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Business & Technology
Thursday | 31 May, 2012 | 8:58 am

Stay in touch

By Lauren Duensing

Implementing new technologies allows industrial companies to streamline business, build relationships

May 2012 - The generation of people born from the early to mid-1990s until 2010 is known as Generation Z or the Internet Generation. Unlike the preceding generation, Generation Y, many of them don’t remember life before around-the-clock access to the World Wide Web.

As the oldest members of this ultra-connected group enter the workforce, companies will be navigating a technology gap. The young, fresh-out-of-college employees, who practically were born with smartphones in their hands, are colliding with those who remember three-martini lunches and days when every order came through the fax machine.

Generation Z has “grown up with endless information at their fingertips,” says Dolores Burks, online marketing manager at Big Ass Fans, Lexington, Ky. “You need to be where your target market is located. You don’t need to be a bleeding-edge tech company in order to attract good younger employees; you need to show that you understand the importance of technology and the Internet and that you are adaptable to the multiple changes that will surely come in the near future.”

Whether it’s an advanced ERP system, high-tech website or company-issued smartphone, today’s employees and customers are looking for a seamless working or ordering experience. Scott Fasse, vice president of marketing at United Performance Metals, Hamilton, Ohio, points out the younger generation is used to integrating technology into their daily lives. “It is part of how they live, work and play. They see technology as an expectation rather than a supplement to their job,” he says.

Beyond Generation Z, new strategies are making all employees’ jobs easier, allowing them to be more efficient and provide better customer service. “We’re in a major transition period,” says Ryan Letz, vice president of Willbanks Metals Inc., Fort Worth, Texas. “Between now and the next five years, it’s going to be a total transition, and in five-plus years, we’re going to be able to put all this technology more into use.”

Playing catch-up
To take full advantage of technologies, companies need to be in a position to implement them.

“Technology has been present in the steel industry for as long as it’s been around, so we’ve been integrating technology into our day-to-day operations since our inception,” says a representative from Majestic Steel USA, Cleveland. “We’re always looking to integrate valuable technology both internally and externally through equipment, systems and the Web. We aim to stay at the forefront of new technologies while keeping in mind our foundation and core business.”

Fasse says a big challenge for companies is understanding the available technologies and how they can “best be utilized to attract business. Unfortunately, the uses of many of the new technologies are not as apparent in the b2b market as they are in the b2c market,” he notes.

“Industrial businesses are typically slower to adopt online strategies than other businesses,” says Rita Lieberman, director of marketing communications at Thomas Industrial Network, New York. “That said, the majority of these companies have embraced the Internet, but they still don’t know how to leverage it. We like to say the industrial business owner’s biggest competitor is his/her own time. Whether someone is running a manufacturing business or a machine shop, the pressure to lead the business and wear multiple hats can push online marketing to the wayside.”

Often by the time companies decide it’s time to update, current systems are decades out of date and catching up seems monumental.

“A lot of companies in our industry, including Stainless Sales, are trying to make up for lost time,” says Rose of Sharon DeVos, business development manager at Stainless Sales Corp., Chicago. “What we are doing is we’re skipping generations of technology. We didn’t do everything in sequence. We had phones that were bought used in 1985 until October of last year and now we have a VoIP interactive communication center sitting on our desktop.”

Once they take the leap, companies often see immediate returns in efficiency. About two years ago, Letz bought iPhones for his employees in sales and purchasing as well as the midlevel managers and shop foremen. In addition to purchasing the phones, Willbanks pays for a portion of the service plans.

“We expected them to use it for email and communicating via text message, but we didn’t really force the issue,” he says. “It’s unreal how much our internal communication has changed. It’s a quicker way to be able to communicate. I see my guys in their office right in front of their computer or phone, and they’re on their iPhone texting a question to someone out in the plant. Up until a year and a half ago, we used a walkie talkie. So we went from a walkie talkie that always had crowded airwaves to an iPhone.”

The ultimate goal is to translate that internal ease of communication into a streamlined customer experience. Relationships remain the most important part of the business, Letz says, and the industry won’t lose its unique ability to provide hands-on service.

