For the past few years, Richard Rubin has done his holiday shopping online. The contents of his virtual shopping carts don’t quite match those of the industrial customers he serves as president of Maxi Container, but he sees his personal habits signaling a bigger change. If he’s buying online, what about his customers?
“I noticed that more and more of our business was moving to the Web,” Rubin says. “More and more of our customers were communicating to us via e-mail. More and more of our customers wanted us to do electronic data interchange or electronic funds transfer.”
This observation came at a crucial time, especially for a Detroit-based distributor like Maxi that traditionally relied on the automotive business. Cold calls from a four-person sales team wouldn’t cut it anymore. Rubin realized that long-term survival depended on the company’s ability to explode its customer base into other industries and geographies. And a web presence was key to doing that.
But making the website an effective sales tool to convert searchers into customers — especially when they’re industrial manufacturers — that’s another challenge. And across the business world, it had resulted in plenty of “websites that were just, for lack of a better word, horrendous,” says Linda Rigano, executive director of strategic services at Thomas Industrial Network, which connects buyers and suppliers of industrial products and services through its sourcing site, ThomasNet.com. “It was just a picture of the facility, a picture of mom and dad, how great we are but not really delivering on what the buyer wants.”
Enter Thomas’ Web Solutions group, which was created to help those companies improve the performance of their websites.
“How do I get my website to sell more for me?” Rigano asks — a question she gets from companies that recognize traditional print resources aren’t holding up. “Always be where your buyer is looking, and then make sure that you’re delivering the answers that they’re looking for.”
Replicating your sales process online
Sounds simple enough. In fact, Rubin can sum it up in three words from high school.
“My 10th grade English teacher always said to me, ‘Know your audience,’ and that’s true in everything,” Rubin says. “You need to know who you’re trying to reach in a Web strategy, and you have to tailor it to get them the information they want.”
Merely by being online, Rubin was tuning into his audience’s requests for digital services. But Maxi’s first website wasn’t tailored at all — in fact, it was basically a print ad with a Web address.
“Before, it was a very static website,” he says. “It listed our name, our address, our e-mail. It listed products we offered. But it was not interactive. You couldn’t click through to get more information. It didn’t send an e-mail. It didn’t do anything. It was just information.”
Maxi was already listed on ThomasNet’s directory, so Rubin sought Web Solutions help to turn referred traffic into sales. First, he had to understand what customers search for online and how.
“Buyers want to be able to answer the same questions that they were once getting on the telephone,” says Rigano, who helps manufacturers and distributors deliver answers by replicating sales processes online.
Her advice: Envision your website as a new sales rep, and equip your virtual salesman by arming it with the right information. ThomasNet uses a VSET strategy as a formula of that information.
First, buyers want to verify that you have what they’re looking for — fast. Thomas’ research reveals that you don’t have much time to make that first impression. Industrial buyers spend 3 to 5 seconds on a homepage verifying you have what they seek before moving on.
“If I’m replicating my sales process at my website, I’ve got to figure out: How are they getting to me? That’s the first step,” Rigano says. “What are the words that they’re typing into a search engine to find me? I’ve got to make sure that that information is in my website; otherwise, I don’t even stand a chance at being found.”
These questions marked a crucial shift in the Web strategy at Keats Manufacturing Co., which also works with ThomasNet. Its first website focused more on the company and its processes than its products.
“Understand what it is that they’re putting into Google. That’s how you’re going to come up higher in their searches,” says Matt Eggemeyer, Keats’ vice president and COO. “I don’t think they’re putting in, ‘small, family-run operation in Chicago.’ They’re looking for a tin-plated 006 automotive terminal.”
Once he understood this, Eggemeyer revamped Keats’ website with less emphasis on company history and management team backgrounds, and more on products like terminals, clips, wire forms and lead frames.
“The way to hook them is to show that you can make the part and make it exactly how they want it,” Eggemeyer says. “You need to stay industry-specific, talk about your products and talk about how you make the products.”
With attention to detail, Eggemeyer launched Keats to the top of search results in several categories on ThomasNet.
