On the Front Lines

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2003-01-17 Print this article Print

If it's possible for an office chair to create buzz, Herman Miller's Aeron did. But it's still counting on 3-D technology to juice sales.

On the Front Lines

Dealers are a key link in that chain, and many of Herman Miller's surviving technology programs focus on helping them sell its products.

Kiosk, a dealer Web site based on Lotus Domino that replaced an earlier Notes-based solution, went live in the summer of 2001. CIO Gary VanSpronsen has been quoted as saying it cost about $1 million, making it a relatively affordable project at a time when more ambitious plans for a company-wide portal had to be shelved.

Dealers praise this private Web site as a place to track orders, as well as to download boilerplate sales presentations and educate themselves about the company's latest products.

Daniel F. Morley, president of BFI, a large independent Herman Miller dealer headquartered in Elizabeth, N.J., says Kiosk allows him to launch e-mail marketing campaigns that he could never afford to create independently. "I can use electronic marketing materials developed by Herman Miller, and with a little bit of manipulation through this system it can have my name on it when it goes out," Morley says.

Product education via Kiosk also helped BFI win a current pending sale of Herman Miller's Resolve product line, Morley says. Resolve does away with cubes, instead hanging desks and shelves off of vertical poles, so that workstations cluster in triangles or zigzag across a room. It's different enough that customers are a little afraid of it.

But when a Fortune 1000 company decided to combine staff from three locations into one, a BFI salesperson seized the opportunity to show the practical benefits learned through online study. Thus, BFI was able to show the customer how to put 250 people in a space that previously housed only 188 by replacing Steelcase furniture with Resolve.

"We sold it not on the basis of purchase price but real estate savings," Morley says.

Z-Axis also is effective at keeping price from being the deciding factor, says Frank Falsetti, a salesman for Building Service Inc. in Milwaukee. When he learned that a local engineering firm, TDI Associates, was moving into new offices, he decided not to take no for an answer.

"The initial reaction was, we don't have the budget for it," Falsetti says. TDI had $15,000 in the budget for furniture and thought it could get what it needed from Office Depot. But Falsetti got his hands on the plans for the new office, which he took home for an 8-hour session with z-Axis.

When he returned, he showed off 3-D renderings of a typical workstation, then expanded the view to show a layout of 18 cubicles. He would zoom in and out to show how it all fit together, and how it would look from different angles.

"Not only could I spin it around, but I had all the pricing right there," Falsetti says. In the process, he was able to showcase the features of Herman Miller's system, such as its allowance for wire and cabling, and room to tack engineering plans to the wall panels.

TDI's owner was at that second meeting, and he was intrigued by Falsetti's ability to quickly show the trade-offs of alternate configurations. Now the conversation turned to how the price would change depending on what options were removed or changed, and soon they got the price down to about $30,000. That turned out to be close enough, despite being more than twice the original budget. In fact, once z-Axis helped open the door, his company was able to sell TDI enough of other products and services to turn this into an $80,000-plus contract.

"What made this particularly sweet was I was up against a guy from Haworth, a competitor who was on this job before me and completely dropped the ball," Falsetti gloats.

The other salesman apparently threw out a quote for the job, but didn't follow through in a persuasive way. "They never went through the detail like I was able to do with z-Axis—and, really, win the owner's heart over," he says.

"There's a very strong possibility that without that program, we might have gone with other furniture," confirms Dennis Dederich, a principal at TDI. "When you're just looking at furniture in a catalog, sometimes it's difficult to envision how it will look in your space." Falsetti's persistence also played a role, particularly in contrast to the relatively passive Haworth salesman.

At the local Haworth dealership, MM Office, Vice President of Sales and Design Paul Groth says he doesn't know the circumstances but doubts z-Axis clinched the deal. Although he previously worked as a Herman Miller manufacturer's representative, Groth says he never liked the idea of z-Axis. "I really want a design professional doing my design work, not a sales professional," he says.

Falsetti obviously disagrees. At his firm, professional designers do get involved, treating his work in z-Axis as a rough draft for the final proposal. But the software still helps him win orders more quickly and accurately.

His boss, Building Service Inc. President Peter Kordus, says that even in a down economy, customers value responsiveness. By making it possible to win sales quickly, z-Axis can be decisive, he says: "Before your competitor has a chance to come in and measure the office, you're done."

David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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