The Web as a customer interface

Shop owners share their ideas on the Internet's usefulness from a marketing and customer service standpoint. September 6, 2000

Now that the Internet has matured into a widely accepted communications medium, Iíd like to know how custom cabinetmakers and cabinet manufacturers are using it to do business. Iíll offer my experiences at going digital and wait to hear how other visitors to this forum are using the Web to interact with customers and streamline what has traditionally been a long and paper-intensive business.

Before my custom cabinet manufacturing business closed last year I found that I could run many of my custom kitchen and other-room cabinet jobs on-line. It seemed that even though my firm served a relatively rural area many of my customers were on the Internet and eager to engage in the design review process electronically.

Prior to our shopís use of the Net we snailmailed or faxed preliminary designs, bids and proposals, hardware and appliance catalogs and specifications to clients. I began to think that a combined Web and e-mail effort might streamline and enhance the design and business processes, and set out to test my theory using a private, client-only web site.

I quickly realized that though my customers were computer owners and usually connected, they were not necessarily on the fast track technology-wise, or even with Windows in some cases. It was clear that I required a platform-independent medium for presenting design drawings, business documents and original equipment manufacturer (OEM) catalogs and specifications.

Adobe Acrobat solved many of my customer communication problems. I converted all drawings and documents to Acrobat format and uploaded them to my company site for my customers to review. They could then view the documents and drawings exactly as they appeared in my design software and word processor, as long as they had a free copy of Acrobat Reader on their computer.

I suppose the gee-whiz factor had a bit to do with the overwhelmingly positive response to my efforts, but Iíd like to think that my digital methods really added significant value to customer/shop interactions.

I created a sub-site for each customer, where all versions of design drawings and documentation were available, and I dated them for easy reference. I also provided links to all the hardware and appliance manufacturers I used/recommended. I noticed a big reduction in time and effort dealing with the Web-savvy clients. They reviewed their jobs on-line, made revisions and choices via e-mail and generally saved me many hours of effort.

So, Iím wondering what efforts others have made in dealing with Internet-ready clientele. Do you have a Web site for your business? Is it a marketing tool, a way for you to conduct business, or both?

I have had a web page for about a year but have been in business for twenty. I have had no sales that I can directly attribute to the web page. But that is not why I have a web page. It is a marketing tool. Actually it is an electronic brochure, a simple overview of the business.

I would venture that 95 percent of my sales, however, come from word-of-mouth. It's the only way in a rural setting. The web page simply gives the computer-savvy something to do while "computing." A custom installation - ie. kitchen, media center and certainly commercial work - requires far more customer involvement, like actually touching a finish, or opening a smooth-operating drawer or door.

A large "fan club" created by word-of-mouth is not only far more valuable than a top-notch web page, but is really quite necessary to maintain business activity. Granted, many customers use e-mail, but I notice that many will do "homework," searching for businesses and woodworkers, but, by the nature of wood products, also require either a firm recommendation by a trusted friend or actually touching a product.

So, as a marketing tool, the Internet, in my opinion, is nowhere near "mature," at least for woodworkers, with respect to marketing. As a communications tool it has made a lot of things very efficient and certainly easier once a job has begun, but this is primarily with suppliers. Overall, I find that customers and people in general have a sincere distrust of what they read, which is good if you are a hands-on, word-of-mouth type of shop.

Most of the machines and supplies I purchased last year were located via the web, but not sales. The best use of the Internet for woodworkers is education, in forums like this one, which nowadays are everywhere.

I have thought a great deal about this and to be honest I donít have a clue where itís going. I had a plan a couple of years ago, when we were still doing residential kitchens, which was to have my dealers use design software that I would provide and train them to use. They would then upload the jobs to my web site, where I could download them right into my computer and run them.

I thought this would be a terrific timesaver, and would eliminate mistakes, with info being entered by them, then by me. What I ran into was, "What? You want me to draw kitchens with a computer? Iím a CKD, Iím computer illiterate, Iím this, I'm that."

I actually had one guy tell me "Thereís just some stuff you canít draw with a computer." O.K., so I had to figure Iím just inexperienced - Iíve only been drawing stuff on these things since the mid 80s and I just havenít run into those undrawable things yet! And then to top it all off, they're surprised I want them to be on the Internet. Thatís the sort of thing I ran into.

I, probably like a lot of people, am in a rural area and dealing with people 40-plus years of age. Does this have a bearing on my results? I donít know, but I do feel itís worth pointing out. Also, I am dealing with dealers only; we didnít do any retail or contractor sales. We have a lot of customers visiting our shop who are amazed that I program parts in the office and the programs "magically" show up out at the point-to-point. And they're even more amazed at what the P2P does.

So I guess what Iím really saying is that in this area, southern Indiana, right now we are somewhat technically challenged. When I was contemplating my web thing a couple of years ago I talked with one of my vendors about their website, and was told basically that most of their customers didnít even own a computer. This particular vendor does business from northern Florida to Chicago, so maybe this isnít just a southern Indiana thing.

Now, having moved from residential to commercial, I really am not sure how to benefit from the Internet. I can certainly see a great deal of things I can do with it as a customer, with my vendors, and with dealing with architects with design changes and what-not. But again, I donít see the vendors in this industry embracing the technology. Look at what the software industry is doing with the Internet - you canít get anything from them without Internet access i.e., upgrades, patches, drivers, etc.

I think the ones that jump on it first will reap great rewards. With architects, I think this is going to be a regional or individual thing; how many do you know that are still drawing with pencil and paper? I would have to agree that right now it seems to be more of an educational tool for woodworkers, but I think thereís more to be had, if we can just figure out how to get it or at least what it is we want. I know Iím anxiously waiting to see what we get!

Brian Personett, forum moderator

Getting your dealers up to speed with your cabinet design program was a great idea. Frankly, Iím surprised it wasnít a great success. In our area most of the CKDs are computer literate and are turning out designs using one of the standard design packages, or are designers using proprietary programs from one or more of their manufacturers.

Our situation was different, of course. We dealt with residential customers. The computer literate among them were eager to do business on-line. We transmitted estimates, drawings, and general correspondence via e-mail or upload to the shop web site.

It seems to me that in two years the Internet has gone from a pastime of a few computer-savvy nerds to a widely accepted tool with great potential for streamlining ponderous business chores for busy shops.

Do you have plans to give it another try?
Michael Poster, WOODWEB publisher

Not yet. As our business has evolved into commercial only, I'm not quite sure where the WWW fits into it yet. I can understand where you're coming from with the techno-junkie customers, but in our situation we were selling through dealers, and honestly I didn't care to have contact with the end user. That's one of the main reasons why we got out of retail to begin with; you've dealt with people, so you know what it's like.

You also hit on another point, the WWW has gained a great deal of acceptance in the last couple of years and I think it's only going to get bigger, better, and faster (hopefully), I'm just not sure how it's going to fit into what we do, but have no doubt that it will.

On a side note, do you remember back in the late 70s and early 80s when the futurists told us one day everyone would have a computer in their home, do you think they had the WWW in mind?