“I come up in the top 5, if not No. 1,” he says. “No. 1 translates into over 1,000, sometimes as high as 1,500 unique visitors a month.”
Those numbers dwarf the dozen or so visitors he saw at trade shows — each of which cost more than his entire website.
“Traditional search methods — Yellow Pages, trade shows, all that kind of stuff — is dead and gone,” Eggemeyer says. “This is where you need to be.”
Virtually kicking the tires
The verify step is a broad brushstroke drive traffic. If you want to keep it there and turn it into sales, consider the next two steps in ThomasNet’s VSET strategy: search and evaluate.
“Once you hook them, then they want to kick the tires to get the warm fuzzy and see that this is a company that we want to develop a relationship with,” Eggemeyer says. “All the other superfluous stuff like the history and the management team needs to be on the website but maybe a little deeper. If they really do care, they’ll dig deeper.”
On his website, Eggemeyer went beyond the types of parts that Keats makes.
“We enhanced it one step further by adding the specs that are involved in making those parts: how thick are they, what kind of plating do they get, all the different sizes and dimensions — which make my website that much more attractive, especially when it comes to the search engines,” he says.
What type of information should you provide? Customer service reps are good sources of the knowledge you’ll equip your virtual salesman with because they have vetted the questions over the phone that you’ll face online.
“Let’s anticipate the questions people are going to ask, the information that they’re going to look for, and make sure that your site is armed with this information,” Rigano says. “I would want to have information on my products, on the materials that I use, on the amounts that I could run. How is it being used? Is it a bearing that would go into a wheel, a conveyor belt or a pulley? All of these things are going to be relevant to that market.”
Consider showcasing your offerings with detailed product information in an online catalog, where you can add descriptions, specs and photos. Maxi replaced stock photos and shot its own, with a common background, to create uniformity.
“What we had before was basically just a static one-page website. It didn’t change over time; it didn’t allow you to get more information,” Rubin says. “With Thomas, we created a front end and a catalog that work together seamlessly. We put more information in with secondary and tertiary pages. You start out very generally, and then you drill down to get the specific item you want.”
For Maxi, this was an also opportunity to showcase its core beyond containers — through sustainability. Rubin illustrates this online with videos of involvement in local green fairs and blogs about donating to boost local school recycling efforts.
“Know your core competencies and let the Web strategy complement what you do,” he says. “We’ve tried to graft a new way of communicating this information to customers, both our existing and new, but we’re still keeping our core values as a company in terms of what we do with our products and how we conduct our business. … You can’t lose sight of who and what you offer.”
Tracking online action
You’re drawing visitors to your website and providing answers to their questions in hopes that you’ll convince them to take the next step — the T in VSET, take action. But it doesn’t necessarily mean making a sale.
For Keats, it means a request for a quotation. Whatever your next step, provide tools for visitors to make the next move — like functions for contacting you, uploading CAD drawings or ordering online.
Those tools can get highly technical, but Rubin thinks they beckon offline tradition — and that’s the secret to converting traffic. In his strategy, the website doesn’t replace the sales cycle, but assists it.
“That’s where the old-fashioned stuff comes in,” he says. “The website has to be interactive. It has to have the ability to send e-mails. It has to have the ability to send RFQs. It has to have the ability to click a button and contact us. We wanted the website to give information, but then also have the ability to send a request for more information.”
Keep in mind, as your online strategy mimics your traditional sales cycle, it should closely reflect your overall business goals, as well.
“If a company sets up a website without going through the process of saying, ‘What are my business objectives, and how is my website going to support me in doing this?’ they will have missed the boat,” Rigano says. “My objective is not to make a killer website; my objective is to generate 5 percent more business in Korea and India this year. My objective is to increase my product sales. Then, you have to say, ‘How can my website help me do that?’”
Develop these goals at the onset of Web development so you can chart your online course and track progress along the way.
