For Kolbe & Kolbe, Software Eases Growing Pains
Window and door manufacturers are facing some growing pains. The list of products and options offered by most companies is expanding, and customers are becoming more demanding. One manufacturer facing these challenges is Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork Co., now nearing the end of a multi-year rollout of a new ordering and quoting software package.
The 60-year-old company’s made-to-order product line was getting increasingly complex in recent years with even more options. Officials knew it was time to heal some long-term internal wounds in the line of communication between the buyer and the production floor. Its self-proclaimed “Kolbe speak” in its ordering process left many of its dealers baffled when it came to specifying the right product options.
For a company like Kolbe, its foundation and driving engine for growth—its ability to deliver a highly customizable product—was a double-edged sword that was undermining its sales and productivity. A complex product means a complex order. With a more extensive product line than it offered in the past, the company’s growth actually made it harder for its retailers to quote and order its product, says Hank Hosler, director of information technology for Kolbe. “With our features and the capabilities of our products growing, getting a quote on that required a lot more knowledge,” he points out. “We needed to put together a system to allow people to quickly and effectively put out a quote, or even a re-quote.”
But the company was not looking for a Band-Aid solution. Rather than tossing out the software in the hopes that its dealers would bite, Kolbe took two years to explore how a software package could best serve its network, thereby strengthening its relationship with the selling channel. “We had to balance the power of the system with ease-of-use,” explains Hosler, “so we started out the project by talking to our customers. We asked what they wanted and what mattered to them.”
The question is did it work to ease the growing pain? How does a company make sure that its sizeable software investment of both time and money isn’t waved-off by those it aims to help? For a big, national company, Kolbe & Kolbe generally maintains a pretty low profile in the industry. But the privately held, Wausau, WI-based manufacturer is ready to throw open the sash, so to speak, in 2007 to let its current and potential retailers examine how Kolbe is a company that’s “easy to do business with.” As the tagline indicates, Kolbe partnered with TDCI (which coined the “easy to do business with” phrase) to integrate the software supplier’s BuyDesign platform into its corporate culture. And “integrate” truly is the key word. This year marks the final training and deployment stages of a multi-year project to move to a more efficient, electronic quoting and ordering system. “The demand for this really came from our customers initially,” Hosler notes. “But we as a company had to not just hear what they were saying but really understand what they were asking for.”
ONE-SIZE SOFTWARE DOES NOT FIT ALL
All quoting and ordering software is designed to increase the speed and improve the accuracy in the selling process, as well as automate the transfer of that information to the window or door manufacturer’s production system, but there’s room for interpretation in how the system looks to the user, its ease-of-use and the effectiveness of its tools. “For window and door companies, we don’t build anything to go on shelves, really,” Hosler says. “Being that there’s so many options and choices, it’s important to have software to be able to handle it.”
Kolbe opted for a highly visual system structured around “guided selling,” which the company named Kolbe ProQuotes. In its most basic description, the software calls on the user to pick a type of window and everything else beyond that point is customized, says Cindy Bremer, Kolbe’s director of marketing. The responsive system guides the user through the process, showing all of the available options with visuals and informative descriptions at each step, she notes. “This system points our customers in the right direction with the right product based on their needs and situation,” she says. “Without the technology, you had to know the book and what was available with what type of product. Now, if I have a need for an impact-rated product, the software will take you down the right path.”
For dealers who use the ProQuotes system, the guided selling features mean the software is more of an options-selling and upgrade tool rather than simply an electronic ordering tool. Tom Sanders of Shenandoah Sash & Door, a two-step wholesaler of Kolbe products located in Virginia, expects the ProQuotes system will help his dealers achieve higher margins just knowing about potential upgrades and available options. “I firmly believe that our dealers using this system will benefit from the pull-down menus that show all of the various options available to a specific product, such as hardware finish,” he says. “These options typically cost more than the standard defaults and will obviously help to increase sales.”
The software also keeps the user within the acceptable boundaries of the options that are available, making it impossible to specify certain options that might not be available to certain products. With the engineering limits built in, users can get through an order quickly and accurately, according to Michael Nied of Grand Openings, a window dealer in Texas. “It gives our salespeople more time to see more customers,” he says, “and that should have the end result of selling more.”
In addition to keeping buyers in the confines of engineering and option availability parameters, ProQuotes also eliminates the age-old issue that comes with traditional paper catalogs—outdated information. Kolbe can issue real-time updates for ProQuotes, which sync up with users’ local versions when a computer is connected to the Internet. As the manufacturer continues to transition to this new ordering tool, Hosler and his internal team at Kolbe are constantly making changes to the information included in the system. “As we’re putting products in there, we’re also changing the ones already in there at the same time,” he says. “It’s sort of like trying to ride a bike and fix it at the same time. But that’s good. Our customers want the content. They say, ‘The more you put in there, the more we sell.’”
