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Reinventing the sales and order process

Johan Bengtsson

Johan is Configura's Vice President, Marketing & Sales.

This is a continuation on our article about The future of space planning – about the traditional way of selling parametric, configurable products and how new software is now challenges these methods. In this article we will continue to look at how also the sales and order process is changed by new technology and software.

Reinventing the sales and order process

The sales and order process is probably the most important process for a company. It adds revenue, initiates purchase of raw materials and transfers marketing demands to new products. Virtually all company activities stem from the sales and order process. Therefore, it must be the top priority of any organization to optimize this process. Unfortunately, not enough people realize how much room there is for improvement.

The old way of organizing a sales and order process

With the old way of selling, a number of people are involved in a lengthy process. Most companies selling configurable system products have organized the sales process in a sequence of steps and functions, each managed by a specialist: Salespeople communicate with the customer; interior designers or engineers (depending on the industry) create the designs/layouts/renderings; additional people handle the specification and quotation work, and so it continues.

Meanwhile, in the midst of this multi-step process, the customer usually has changes and more requests. Consequently, the whole process must be repeated. Finally, when the quote is converted into an order, all parts must be defined down to the smallest detail.

The saying “a chain is no stronger than its weakest link” applies to this type of organization. Information needs to travel through each link in the chain, which leads to internal delays and an increased risk that information is lost or misinterpreted. This sales and order process is not only extremely time-consuming but also increases the risk of dissatisfied customers and lost business.

Customer requests are “perishable”

Quote requests from customers can be compared to perishable products – they can’t be ignored, left to go stale – they must be handled before requests sour into frustrated customers who then turn to the competition for help.

Organizations that deliver higher-quality information, faster than customers expect, gain a critical competitive advantage. Shorter lead times, excellent quality of drawings and quotations, and more service in the sales process result in faster, easier decision-making by the customer. When customer loyalty increases, repeat purchases and referrals rise, leading to more customers and higher profits – a positive upward spiral.

Modularization is a prerequisite to take full advantage of a PGC solution

Products can be modularized by being “built” by a relatively small amount of standard components. With just a few unique components, one can offer an infinite number of tailored and complete solutions to customers. Fewer components make production more cost-effective and the need to stock multitudes of components is minimized. Changing from an increasing amount of part numbers, your products can be represented by a limited and constant number of basic components, which simplifies handling of product data.

Time to market – a critical success factor

The competition to get customers drives an ever-growing product range and diversification. Simultaneously, product lifecycles seem to continually shrink, and it becomes increasingly important to quickly release new products to market. The time it takes for a newly developed product to launch is vital to success. If the release is delayed, giving the competition a chance to gain a foothold, then profitability is at risk.

Often, the biggest obstacle with a product release is educating the people who will sell the product. New system products often meet initial resistance if they are perceived as complicated. There may not be the time or desire to learn how the new product works, is used or how it can be calculated.

The result can be that it takes a long time before sales of the new product pick up. The introduction is obviously simpler for a product that, from the beginning, uses a PGC solution, because the salesperson or designer doesn’t have to learn product details – these details are built into the software. A new product line can therefore be simultaneously released and directly utilized in all markets.

Specify correctly and win the deal

It is complicated and time-consuming to sell system products and, specifically, to calculate and specify components. Many companies do not have the time or resources to establish detailed specification in the quotation process, particularly if only a fraction of the quotes produce orders. This results in many companies using standard templates to handle quotations and holding on the calculations until they’ve received the orders.

But the problem with standard templates is the very real possibility of over- or under-estimating true costs. Neither case is desirable.

Cut lead times through integration with ERP

When a quotation becomes an order, all information needs to be entered into the Enterprise Resource Planning software. This is often the stage at which companies start to specify what has actually been sold. However, with a PGC-based solution, specifications are ready to be transferred electronically to the ERP, which minimizes lead times, often from between one to four weeks.

Saving time during specification shortens time to delivery. This extra time can be used to improve production planning, resulting in better resource allocation, increased capacity utilization and lower costs.

