Handheld Technology Brings Automation to In-Home Sales

Point-of-sale measuring and order-entry system aims to eliminate errors, reduce time, increase upsells
By Christina Lewellen
April 1, 2006
FEATURE ARTICLE | Operations, Close-Ups

Some replacement window dealers may soon hang up their tape measures, pads of paper and calculators for electronic devices that automatically measure openings, configure window options and generate printed quotes for their customers.

Taking the human element out of these traditional sales steps means reducing mistakes—a word that equals lost revenue to a dealer. “We’re a company that deals with a lot of detail and because we deal with so much detail, there’s also a lot of paperwork,” says Matt Novotchin, a salesman for replacement window company Dial One Windows in Orange County, CA. “Using [technology such as] a handheld device is really blocking so many potential mistakes in what we do.”

Dial One is completing an in-field test of a new point-of-sale technology that allows its salespeople to navigate their way through the configuration process with a handheld computer, allowing the homeowner to see as they go what the window looks like.

Tapping the handheld’s screen with a stylus, a salesman can quickly show how the window would appear with grids and how the configuration would operate. If the homeowner wonders if bay windows might look better in a couple of the openings, the salesman can effortlessly start the configuration steps again. In the process, the software prevents him from offering products or options that cannot be produced by the manufacturer.

Once the homeowner has approved her decisions, the salesman pulls out a printer, which has a wireless connection, and provides the buyer with a quote, complete with two-dimensional diagrams of the windows they have just “built.”

Back at the office, the quote created with the handheld interfaces with the dealer’s ordering software, whichever software the manufacturer provided. The order goes through smoothly and the homeowner’s windows enter the production cycle.

Charlie Gindele, CEO of Dial One Windows, partnered with GiantLeap Inc. in early 2004 for an in-field beta test of this technology. He says, “It was a dream come true. They were showing me a working model of all the things I had been thinking of. They didn’t really have to sell me on it. I knew the value of it from day one.”

Development of the Salesbuddy system, designed to make this scenario possible, began several years ago when Pat Keljik, co-founder of GiantLeap, began upgrading some rental properties she owned. Her 20-year history as a software developer sparked the idea for an information-gathering technology, as she started to obtain quotes for windows. “As a consumer, one doesn’t look at a window as being a very complex item,” she explains. “It’s a hole in the wall that somebody fills with glass. But I came to understand that it is a very complex process and I knew I couldn’t develop a product without being in the industry.” As a result, she took a job selling windows in 2001. Her first-hand experience exposed her to the many industry-wide weaknesses in the measuring, pricing and ordering processes.

Keljik developed the handheld concept to allow dealers to take their sales process to a new level. The device is more durable than a laptop computer and its compact nature makes it easy to tote from site to site. She believes the Salesbuddy system will allow dealers and distributors—a segment of the industry historically seen as slow to adopt new technology—to catch up to their manufacturing counterparts. “Manufacturers in general are highly technical. They’ve taken on technology with a vengeance. All of the computerization they’re using even in product development is fantastic,” Keljik explains. “On the dealer end, it’s primitive. There’s so much dissonance between the two parts of the industry. One is highly technical and one is the Stone Age.”

Until now, she asserts, there hasn’t been an infrastructure in the dealer market to support the quoting and order software that is available. If people in the field don’t have laptops, she explains, the software doesn’t help. “But managing it on such a mobile and easy-to-use Pocket PC, we’ve been able to bridge that issue.”

The GiantLeap product is not aimed to replace any of the ordering software currently available in the industry. Rather, it completes the sales process by starting at the point-of-sale. “The products currently out there are not obsolete,” she explains. “They can be the intermediary. Instead of coming back to the office after a home visit to enter the information [into an in-house ordering package], they can integrate the systems to have Salesbuddy transpose and eliminate the errors in typing, reduce time, etc. We’re actually completing something that has never been completed.”