“You always want to build in: How do I know what success looks like? We don’t build a website without putting a tracking system in place so that you know how to evaluate what’s happening,” says Rigano, who recommends evaluating your tracking at least monthly. “Take all the key actions that you want somebody to do at your website — we call those conversion actions — and build in tracking so that you can look at those. You can look at how many people came into my site, how many people went past the homepage and searched for something, how many people clicked on ‘Download a CAD drawing,’ how many people clicked on e-commerce, how many people clicked on RFQ.”
But measuring results goes beyond in-page analytics. ThomasNet’s research shows that half of the time, online buyers still pick up the phone and call for more information, so make sure you include those callers in your tracking. Maxi has different 800 numbers for different ads on and offline, so Rubin can tell which ad drove the call by which number rings.
“If you don’t have a separate 800 number for your website, call your phone company tomorrow and get one installed,” Rigano says. “Then you know how many people are coming directly from your website. That’s the beauty of being online: The end measure is so definitive. It’s not like, ‘Gee, I had 10 percent impressions.’ It’s how many came in and how many bought. You know what success looks like.”
Evolving to maximize ROI
The road to a solid Web strategy doesn’t end when a searcher becomes a customer. Now, you tweak based on the actions you’re tracking.
“With all those quotes we get, we just need to pay attention to: What’s the latest and greatest?” Eggemeyer says. “We seem to be getting an awful lot of requests for the widget so we need to make sure that on our website we talk about how we make widgets.”
Companies won’t survive without adjusting to changing customer needs; so must websites also stay current. Analytics make online success and failure obvious, so they can help you optimize your strategy.
“You want to get your return on your investment,” Rubin says. “You want to look at what your cost-per-click comes out to be, and then you jettison those programs that don’t work and you invest more in those that do.”
As you think ahead to adding new digital components like social media, e-mail newsletters and blogs — which Rubin only added, one at a time, after the website was up and running — keep the overall strategy cohesive.
“It all has to work together and provide seamless integration across different platforms,” he says. “We also have a small pay-per-click program with Google and we’re working with Google Maps, but they all lead back to our website. It all has to reinforce each other. It all has to be consistent.”
You’re probably wondering when you’ll see these pieces come together into a return on investment. Eggemeyer saw his ROI pretty quickly after Keats’ site went live in April 2009. A former customer that had lost touch with its one-time supplier reunited when discovering online that Keats still had tools to make a certain part. One quick order paid off the new website.
The home run, though, if you ask Eggemeyer, was the phone call from a military contractor in Alabama, who had seen Keats’ site. The call led to a million-dollar order to develop a metal clip for a plastic bullet.
“Would have I been able to get that customer back with the traditional sales methods?” Eggemeyer asks. “No, because they wanted to see that I could do the zinc plating and that I could hold certain tolerances. And that isn’t on a brochure I’ve ever done, and they probably wouldn’t be asking that of me at tradeshow — and I don’t know if I could have given them that attention to sit down and talk engineer to engineer. But that stuff was on my website, and that gave them the warm fuzzy that Keats can do it.”
All in all, Keats’ sales are up 30 percent since the launch, and the number of quotes more than doubled from 600 to 1,400 in one year. Maxi similarly grew sales by 37 percent while setting four consecutive months of records, bringing in customers from new industries and locations. In fact, Rubin faces a wonderful problem because of the growth.
“The next step is moving to a bigger building,” he says. “We’re actually at full capacity in terms of the throughput in our warehouse. We’ve been so successful with this strategy that it’s difficult for us to add new customers.”
Rigano hears similar stories frequently, another sign that effectively leveraging your website as a sales tool is a crucial ingredient of growth.
“We’re asking people, ‘How did you (grow)?’” Rigano says. “The majority have said, ‘The strategies for success were developing business in new geographies, developing new innovative products and services, pursuing business in new industries, increasing online marketing. That’s how they’re continuing to grow, and that’s all through web strategies.”
How to reach: Thomas Industrial Network, (866) 585-1191 or www.thomasnet.com
How to reach: Keats Manufacturing Co., (800) 532-8763 or www.keatsmfg.com
How to reach: Maxi Container, (800) 727-6294 or www.maxicontainer.com
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