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Best of the Small Business Web: Office Sweet

CRI, a furniture company, transforms customer service, breaks into new markets, and increases sales leads.
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Company: CRI
Revenues: $44 million
Web address: www.crisj.com
Site launch cost: $27,000
Current technology profile: Microsoft Windows NT, Microsoft FrontPage, Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Flash, Microsoft SQL Server
Why we love it: A furniture company transforms customer service, breaks into new markets, and increases sales leads
Category of success: Utility

CRI's chairs and desks are sleek enough to gladden the heart of any Silicon Valley girl or boy, and so is the company's Web site: a work of streamlined, high-gloss design. But in a town where functionality is practically a moral quality, no Web site can get by on style alone.

That's why Barbara Carlyle and her two cofounders decided to make their site the kind of comrade in electronic arms that high-tech clients like Oracle expect. At the same time they hoped to eliminate all bagginess from the sales process, thus freeing their sales force to pursue the San Jose company's latest priority: finding new customers for its ergonomically correct office furniture. In 1998, 50% of CRI's revenues came from new accounts as opposed to 15% in previous years.

Toward that end, a year and a half ago the management team hired Doug Fisher as their first-ever information-systems director and charged him with devising a Web-based customer-management system so efficient that buyers would gladly sacrifice the sound of a human voice on the other end of a phone line. Fisher teamed with an outside development company and created the Office Furniture Customer System (OFCS), password-protected pages that include customers' purchasing histories and secure order forms.

Carlyle says that one of the new system's most valuable features is its customer-specific lists of frequently purchased furniture, complete with customized specs and prices. "One of the things you try to do in the furniture business is standardize clients on products," says Carlyle. "When companies are expanding and contracting all the time, reusing the same products makes it easier to manage inventory. By setting this up on the Web we're making it easier both for the customer and for our salespeople." Carlyle estimates that OFCS will whittle down salespeople's administrative burdens by 25%, freeing them up to find more customers.

But taking orders isn't all the site does. Silicon Valley churn means that lots of companies are moving into new quarters, and the positioning of furniture in modern office buildings isn't simply a matter of finding a sunny spot for the credenza. "These people have two or three PCs on their work surfaces, so the issue of wires and data-cable management is enormously important," says Carlyle. Hoping to iron out some of the kinks in the process, CRI introduced the services of Blueline Online, a company whose ProjectNet software allows users to view and edit drawings created in AutoCAD. CRI salespeople use the design program to create experimental configurations of clients' new office spaces; the clients or their building managers then access the drawings and make revisions, post messages, or schedule meetings. "To do this in the past, we would drive to a project site at least once a week for meetings that would last five or six hours," says Carlyle. "Blueline Online allows immediate access to all the parties, and the work can be done quicker -- and it can be done here."

The next step, says IS director Fisher, is to Web-enable CRI's project-management system, which tracks orders from the moment they're placed through the day they're installed. It also tracks error correction -- products damaged in shipping, wrong colors, and the like. "This way our customers will have the same information we do about how their job is progressing, and they won't have to call a customer-service person," says Fisher. The sooner CRI can solve problems, the sooner it can bill the client. "The pregnancy on these projects can last five or six months, so we don't want to stretch it out and not be able to get paid," says Carlyle.

Not surprisingly, Carlyle is also counting on the Web to drum up new business. Since its launch last November, the site has provided a 15% increase in qualified leads, she says. And following the doctrine that new technology equals new markets, CRI recently launched an on-line Office Furniture Super Store ( www.ofss.com) with 105 basic products in 500 configurations targeted at small-office and home-office buyers. "We've never been able to serve them before because salespeople work on commission and it hasn't paid off," says Carlyle, who expects the store to generate $30,000 in sales a month. "This is opening up a whole new market segment for us."

Last updated: Nov 15, 1999

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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