Focusing on ways to eliminate human error and reduce the amount of time figuring out the details of the sale, GiantLeap partnered with Switzerland-based company Leica Geosystems to make its measuring device, the Leica Disto, compatible with the Salesbuddy. If a dealer chooses to employ the Disto tool, it collects sizing information digitally (using a laser) and transfers it directly to the handheld using Bluetooth wireless technology. A salesman with this option would have at his fingertips a device which measures openings to one-sixteenth of an inch accuracy, and transfers the data directly to his handheld computer using Bluetooth wireless technology. With no measuring tapes or scribbling on a yellow pad, the risk of human errors is reduced.

Keith Lantz, western regional sales manager for Leica’s measuring tools division, says digital measuring saves a significant amount of time. “Using tape measures, there’s a lot of potential for errors in the measurement, not only in making the measurements with the tape measure, but in the transposition of the measurements,” he points out. “With an electronic link between the measuring tool and the collection method, we take that potential source of error out.”

PILOT PROGRAM 
Orange County in southern California has about 3 million people in 40 cities, making it a “self contained marketplace” in the eyes of Dial One Windows’ founder Gindele. As the replacement dealership grew to its current level—two showroom locations, 14 salespeople and about $14 million in revenue—the technologically savvy owner decided twice to pursue in-house development of a pricing/ordering software. With about $150,000 invested in the process, his custom software developers threw up their hands and Gindele abandoned the project. Still, he understood the real costs his company faced as a result of math errors and incorrect pricing. “I felt this [type of software] was the future of our business as we grew,” he explains. “It really had become a bottleneck in our business and as we continued to grow, it was becoming a bigger bottleneck.”

A participant in some of GiantLeap’s pre-launch market research, Gindele’s interest and support of a handheld computing platform for ordering and quoting software made him a good choice as a potential pilot partner for the Irvine, CA, based software services firm. “There are just so many angles they were thinking of that I hadn’t thought of,” he says. “When [Keljik] printed out on a portable printer in my office some typical price quotes, I was salivating.”

Once Gindele agreed to the beta test participation, Keljik and the GiantLeap team began collecting specs and pricing information on the 20-plus lines that Dial One offered from eight different manufacturers. The system is designed to take a multi-manufacturer sale and segment the order by manufacturer, producing the individual orders in the form the manufacturer prefers. “If one manufacturer has an order form that has to be filled out and faxed to them, the system will segregate those windows and pass them on through fax,” Keljik explains. “If another one has PowerBids or something, then when we’re able to do a direct integration with PowerBids or m2o with their cooperation, we can send it directly to them. What we’re trying to do is create partnerships with those companies that offer products being used for order entry because we’re not in direct competition with each other.”

During the more than two-year pilot program, Gindele’s business took a turn and went from being a multi-line dealer to an exclusive Renewal by Andersen provider. This shift allowed the sales force and the software developers at GiantLeap the opportunity to observe the different selling approaches and make adjustments to the system. Unlike some traditional ordering software, the system is non-manufacturer specific. So regardless of whether a dealer sells one line or many, its sales force can use the technology to pull together a complete quote, for windows for one room or an entire house. “Many companies want to do an entire order with other products, maybe even not just windows” Keljik says. “It might be siding, roofing. They’re going to make the most of that lead. Salesbuddy can add that to the order, even though it can’t do pricing right now, and include in all the discount values.”

At the same time the GiantLeap team was learning Dial One’s business rules and manually entering all the specs for the window lines, they also developed a training program to introduce to the employees once the in-field testing began.

Dial One bought into the handheld concept, but, the owner notes, as with any change some employees were initially resistant. They are slowly but surely accepting the shift. “It’s very easy to resort to what you’re in the habit of doing,” Gindele says. “We’ve got some people who are very computer literate and some others who find the cell phone a challenge. But I don’t think anyone questions the value of it.”

“Some contracts are 30 to 40 pages long because of the complexity,” notes Gindele. “So when a salesman finally consummates a deal, it can sometimes take 20 to 30 minutes just to fill in all the blanks. Now they’re beginning to see that they can just push a button and print it all out.”

