that is sweeping through nearly every sector of the economy.
Consider a high-end custom plastic fabrication company that makes interior trim for cars – interior molding, vent outlets and related features. They take pride in serving top automakers and focusing relentlessly on the products that mark them out as a trendsetter. But some C-suite leaders at this company might still wonder what they would do if they invested in a trend and found out they were wrong.
Why not look at the selling process not only as a means to win customers, but as a market prediction tool? Why can’t it be a better way to see and respond to where trends are going? Why not use it to allow your customers to show you what’s next? You’ll need some automation to get there and to do it right.
Moving Beyond Processing Orders
Our plastics company decides that attempting to call every trend in automotive interiors correctly is the wrong approach. They upgrade to digital order management and e-commerce for their business, allowing them to automate operations to the extent that they can offer customization and listen to customers in real time. Now the company’s customers can quickly and easily configure thousands of possibilities in styles, shapes, and materials.
As they scan the rich visualizations in the company’s new customer experience (CX) portal, customers no longer see only what they order. They now also see ways to improve on the items that have captured their attention. What would a seat look like with vinyl versus microsuede upholstery? What’s the cost difference between a heavy plastic dashboard versus a lighter, more transparent one?
The buyers are doing more than consuming. They’re creating. They’ve moved beyond ordering goods or services based on price and delivery date. They’re customizing their inventory with their customers in mind. The resulting new level of trust and engagement between the company and its partners boosts the volume of orders and the company’s revenues.
This kind of success is the true expression of digital commerce. It’s more than just software that lets people buy stuff online. It’s an entirely elevated way of building a business. The plastic company’s competitors, meanwhile, receive a lesson in how the technology that sells a product can be more important than the product itself.
Actually, there are three lessons.
More Automation, Fewer Interventions
Entrepreneurs seeking to modernize their companies through digital transformations face two common dilemmas. They want to get business orders right with more automation and fewer human interventions even though they know every order is different and unique. And they need to make money, presuming they get automation right and perform magic rather than serve up disappointment.
Fulfilling those goals and responsibilities can be difficult when you are managing operations, uncertain supply chains, launching new products, revamping information technology, and hiring new personnel. To determine whether you are on the path to mastering the digital rebirth of manufacturing, you need to dig deep and ask yourself three sets of questions about your organization.
First, are your third-party resellers, distributors, and channel partners equipped with self-service tools and resources to optimally sell products without contacting customer support?
Customer support, though essential, can needlessly drain resources if self-service alternatives can be made to actually work, including for edge cases. It’s important to optimize every link in your business. There’s few things worse than taking steps forward and being held back by partners who don’t follow (feeling like Michael Corleone in the third Godfather).
Second, can you deliver real-time quotes for custom orders? That includes tiered pricing and account-based discounts. And can you provide truly custom products and services on the doorstep or loading dock in enough time to matter?
Customers need to see complex configurable products in real-time, with complete accuracy and transparency. Flexible structures focused on delivering business impact do that, and counter intuitively they are more resilient to shocks than the alternatives, too.
Third, are your sales operations fully connected to the rest of your organization for fast and accurate fulfillment and billing? Do you have the infrastructure to introduce new products on the run?
Many organizations are not as fully interconnected as they think. How many hands does an edge case order need to pass through to scoped, authorized and fulfilled? If product launches are challenging, you are not making the most out of your networks and resources.
Friction to Flow
Automation can take friction out of more transactions and convert it into a kind of market flow. Customers don’t have to ask sales reps to chase down factory updates, shipping times or recalculate after order changes. They don’t end up with the burden of nudging your organization to get it to perform. That information and action is available in real-time, with a few keystrokes. Harvard’s Ryan Buell calls this operational transparency, and it’s not just for plastic fabricators.
Leveraging the right applications, for instance, means B2B plastics manufacturers can develop better ways to learn their customers’ more complex and valuable needs. With real-time dashboards, they can see and orient on the most promising opportunities and land more and better sales.
When companies allow sales transactions to occur more smoothly and with greater accuracy, sales reps are freed up for higher-level market scouting. They can find new ways to expand your value in the marketplace, paving the way for better product and service introductions, like subscription models that offer customers more flexibility, for example.
These moves coincidentally differentiate market leaders from their competitors, make customers happier, enhance loyalty, and increase revenue.
Remember, however, that the more complex a product or service is, the more challenging it becomes to create a frictionless experience with it, especially as the world continues this shift from mass production to mass personalization. But doing the hard things pays off when you systematize solutions on digital foundations.