While the Internet has changed a lot when it comes to buying and selling machinery for the plastics industry, there's one very stark difference between today and 25 years ago: customers are simply smarter.
So says Larry Doyle, president of auxiliary equipment manufacturer Conair Group.
“Customers come to the table more informed,” he said. “They've done the comparison between your product and someone else's product. The specs are all available. They are coming with better questions at the front end than perhaps they did in the past.”
And in turn, that's forced Conair's sales people to be better.
“At the end of the day, it's easy to compare the specs, but it boils down to the sales person being able to communicate the value of that individual product or solution,” Doyle said.
While it might be hard for younger workers to comprehend a work-life without email or the Internet, the last 25 years has seen the dawn of the digital world. Much like every other business, the e-commerce world exploded in the plastics market during the tech bubble, and ultimately the bubble burst.
But some 20 years after plastics companies got into the digital game, e-commerce is still alive and well, sales people are using advanced apps to show off products and the Internet has allowed regional companies to sell on a global scale.
In business since 1963, Mold-Masters jumped into the e-commerce market 15 years ago with an online system where customers could configure hot runner systems. The patented system is still working today, said Michael Ellis, director of global marketing and communications for Milacron LLC, Mold-Masters' parent company.
But that business has taken a bit of a backseat to part orders.
“We find that customers are much more likely to want to use an online system to order spare parts for a system or hot runner systems that they're already using,” Ellis said. “Spare parts are easier to order, and they there also much more urgent.”
Bob Starr, director of global marketing services for DME Co., said approximately 18 percent of daily sales from the tooling components manufacturer are done online. There are cost savings attributed to an online system, he said.
“You're helping reduce the cost by having [the system] do the job that a rep would be doing. But we have a very similar sized customer service department, very similar sized marketing group [then we were pre-Internet]. There hasn't been much of a change because business is strong,” Starr said.
In addition to spare parts, DME sees a lot of activity with its computer aided design library, said Anthony Padalino, market analyst for DME.
“Our site is heavily utilized to download CAD data,” he said. “Currently we experience over 20,000 CAD and drawing files downloaded every month. That is double what it was a year ago. We've seen a significant increase in CAD data.”
And those customers are both existing clients and new ones too, he said.
“We have seen some customers who would traditionally call in over the phone, place an order online,” Padalino said. “But we've also seen growth in new customers finding us and buying from us online. So it's helped us in two areas.”
Doyle said Conair's e-commerce site, BuyNow.ConairGroup.com, is great for many of their customers who are already knowledgeable on what they want.
“It's a great place for customers to go when they know what they're looking for,” Doyle said. “It's a no-brainer. They just need to order and get on with their day.”
More than just a place to sell products, the Web has become a massive knowledge resource. Doyle said Conair has always made education key to its Web presence even when it first launched a website in 1996.
The company has a knowledge center on its site where visitors can get information about Conair, but also about the plastics industry in general.
“We say it's a plastics processing know-how center,” Doyle said.
Conair also keeps all its manuals easily accessible online.
Padalino said the Web has become a great place for material safety data sheets for DME. Before the Internet, customers would call the company and ask for the sheets to be faxed, so there were paper copies all over the office. Stacks of shelves held the sheets.
“I think we still have the shelves with paper, but they're covered with dust,” Padalino said. “Customers just download them now. They don't call and ask for them to be faxed anymore.”
Conair has also found a niche in the video market, with a couple of dozen informational videos on YouTube.
“It's just a great piece that drives the education of our customer base,” Doyle said.
Miki Bogar, marketing communications manager for Mold-Masters, said sales people out in the field have a massive amount of information at their fingertips, all thanks to the advancements in technology. Mold-Masters has an app for sales people to take on the road that has product information
“We can push content out to the sales people on their tablets and smartphones in a second, anywhere in the world,” Bogar said. “The apps really help the sales people in their interactions [with customers].”
The same happens at Conair.
“We have an app where all of our guys, using their tablets or smartphones, have access to every single piece of relevant documents that we offer to sell,” Conair's Doyle said.
The Internet has also drastically changed the way new products get launched, Doyle said. Before they would run an ad, issue a news release through snail mail and print brochures. Today, the company creates specific landing pages for products, emails releases and it's out right away.
“That whole process of launching a product now is so streamlined and more efficient than it ever was in the past,” Doyle said.
They would often have to wait for major trade shows to introduce products.
“For an auxiliary company like us, that's a big deal,” Doyle said. “We're marketing 450 different products. We literally have new stuff rolling out every month. So for us to be able to shorten that cycle … is a huge benefit to the customer and us.”
Milacron's Ellis said the reach of the Internet has expanded the customer base for its companies.
“No longer are any of our businesses regional anymore,” he said. “They are all focused on a global strategy and all have a global reach. A lot of this has to do with the Internet connectivity and online connectivity. That will just continue.
“We are breaking down the barriers that once existed within regional communication,” Ellis said. “A lot of those barriers no longer exist. I think that's very exciting for a lot of our businesses and our industry in general.”
Conair's Doyle said the Internet has brought them closer to their colleagues and customers overseas.
“It's allowed us to work more efficiently and better serve our customers and employees,” he said.
Dan Lillback, director of customer service for Milacron, said as the demographics continue to change in the plastics industry, there will be even a greater need to use the Internet.
“There are some seasoned plastics veterans who are more used to making the phone call, and enjoy making the phone call,” he said about customers ordering equipment and parts. “But some younger customers behind them are wondering how I can I get this online? And how can we do this more efficiently and effectively?”