Plus, the print-out is much easier for homeowners to understand compared to some written contracts, says Novotchin, one of the Dial One salespeople who have taken this technology into the homes of potential clients. “It makes it more clear to the customer what exactly they’re buying,” he notes. “As much detail as we had before, it’s sometimes hard to itemize everything on a basic quote sheet. Salesbuddy really allows you to itemize every part of the installation method and options. It really boils it all down and printing a picture of the way a window will look is a beautiful thing, especially when a customer is asking for grid patterns.”

Other than having a veteran working shoulder-to-shoulder with a new hire, Novotchin says there’s no better way to help a rookie learn all of the technical considerations to selling and installing a window. “One of the things the salespeople are so impressed with is that it will not let you make pricing mistakes,” he explains. “It will not let you leave things out. You can’t go on to the next step until you’ve answered all the questions. Other than having a teacher himself explaining things, this teaches you as you go at the same time.”

Having all of the information related to a sale recorded with the handheld also allows salespeople to easily recall information or leads when a customer calls or a question about an order pops up. “If a customer calls you three months after the initial visit, you can pull the quote right up on the handheld,” says Novotchin. “You can say, ‘Let me reconfigure this based on today’s pricing and I’ll get right back with you.’

“Also, if the [ordering and manufacturing] process takes six weeks, customers may not remember what they bought,” he continues. “With Salesbuddy, there’s no question that that product is what they bought. All of this detail is going to give customer service some sort of relief.”

In addition to its beta test partner becoming its first customer, GiantLeap has already begun the customization process with other dealers and distributors around the country. Although Keljik remains committed to controlled growth, “dealers are lining up to get involved with the handheld technology,” she says.

As the firm rolls out its technology to the industry, some dealer-focused window manufacturers are stepping forward to make their product and pricing information  available to the supplier. Great Lakes Windows has already volunteered the specifications for its flagship Uniframe line, for example, clearing the path for its Uniframe dealers to get up and running with the system if it fits their business goals.  “We have a vested interest in our dealers being successful and helping them as much as possible,” says Kevin Wray, an IT manager for the Ohio-based replacement window manufacturer. “If they think Salesbuddy can help them, I think providing the information is the least we can do.”

Keljik says manufacturers can follow Great Lakes’ lead by making their product data available to their dealer network through the company’s system. Further, “those who really want to get involved with the profitability can actually provide Salesbuddy to dealers and form a real partnership with them,” she says.

“If the dealer feels that the manufacturer is completely supporting them in getting the product out to the consumer, that can make a huge difference,” she continues. “They don’t have to bear the full weight, which some of them do right now.”

Great Lakes as a company agrees. “In this business, [dealer service] is the end game,” Wray says. “If we don’t step up to the plate, someone else will. We do it because we want to help the customer. There’s a lot of consolidation and competition, so if our people feel they can use this software package to be more accurate in the home, that’s a big thing.”

PUTTING THE "SALES" BACK IN "SALESPERSON"
This electronic approach to in-the-field order entry can offer obvious benefits, as far as time saved and reduced mistakes. Both Keljik and Gindele, however, point to other benefits to the dealer. Some industry research has pegged annual sales force turnover at 30 to 50 percent. With initial training costs ranging between $2,000 and $7,000 per salesperson, bringing new people into a company to sell windows and doors can be a major expense, Keljik points out. “Because of the technical information, you can’t just throw someone out in the street and say, ’Go sell.’ There’s a huge amount of training and amazing amounts of money lost because if a guy doesn’t pan out, that’s lost resources and lost knowledge.”

Keljik says the handheld system helps slow turnover by eliminating the paperwork nightmare that comes with selling fenestration products. “The measuring, recording, calculating, looking through price books—all those duties that take up to 60 percent of his mental and physical time—is eliminated,” she says. “What he’s doing now is focusing on what the customers’ needs are and work on what he truly is, a salesman.”

Having the technology platform take over a significant portion of the clerical duties of the sales force is also beneficial for the dealership itself. Besides increased accuracy of orders, Keljik says, the company can hire people for their selling skills, regardless of whether they’re proficient with the detail-oriented aspects of the job. “You’re able to get the best salesmen because you don’t have to worry about their deficits. Between a good salesman and the Salesbuddy, you have a whole deck of cards.”