Another important advantage is that the internal control of incoming orders can be eliminated, because orders from a PGC-based solution are error free. The salesperson or designer can use the solution’s built-in validation functionality as necessary.

One individual can handle the entire process

One individual, without significant product knowledge, can specify, calculate and quote a detailed and comprehensive system product in a fraction of the time it takes to accomplish the same work without a PGC-based solution. We call this re-inventing the sales and order process. We call this simplifying.

What is your company doing to simplify the sales and order process? Join our discussion on LinkedIn.

 

The future of space planning

Johan Bengtsson

Johan is Configura's Vice President, Marketing & Sales.

Previously we have talked about how Things had to be simpler and Why companies need a configurator. In this blog post we will continue by looking into the problems many companies face today and the technology we have developed to solve these problems. This is part 1 out of 2.

When we think of space planning, we think of furnishing an office, a kitchen or an industrial system in ways that meet functional and aesthetic needs. It’s a description we can all agree on. But it doesn’t give the full picture of the many steps that occur in the sales process.

This article is about rethinking old methods and inventing a new, streamlined sales and order process – one that covers all steps – from customer inquiry to order entry. We will talk about this process from different perspectives, all necessary in order to give the full picture of what our technology can do if implemented right.

The old way and the new way

When we meet with new customers, we usually begin by discussing what one usually associates with space planning (the old way) and what Configura offers to the customer (the new way). The gap between the two descriptions could be spelled by three letters – PGC – Parametric Graphical Configuration. It’s a good place to start the conversation, as the mindset of many is that space planning means CAD – computer-aided design.

While CAD, which took off in the 1980s, has done incredible things for space planning, it’s limited in scope. The power of Configura’s PGC technology is the ability to quickly and accurately design, specify, render and order configurable products. PGC turns the old sales and order process on its head, simplifies it and creates a whole new way of working.

Ever since we started in 1990, Configura’s business idea has been to develop solutions for companies that sell configurable system products. What signifies a system product is that the end product is comprised of a number of configurable standard components, which, in correlation to one another, have different functions and properties. We call these relationships product rules. Product rules describe how certain components fit together with other components and what happens to them when connected.

To handle a system product in a logical way, one needs to define how it should work – one needs a product model that supports various system configurations and scenarios to offer to the customer.

What is a parametric, configurable system product?

An example of a parametric and configurable system product is the kitchen interior but the same problems can be found in a wide range of industries. As we all know, a kitchen has a number of components – cabinets, countertops, toe-kicks, crown moulding and appliances. The majority of these components are parametric, which means they can be ordered and produced in different widths, depths and heights.

If we simplify the problem, and limit ourselves to just studying a single cabinet, we quickly realize that the number of possible combinations of this cabinet is huge. Even just a few parameters can quickly create a very large number of possible options for a single cabinet.

A cabinet has additional functions to fulfill – for example, different interiors and shelving, and whether it should include a sink or an integrated oven. More options include the material to use for the framework, the thickness of the wood and if there should be a front-edge trim. Aesthetics also need to be considered, including cabinet fronts and handles.

Given the parametric properties of a cabinet, there are a large number of product configuration rules that define how its different components fit together. The product configuration rules can have their starting points in functional, aesthetic or technical production limitations. Even if something is technically possible, some combinations may not be allowed because of aesthetics or functional needs and vice versa.

The example above only talked about one cabinet. It’s easy to conclude that the complexity and number of options increase exponentially for an entire kitchen.

How traditional software solve this problem

PGC solves this complicated problem. But let’s first take a quick look at how traditional CAD-based drawing programs handle the problem of millions of possible product combinations.

The answer is simple – they don’t. Instead, salespeople and designers are forced by CAD-based systems to learn "all" product numbers – one product number usually represents a complete, finished cabinet – and this is clearly beyond human ability. The result? Salespeople only sell what they are used to selling.

PGC makes the difficult easy

With PGC, we turn this process on its head. Instead of forcing the user to memorize product numbers, we let the software generate product numbers based on an algorithm that mirrors the options the user has made in the planning process.