The ProQuotes initiative serves Kolbe when it comes to timeliness too, of course. A quicker quote, or series of quotes, will often mean a quicker transition to the actual order, Hosler points out. “We want them to be able to quote and price products in a way that’s cost effective for their organization, but at the same time, we want products to be quoted and sent in here as quickly as possible.”
The real-time communication through ProQuotes continues after the sale as well, allowing customers to track the status of an order—something that helps Nied and the Grand Openings team better serve its clientele. “It allows us to be more accurate in a timely manner when communicating with our customers,” he says. “After the sale, it allows us to communicate with Kolbe more accurately and in a timely manner as well.”
Sanders agrees that real-time ordering will drastically reduce miscommunication at all stages of the supply chain. “This system was designed with our customers in mind,” he says. “Unlike a distributor that lives and breathes this one product line every waking hour of the day, our dealers are traditionally retail building material suppliers that are involved with many other items than windows and doors in a day’s time. The excitement around ProQuotes stems from a simple ideology that everyone in the chain will be working off the same quote.”
TEACHING OLD DOGS NEW E-TRICKS
Although the former “Kolbe speak” way of ordering probably wasn’t the most efficient or accurate, it’s still what long-time Kolbe customers were used to before the development of ProQuotes. In fact, some retailers are sticking with the traditional ordering process for now, despite the availability of the electronic system. As the company wrapped-up 2006, Hosler says about half of its customer base had gone through ProQuotes training. And the company will continue to work in 2007 to transition the rest, he notes. “More and more of our customers are integrating quoting systems with their business,” he says. “It used to be an active, high-maintenance technology to pull off. Now it’s not so hard to do. People have the wherewithal to integrate these systems on a local level. They don’t have to be a huge corporation to pull it off.”
To help dealers and distributors with the transition, Kolbe assembled a five-person team to man a support line and answer calls for technical and product-related questions. The company has also written up its own ProQuotes training manual, developed a structured training course and conducted blitz training sessions in certain regions of the country. The goal is to keep the rollout swift and efficient so dealers can get back to business as usual. “We are only as successful as they are,” Hosler says of the retailers. “We don’t want them to have downtime learning a new system. So whatever we can do to minimize that, we’ve done.”
About half of Kolbe's retailers have transitioned to its electronic quoting and ordering system, following ProQuotes training sessions.
The effort was not lost on most dealers, including Shenandoah Sash & Door. Sanders says Kolbe’s was not a drop-and-run software introduction. The manufacturer is dedicated to helping his team, and also their customers, successfully integrate the ProQuotes software into their business cultures. “Kolbe has been very generous with their time to support us in this introductory phase of dealer training,” he says.
The true test for the software, notes Sanders, was its ability to get the nod from some “old dogs” at his company that weren’t so sure about learning new tricks. “We employ some outside sales people that have been using another quoting system for over 15 years,” he recalls. “Despite [that software’s] shortcomings, people don’t like change, as a rule. Knowing in advance that they were going to be one of the toughest groups to switch over, their response was anxiously awaited. As a group, they are not only behind the conversion, but extremely enthusiastic about what they saw during the ProQuotes demonstration.”
STANDING APART FROM THE COMPETITION
Through the development and integration process, Hosler and the rest of the Kolbe team have come to view ProQuotes as one of its product offerings. Ordering software is just another way for manufacturers in the industry to stand apart from their competition, he notes.
That’s part of why the manufacturer that’s been serving the industry for six decades is particularly excited about entering the ProQuotes era. Hosler acknowledges that plenty of manufacturers offer electronic ordering software options to their customers, but he thinks the systems that will stand out are the intuitive systems that have a true impact on a dealer’s bottom line. “Everyone has their own software, and some even share platforms,” he says. “There’s not a ton of differentiation in what systems can and can’t do. What it comes down to is that people are going to choose the path of least resistance. They’re going to find the system that’s most intuitive to make a quote, and that’s where they’re going to start.”
And being the easiest quote, and perhaps consequently the first quote, Hosler says, is just the sort of edge that the fenestration industry players live for. “You want your sample used in the home for demonstrations and you want to be the first one to get quoted because the first one just might get the sale,” he points out. “Being the most quotable of the window companies gives us an advantage in the marketplace. And that’s not easy when you have an expanded product line. ProQuotes shows what we’re capable of.”
Sanders thinks the software “edge” will resonate between dealers and buyers as well. “Anyone not using a quoting and ordering system of this nature will be left in the trail of dust from the competition,” he says.