Keljik says ordering efficiency is a critical way the system can help a dealer maintain its level of credibility and professionalism. “It’s good to know before a window is ordered that it can’t be ordered incorrectly,” she says. “When a salesman has to go back to a consumer and say, ‘I made a mistake and have to do an amendment to this contract. I offered you something that wasn’t available,’ you have an unhappy customer. You’ve taken away the credibility and you can’t put a Band-Aid on that. Even though the dealer has made the mistake, the manufacturer is painted with the same brush. Getting it right at the point-of-information all the way through the manufacturing process is critical, not only to the dealer but to the manufacturer as well.”

Gindele believes the technology-enhanced approach to selling gives his sales force an automatic edge over less savvy competitors. “When [a salesperson] lays down one of these quotes and says that’s the price, you believe that’s the price,” he continues. “When somebody scribbles on a yellow pad, how do you really know that’s the right price?”

The Generation X consumers that are becoming homeowners and investing in their homes, he continues, will expect a new level of accuracy and professionalism from service providers that their parents and grandparents may not have. “The new generation coming forward, they expect preciseness, automation. If you don’t embrace it, you’re going to get run over by it.”

Keljik acknowledges that it’s difficult to develop a return-on-investment calculation for areas such as increased professionalism, and it will likely take several years before the company can even get an accurate handle on the value of eliminating incorrect specs and ordering mistakes. But referring to a study conducted by a national big box retailer, she points out that processing costs alone—reviewing orders, re-keying information, preparing paperwork for remeasure and preparing the actual orders for the manufacturer—costs nearly $75 per order. Just in that one area of ROI, a salesman could essentially pay for this type of system with two or three orders, she notes. Once the other non-quantifiable factors are included, the payoff is even faster. “My guess is that long-term when you put these things together, and this is just a guess, that probably in one sale you’re going to see a return,” she says.

Gindele knows from his experience in the industry that not all dealers will be quick to abandon their pads of paper and tape measures to jump to a handheld computer. “This product is not for everybody,” he acknowledges. “I’ve talked to people about it in the last couple of years and with some people you see their eyes light up and with others you see their eyes gloss over. But I do believe that when there’s a paradigm shift, everything goes back to zero.”

Other products offering similar functions will likely come along, but Gindele sees GiantLeap’s system being the first to lead window and door sales into a new era. “I certainly believe this is going to revolutionize the industry.”

Picture This
For dealers looking to put more technology into the hands of their sales force, GiantLeap’s point-of-sale software is compatible with a visualization package that allow homeowners to see what their house will actually look like once the window replacement project is completed.

A salesperson pulls up to a house for a sales call and takes digital pictures of the property. By downloading these images to a laptop and providing one measurement, such as a door jamb, the visualization software from RenoWorks then calculates all other dimensions proportionately so products can be applied to the correct scale. Drawing on a current library of 27 window and door manufacturers, the salesman/homeowner team can peruse windows on the fly, but the software will only illustrate configurations and sizes that can actually be built.

“All of this is done within minutes so it’s very interactive with the customer,” explains Greg Martineau, CEO of RenoWorks and owner of a remodeling company that specializes in windows and doors. Once the homeowner has a visual picture, the salesperson turns to his handheld to walk through the technical specifications for the products using the Salesbuddy system.

“Anything to do with technology as a dealer tool, we feel is a great asset to provide more of a rounded-out suite of products to improve closing ratios, increase upsells and be more profitable,” Martineau says. “Both [software packages] are dealing with the window industry and a more professional, enticing way to sell manufacturers’ products to the end user.”

The visualization software (which can emulate products besides windows and doors) is an optional package offered to those who build a custom point-of-sale platform with GiantLeap, and both products are also sold separately. The companies are simply going to market together to show potential customers the whole range of technology options that are available. “In this industry,” Martineau says, “one of the biggest hurdles you have to get over in the customers’ eyes is credibility. Having the extra technology edge is total credibility.”