Make It Personal: Why Industry Must Adapt to Retail Mass-Customization Selling Practices

Guest blog by Rob Honeycutt, Co-Founder & CEO, MHI Member Atlatl, Inc.

Have you gifted personalized M&Ms? Ordered custom-built Nike trainers? Considered a design-your-own Smart car?

If so, you, as a consumer, are benefiting from the modern maturation of mass customization in the retail sector. Consumers now demand products and services that are more and more precisely tailored to their interests, lifestyles and needs. And, thanks to continual technological advances in the retail purchasing process, these customized products and services are now delivered nearly as fast as if you bought them off the proverbial rack.

Not surprisingly, this consumer expectation of almost-instant availability of custom-designed products has arrived in the industrial arena. And we’re not just talking about the industrial-product equivalents of shoes or bits of candy. Rather, customers now request customized designs and drawings, faster quotes and faster deliveries for massive, complex and expensive pieces of equipment and machinery.

Companies that manufacture industrial products simply must come to the realization, as retail brands have, that customers now define good service as 1) response times, not to just an initial inquiry, but during the entire design and quoting process; and 2) an efficient buying experience. They need to evolve, quickly, to Digital Age mass customization. And this means – in addition to continual modernization of their manufacturing processes – integrating highly efficient, collaborative tools into their design, engineering and sales processes.

Our company manufactures engineered-to-order industrial products to facilitate the efficient and safe transport of chemicals, crude oil and similar goods. Almost a decade ago, we completely changed our design paradigm. We realized that we could accelerate our growth by exploiting new technologies to quickly and efficiently design and manufacture the customized products our customers demanded. Enhancing the buying experience for our customers meant everything. Speed and accuracy and elimination of process steps and time drove a completely upgraded sales process. We basically eliminated our traditional RFQ process for most of our products.

After less than a year of programming, we launched the first version of our Atlatl Software’s configurator to enable us to sell complex safety products designed to each of our customers’ unique and very intricate specifications. We then continued to add functionality to the configurator over the next few years, adding more and more of our products into the Atlatl Software solution.

These customers need custom platforms and gangways for safe access in loading trucks and railcars. It used to take them months to measure for drawings, go through the approval and detailed design process and determine costs. And then, because those platforms and gangways were rarely alike, they had to be manufactured as one-offs, or at best in very small lots.

The software that we developed reduced the specification part of the process from months to minutes by digitizing the measuring process. And it reduced the design process from weeks to seconds by digitizing the complex engineering rules that underlie the resulting design of the final product. Cumulatively, instead of three to four months, design and delivery of the custom-made equipment now takes approximately two weeks. And the quality is even better than before.

Reading this, it almost would sound ‘too good to be true’ for many manufacturers of complex, highly engineered products. I’ll submit that it doesn’t come without cost, but it absolutely can be achieved – and the rewards are paying off over and over. The return on investment shows up in market share gain and higher revenues, which will easily justify the effort and costs.

There’s a lesson here that cuts across virtually all industries: To succeed today and survive tomorrow, companies must offer the ability to custom-build goods while at the same time providing a better experience for purchasers in terms of product selection, delivery and, of course, performance.

The always-observed adage “the customer is always right” should no longer apply only to customer service inquiries or to the back end of the purchasing process. Rather, it should be in place right from the beginning of the relationship between salesperson and customer. Meaning when the customer asks for a customized design and quote “right now,” why don’t you give it to them? The constraints can be eliminated with Atlatl Software.

I believe that Digital Age mass customization has already emerged as a key trend in manufacturing and will become its primary focus for the next decade. The industrial brands that will take the lead in their industries will invest in the technological advancements required to retool their entire customer relationships – providing them not just with customized products, but also a customized buying experience.