This means that the salesperson or designer works with concrete concepts such as the width, height, material and function of a drawing component. Valid and invalid configuration combinations within a component are described in the component’s product model, as is the product’s relation to other components. This is achieved with Configura’s unique programming language CM.

From a user-perspective, there are a number of critical benefits. The components that represent real products become intelligent, which means they know how, where and when they can be used. A salesperson or designer doesn’t need to know the product details because the software handles them. Instead, the salesperson can trust that Configura’s software tracks all system product numbers, even those that are automatically given in a certain combination.

Industries that benefit from a PGC solution

This fundamental benefit of a PGC-based solution means one can radically simplify the sales and order process for companies in a variety of industries, including contract furniture, kitchen and bath, laboratory furniture, shopfittings, material handling, storage, industrial processing systems, etc.

Commonalities of these industries:

● They manufacture or sell configurable and often parametric products

● They have a need for space planning

● They produce a large number of customer proposals each year

In the next blog post we will continue this article and talk about how PGC not only simplifies drawing components but how it also helps companies to improve their sales process and save both time and money. Stay tuned.

Why your company needs a configurator

Johan Lyreborn

Johan Lyreborn is cofunder of Configura and CEO.

The world is changing and it has been for a while now. New technology is making its way into our offices, factories and homes and it’s making us more efficient, work faster and automates (and eliminates) many of our everyday tasks. Among these inventions are the configurators – a software application that allows users to design their own products to their specific needs.

When we founded Configura over 20 years ago, no one was talking about configurators. Today, they seem to be popping up all over the place. A simple google search can lead you to “configurator-overload” – so where to start? In this article we will go through the basic understanding of what a configurator is and how it can simplify the work for many companies.

What is a configurator?

The general consensus is that configurators are responsible to guide a user through the configuration process. As this definition is a little fuzzy, there is a large amount of solutions gathered under the name configurators - from very simple to highly complex - that are solving many different problems.

Most commonly known configurators are simple, web-based solutions used in e-commerce where a user can add their own text or design to products such as t-shirts, hats, mugs etc. The product is visualized, defined and priced based on the different configurations the user performs. These systems are often used to replace the need for human customer service or live intervention during the check-out process.

Configurators are also popular in B2B and are today used in a wide array of industries. These tend to be more complex, solving problems that involve complicated calculations and high volumes of orders. Configurators can be integrated with other systems, such as ERP systems, and can often automate many tasks such as creating bills of materials, specifications and order documents.

At Configura, our configurators focus on system configuration combined with space planning. System configuration is when you look beyond the individual product to focus on the relationships between the products within a space. For example, complex products that require a configurator are wall systems. Wall systems can be configured individually in height, length and width but, when you put two walls together, the walls will make additional changes in relation to each other. A configurator takes care of this complexity and does all calculations for the user. We can see the same trend with desks, shelving systems and many other products used to define a space.

Why do businesses need configurators?

There’s a reason why large manufacturers turn to configurators, and there’s a related reason to why these companies are so successful. In the past, companies did not offer customization as it was just too expensive for the manufacturer and the customer, but today companies need to differentiate themselves from the competition. This has resulted in more custom and configurable products which in turn has added complexity to the sales process. Configurators simplify this process and can solve immediate problems such as decrease the time it takes to create quotations, improve order accuracy or eliminate configuration errors.

These are just a few benefits you can see by introducing a configurator. In the next article we will dig deeper into the world of configurators and how they differ from each other.

It had to be simpler, and it is

Göran Rydqvist

Göran Rydqvist is cofounder of Configura, VP of Research and Development at the company and author of the CM programming language.

Configura started because of my dad, and because of a problem.

My dad owned an office furniture company here in Sweden in the 1980s and 90s. I remember him drafting on paper to specify products.

As a small business owner, the weekdays were constantly busy, so Dad would bring the specs home and work on them late at night or on the weekend. Changes to specs were frequent, and it would get frustrating to redo all of the required, very meticulous work to get the quotes right for customers.

