MANUFACTURERS are increasingly looking for ways to improve the service they offer to customers. This has seen a rising interest in Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software.

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However, many of the generic CRM packages were originally designed for service providers such as banks and insurance companies, so are centred around managing customer contact records and tracking sales opportunities. These systems often don’t address the specific requirements of manufacturers – in particular, the quote-to-order process is often overlooked, yet these processes hold probably the greatest potential for manufacturers wanting to keep their customers and maximise the business opportunities with them.

In manufacturing, the order is of central importance. Managing the order from the time of quoting to actual delivery is crucial to ensure the right product is made and delivered at the right time for a price that is reasonable and ensures a profit. Traditional contact management software doesn’t address this issue. CRM software designed specifically for manufacturers can provide guided selling and product configuration capabilities to improve the quote-to-order process.

For example, in an engineer-to-order environment, manually configuring every order can be time-consuming and expensive. It increases the cost of sale and delivery cycle time. Guided selling and product configuration software can enable customer service representatives to plug in a customer’s requirements and the software in effect mimics an engineer’s thought processes for configuring the appropriate product.

The software can interpret requirements entered into the system for a particular order, apply rules to generate a solution with items, descriptions and pricing and then output these in a variety of formats such as quotations, sales orders, bills of materials and manufacturing instructions for the use of sales staff, production staff, resellers or customers as appropriate.

This can significantly improve the quote-to-order process in several ways. In terms of the sales process, the quality of quotes is increased as salespeople are guided to the best product to suit the customer’s needs and are prevented from quoting ‘unbuildable’ combinations of product features. It also allows for more efficient cross-selling and up-selling.

Such capabilities can be extended to resellers, usually via the web, making it easier to expand distribution channels and reducing training costs. Taking this a step further, customers can learn about a manufacturer’s offerings, configure a solution to meet their needs, receive quotes and shipping estimates all in real time on the web. This web-based service provides the customer with the information they want and reduces the time manufacturers spend answering simple application questions.

The buying process for a wider range of items typically considered as specials can be automated, freeing up engineers to focus on the exceptions. This ability to standardise more products can reduce lead times for customers on some products that previously required special handling by engineers.

As well as addressing these “front office” capabilities, CRM packages designed for manufacturers should flow through to the “back office”. The software should enable a manufacturer to translate the customer’s product desires to the shop floor more effectively and produce and deliver the product correctly the first time and in the least amount of time.

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