As seen in The Fabricator Magazine
By Tim Heston
Metal fabricators have a history of growing through word-of-mouth. Many companies go for years, sometimes generations, without hiring a single salesperson. It’s just the nature of this manufacturing sector dominated by small, multigenerational family shops. Few say their company is “sales-driven.”
Rob Honeycutt is one of those few (see Figure 1). He’s CEO of SixAxis LLC, a manufacturer of a range of industrial portable steps, loading platforms, and related products, all customizable to the nth degree. A decade ago the company couldn’t afford to pave the factory floor. By next year it will have almost 225,000 square feet of space, with a customer showroom leading to a manufacturing space with four tube cutting lasers, a punch press, a press brake, drill lines, and band saws, all feeding a multitude of welding cells, including several robotic cells, and an automated powder coating line.
About Solving Problems
The Software Story
SixAxis has a bumpy history with software companies. It took two years, from 2007 to 2009, to get its ERP platform working, and once it did, they realized how incredibly complicated its user interface really was. “It looked like you needed a four-year degree to push a button on it,” Honeycutt said.
He knew, though, that employees really didn’t need access to much: They needed to clock orders in and out, record quality checks, and find the next job on the schedule. Although the ERP user interface made it look like rocket science, it really wasn’t.
So he took a leap and hired a few software engineers to write code and create a simple interface layered on top of the ERP platform. The strategy worked. “That was the beginning of our software effort,” Honeycutt recalled. “We weren’t scared of it now.”
He then moved toward customer relationship management (CRM) software. Being so sales-focused, Honeycutt felt it just made sense—and he also felt that the move would be (compared to the ERP implementation) relatively painless. After all, he had years of sales experience, and CRM should have been well within his sandbox. Wrong again. SixAxis went through five different CRM implementations, and all of them fell flat.
Being a manufacturer, Honeycutt knew his sales team needed more than just a glorified Rolodex. He and his team thought about what people in industrial sales actually do. Before leaving on a sales trip to visit a customer or strong prospect, the salesperson may look to see if any other prospects are in the area. Wouldn’t it be great if he could look at a CRM app to see a map showing him not only where his customer was, but also other prospects in the area? Wouldn’t it also be great if the software could automatically generate an e-mail telling his contacts he’ll be in the area and request a meeting?
This would all make the salesperson’s job easier— all good things. Still, the customer experience wouldn’t change. Moreover, project-based sales have always had one major hangup: returning accurate, comprehensive quotes that give a clear picture of what exactly the customer is buying. The customer makes certain demands, the salesperson records the details, then says, “Let me check with my engineers and get back with you.” Days pass, engineers work with estimators to fill in the gaps, and the salesperson finally gets back to the customer with a quote.
What if a salesperson could somehow communicate a complicated project, verify the details, and then produce a quote immediately?
SixAxis’ software engineers got to work, and the result ultimately changed how the company’s sales force works (see Figure 5 and 6). Now when salespeople visit customers, they bring their iPads. What type of platform do they need? The salesperson shows them a 3-D model on the screen. If the product will be installed somewhere or integrated into another structure or vehicle—like a rolling stairway or platform to an airplane or railcar—a 3-D model of the vehicle and surrounding environment appears on the screen as well.
Does the customer need this platform to be a little longer? He touches the screen, and the platform extends so many inches. Need it an exact length? He can type in the dimension. And all revisions are done with certain engineering rules baked into the software.
When the customer is happy with the design, the software produces flat print views and a quote automatically, then updates the customer file on the CRM platform.
Engineering reviews and approvals are still required on complicated projects. But for simple projects, when a salesperson submits the order, it actually bypasses engineering and goes directly to the ERP, which releases bills of material.