At the time, I was a computer sciences graduate student at Linköping Institute of Technology in Sweden. Dad asked for my help.

After tinkering around with CAD and reaching a dead end, I went down my own path with the help of my best friend, Johan Lyreborn, also studying programming at Linköping.

My dad’s problem became our mission, and that’s what I want to talk about in this first blog post.

Remember MacPaint? Drag. Drop. Draw. That’s what I recall about this early Apple software product. Simple. Easy. Intuitive. It was made for regular people, not just for so-called “computer experts” like most software back then seemed to be. And that’s what we felt designing and specifying should be – a really easy and enjoyable experience for the end user.

All of those parts and pieces and prices and associated numbers? We believed that data should be written into the software and put behind the scenes – not in front where it creates a visual nightmare of complexity for the user. (Ultimately, parts numbers should be completely done away with, in my opinion. But that’s the subject of another blog post.)

Picture Legos – the building-blocks toy. We felt that’s how products should be presented and experienced in the user interface. Lego building blocks encourage creativity so even small children can build interesting constructs. In our case, we wanted to create a smart “Lego-like” product.

In other words, products would be represented by a small number of flexible “blocks” that would “know” how they could be combined and would adapt logically to their surroundings. That’s because product rules would be built into these blocks.

Our “cement,” so to speak, holding everything together, would be programming logic – not data.

Our goal was to create a system that would be instantly usable by interior designers, specifiers and salespersons, not just CAD experts. So, in our early struggle to create true ease of use and specification efficiency, we developed basic principles by which we would program our software. These principles included:

  1. A super-condensed user interface (UI) through symbols representing “real” products

  2. Product-specific snapping that automates rotation, placement and adaption

  3. Snapping that remembers connections, usable by rules or logic, and automatically adds intermediate components (for example, a post)

  4. Rules that automatically handle change, adaption, mirroring, addition and removal of products

  5. Automatically generated 2D, 3D, calculation and order data

These logical principles yielded profound results: a visual interface which, through simple, gesture-based control, actively invited and encouraged exploration and design – resulting in an immersive, virtual-reality-like design experience. In other words, products simply behaved as expected.

When we tested our freshly built software on new users, we were greatly encouraged. With little effort, salespersons with no previous computer experience started to use the tool, quickly became immersed in design and even began to learn more about the products they were selling.

We collectively called these principles and benefits – which became our core business philosophy – Parametric Graphical Configuration (PGC). We will talk more about PGC in a later blog post.

My dad, Johan and I built Configura in 1990 on this foundation of PGC. Twenty-five years later, it remains our foundation.

Growing a sustainable business

At first, we developed our PGC-based solution in C, and then in C++.

We pushed these programming languages to their limits in an effort to adapt them to our problem domain. Along the way, we learned that continuing to program in these languages wasn’t sustainable. We were creating custom software for each new customer instead of inventing an industry-wide solution. As projects grew very large, development speed slowed to a crawl. We needed something scalable, capable of handling multiple companies and easy to distribute to huge numbers of end-users.

Our solution? Write our own programming language. The result was CM. It took us five years to develop this language to the point where we could deliver our first application to end-users

Creating our own success

CM executes fast for a highly immersive, interactive experience and allows for instant changes directly to the running program – no more slow compiles, slow links, startup and clicking around to restore test context. CM gives instant changes to the running application in whatever programming situation one encounters. Programmers no longer have to succumb to the slow, costly and debilitating waiting times that can dominate programming and kill creativity.

Our second-generation software, CET Designer, is based on CM. CET stands for Configura Extension Technology. The CET foundation allows manufacturer-specific Extensions (with their product rules) to be added onto the CET Designer core. Extensions are to CET Designer what apps are like to a smartphone.

With CET Designer, we have created ONE PLATFORM that can calculate and visualize products from multiple companies and industries. 

Sixteen years later, the CM programming language is the backbone of Configura software. We wouldn’t be able to deliver our solutions so incredibly cost-effectively if it weren’t for this language. To our knowledge, there is no other available commercial or open-source alternative.

What can we do to help your company experience our solution?

  

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