“So much of the steel industry has been successful for decades because of service,” he notes. “You buy from who you like, you buy from who you know is going to take care of you. You build that relationship and that’s who you stick to. That’s who you buy from and that’s who you sell to. But that 30- or 40-something guy, he’s going to want to use technology for the quick and easy stuff”—prices, purchase orders and inventory.

Window to the world
A solid Web presence can attract new customers and provide top-notch service to current clients who want to access information at the pace of business. First, customers have to be able to find the company. Stainless Sales has seen an increase in business as a result of its search-engine-optimized website.

“We wanted to make it easier for customers and potential customers to contact us through our site, and that has been very successful so far,” says DeVos. “We rank pretty high when you search for stainless steel coil, and we’re right near the top compared to our competitors. We’ve put a sizable monthly investment into it to keep ourselves ahead of the ballgame at being found on the Internet.”

The company has seen website quotes increase and is receiving between eight and 15 online leads per week and approximately twice that number in phone calls, according to DeVos.

“I think it’s interesting that, as an industry, we’ve transitioned from calls and faxes to email. Our office is surprisingly quiet considering how much business we’re doing,” she adds.

Once the customer and company establish a relationship, it’s also beneficial to provide information on demand.

“Our customers are provided with the opportunity to get the information they need when they need it,” Fasse says. “Access to important documents and customer-specific pricing is readily available 24/7. We believe it is still important to offer our customers the opportunity to choose how they interact with us, whether it be online, telephone, fax or in person.”

For Michael Persky, owner of Metal Resources Inc., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the goal of his company’s website is to answer customers’ questions in an informative, educational and entertaining way.

“Our website has an array of information that explains in an organized manner what we do, why choose Metal Resources Inc., about us, products we buy and sell, what markets we serve and how to contact us,” he says.

Companies should evaluate their websites with their customers in mind, says Lieberman. “Websites should be set up to replicate the offline sales process with the detailed information needed to guide prospects toward making a final selection or sending a request for quote. Many companies are also finding it helpful to publish downloadable 2-D and 3-D CAD drawings on their sites to enable engineers to try out their products and evaluate their fit. These make it more likely that the products will be specced in at the design stage and then purchased.”

Chris Curran, president of Climax Metal Products Co., Mentor, Ohio, a family-owned company that manufactures engineered metal hardware, including shaft collars, rigid couplings and keyless locking devices, worked with Thomas Industrial Network to centralize his product data and create 2-D and 3-D models for an online product catalog. His goal was to “be responsive to prospects and customers by providing them with product information wherever they are looking for it,” including the company’s distributor sites.

“Our ultimate end users are engineers with very exacting needs and they need dimensional data on our products along with 2-D CAD drawings or 3-D models to make sure they’ll meet their requirements. They also need pricing. Usually, they go to our distributors to find and select our products, so our distributors need to have all this information available in their systems,” he says.

Readily available, reliable information increases efficiency for both Curran and his customers. “When engineers need drawings, for example, they can download them from our site or our distributors’ sites, insert them into their own applications and evaluate their fit,” he says. “We no longer have to develop manual drawings for our customers, and this shortens the sales cycle. ... We’ll continue to take advantage of this technology to further improve the connectivity between ourselves and our customers.”

Finally, professional-looking, easy-to-navigate websites help companies maintain control of their brands and reputations. Both customers and business owners have been conditioned to expect information to be accessible quickly and easily. If it’s unavailable, they’ll go elsewhere.

“If a potential customer sees a product and wants to know more about it, where do they go for information? They go to your company website,” Burks says. “If the website is bare bones or has not been updated in awhile, they go to Google and start searching for your product. If this happens, you have just lost control of your brand image, and there is a good chance you have lost them as a potential customer. Once a customer leaves your website, there is a minefield of information out there they can find that you have no control over,” such as negative reviews, complaints or product information from competitors.

Generating buzz
Beyond the basics of product specs and company contact information, the widespread popularity of tablets and mobile devices gives companies another opportunity to connect with customers.

“One of the most significant improvements to our customer-service experience has been the increased availability of information and education,” the representative from Majestic Steel says. “For example, [our] Core Report provides readers with an in-depth look at key metrics driving the marketplace.”

Centria Coating Services, Moon Township, Pa., launched its mobile website, CCS Mobile, in April, giving its customers tools they can use in real time, including information on inventory, daily production and shipments.

