When it comes to winding ribbons of copper and strips of steel to form the coils of power transformers, basic manufacturing at Kuhlman Electric Corp. isn't a whole lot different than it was when the Versailles, Ky., company began operations 107 years ago.
But when the company’s e-marketing specialist explores a database to discover where utility industry procurement managers are looking on the company’s Web site, when it analyzes that data to produce hot sales leads, and when it provides its customers with insight into their own businesses, it might as well be selling the latest in cold fusion technology.
Gaining an edge
Kuhlman, a privately held manufacturer with about $150 million in annual sales, is a tiny company in a competitive and consolidating industry. The company has two factories and two product lines—big power distribution generators used at electrical substations and small gray units that sit on the edge of an individual’s property—and competes against Siemens AG, General Electric Co. and other multinational titans for sales.
In order to gain an advantage, Kuhlman established a series of customer databases. It launched the system, created by Columbus, Ohio-based Fourthchannel Inc., in June.
"As a smaller company we can offer short lead-time capabilities, but we also need to spot demand quickly in order to do it,’’ said Greg Power, Kuhlman VP of e-business. "Through databases, we’ve developed a unique customer-specific view.’’
Recognizing a customer who comes to the site allows Kuhlman to spruce up its services. Among other attributes, its assisted-selling software allows Kuhlman to identify products a specific customer has been buying regularly, enables it to configure new products based on customer needs and tracks the production process.
When a customer comes in to spec out a $320,000 power transformer—the most expensive of Kuhlman’s products—sales leads are automatically generated based on the activity and distributed to one of eight direct salespeople or 25 manufacturer’s representatives.
Fourthchannel had been specializing in building electronic catalogs, but has shifted to providing the database infrastructure for assisted selling. A quality installation can make salespeople better at their jobs, said Mike Morgan, Fourthchannel VP-marketing.
"Just having a Web site has not been extremely successful,’’ Morgan said. "This system uses databases to provide value to both a b-to-b company‘s customers and their sell-side sales force. It asks the right questions and gets the right results.’’
Systems such as Fourthchannel’s fill a void, said Greg Runyan, senior analyst for the Yankee Group’s B2B Commerce & Applications Planning Service.
Ahead of the game
In providing configuration tools, tracking of customer Web activity and distribution of sales leads, Kuhlman’s system is ahead of many sales force automation and CRM efforts, Runyan said.
"Sales representatives were essentially overlooked in the first wave of e-business implementations,’’ he said. "In many cases, they were required to use sales-force automation or CRM applications that offered nothing to help them close business faster and more profitably."
Though it might not seem that speed is at a premium in Kuhlman’s business, it can be, said Rich Adkins, a Kuhlman e-marketing specialist.
When a disaster hits, there can be calls for packages of products to get an area back on its feet. With a database of previous orders, Kuhlman might be able to react more quickly to emergency requests, Adkins said.
Also, Kuhlman has an increasingly lucrative set of services that it hopes to expand through Fourthchannel, Adkins said.
For example, it sends people out to test the efficiency of high-voltage transformers on behalf of clients. Customer ordering patterns might suggest when something is wrong in an electrical grid even before the customer determines it, Adkins said.