“We know from many years of experience that most of our customers are mobile, whether they’re on a jobsite or traveling for business,” said Rick Walters, customers service leader, Centria Coating Services, in a press release. “We designed this mobile tool with their needs in mind, knowing that they need accurate and up-to-the-minute information on the orders they place with us.”

SSAB, Stockholm, also recently introduced a mobile app for Android and iPhone. The app was designed with on-the-go customers in mind and provides product information, instructions for processing steel, calculation models, data sheets and contact information for representatives in many countries.

Engaging customers when they’re away from their desks or providing them with essential information further strengthens the bond.

JMC Steel Group, which includes the Wheatland Tube and Atlas Tube divisions, launched three blogs in April: JMC Perspective, the Wheatland Standard and the Atlas Observer. The company’s goal is to provide industry-specific insight on issues impacting its customers, including emerging technology, engineering and construction, best practices, current events and legislation, according to a press release.

“The experience of our people is one of the core strengths of our companies,” said Jelani Rucker, JMC Steel Group director of market and development, in a statement. “We’re proud to share this knowledge and open up a dialogue with the industries we serve.”

Actively reaching out to customers also can provide companies with new ways to generate business. For Stainless Sales, one new initiative has given the company an opportunity to prove itself to customers. Throughout the year, the company is conducting four iPad giveaways to customers that request a quote or place an order.

DeVos says Marilyn Kutzen, Stainless Sales’ owner, wanted to generate more opportunities for the company to provide quotes and demonstrate its service. “We sell a commodity,” DeVos notes. “You can’t differentiate yourself very easily with a commodity, but our giveaway has definitely generated buzz. We’ve had maybe 70 people watch the video, and when we sent an email out reminding everyone they only had a week left to get their quotes and purchase orders in, we immediately had five phone calls. That’s where I see the success.

“I think we’ve seen more results from this promotion than anything else we’ve done,” she continues. “It could be an existing customer that doesn’t always give us a chance to quote or a new prospect that calls. I’m just looking for more opportunities. We believe that once you see our competitive prices and experience our service, you’ll be a customer for life.”

Opportunity is the key word when implementing strategies. Businesses certainly can run effectively without adding new technologies, and many industrial companies have been operating for generations without the need for upgrades.

“Core business principles never change, but sometimes the environment must adapt,” says the representative from Majestic Steel. “Evolving with the times is necessary to remain relevant and competitive.” The goal at Majestic is to look for technologies that add “real value for our employees and customers.”

For family-owned businesses, implementing a shift in strategy to take advantage of technology requires respecting the contribution of past generations while considering the impact of future decisions.

“With all respect to my grandfather, who retired six and one-half years ago, he was afraid if we implemented email into our organization that people were going to abuse it,” Letz says. “We did not have email until the day he retired. The day he retired, we put email into place. It just so happens, we’ve grown substantially because of that and become more efficient in the way we communicate with our customer base and supplier base.”

“Someone reminded me once, when she bought this technology 18 years ago, it was new at the time, it was exciting at the time, and it’s hard to think all that effort she put into it is no longer good enough,” DeVos adds. “For us, though, we’ve had explosive growth. We’ve basically doubled our volume in a couple of years, and that growth is demanding we get more efficient in everything that we do.”

With that type of ongoing expansion, companies who do not embrace an online strategy ultimately will be left behind.

“It takes less than eight seconds for an engineer or purchasing professional to go to a site and determine if a company has what they need,” says Lieberman. “If they don’t find it, they’ll back-button out and find a competitor who does.”

As a result, the buying process has been compressed, she says. “Everyone wants information delivery immediately. Therefore, companies need to have an active and comprehensive online presence continually honing their strategies to stay competitive in today’s rapidly changing industrial space.” MM

Digital relationship building
From golf games and phone calls to videos on YouTube, it’s important to take advantage of every opportunity to reach customers. However, online interaction is a brand-new endeavor for many industrial companies, and sketching out a plan of action can seem daunting. Rita Lieberman, director of marketing communications for Thomas Industrial Network, New York, recommends “implementing a technology or Internet strategy the way you would treat any large project—dividing it up into more manageable chunks.” Read about how companies are striving to create a comprehensive online presence at www.modernmetals.com/technology.

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