10 Questions to Ask Before Selecting an Online Product Configurator Solution

How do interactive online configurators accelerate sales for complex and multi-option product suppliers?

Compact Automation suite of Configurators

Configurators automate the engineering decisions required to configure custom products, enable online presentation and selection of complex products and can accelerate sales by:

  • Enabling your website visitors to quickly evaluate and select products, configure assemblies or systems, design and quote your custom products and/or purchase the products/components that you sell
  • Making it quicker and easier for customers to select your products, rather than your competitors’ products, and then include them in their own designs
  • Attracting customers, and increasing existing customer loyalty, through reducing their time to market - for example by ensuring accuracy in product selection, eliminating data-entry errors, automatically generating Sales Proposals, BOMs, 3D CAD Models or 2D CAD Drawings
  • Increasing sales productivity, for example, sales teams can use your configurators on iPads or similar mobile devices when in the field
  • By freeing up your sales, support or other product experts from answering repetitive product questions during the sales quoting cycle - your design engineers can focus on new product design instead of helping customers configure existing products
  • Saving money - a configurator can enable you to grow without adding extra sales engineers, for instance your technical support staff can use the configurator when customers call in for configuration support.

For configurators the internet is the perfect delivery tool with cheap processing speeds enabling complex logic, simple user interfaces (UIs) and real-time 3D rendering all via a browser! You can try some of ITT Compact Automation's Configurators by clicking on the image on the right (a one time registration is required).

If a configurator makes sense for you this post is intended to help you select the right one! As you build up a list of questions to ask yourself and potential configurator suppliers here are 10 key questions:

1. What is the business purpose of your online configurator?

At the highest level, probably to drive sales of your configurable products? But will you offer one or multiple configurators? Perhaps one per product line? What must they enable the user to do, that he or she could not do before? For example, must users be able to configure your complex configurable or made-to-order products online, see accurate visualizations of the configured product (including zooming, panning, measuring?), create and download 3D CAD models or 2D drawings of the configured product, view pricing and availability, order the parts by RFQ (Request for Quote) or purchase via eCommerce?

2. Have you already fully defined, or does the configurator supplier have a methodological approach to creating the detailed logic, limits and inter-dependencies of all necessary option selection criteria?

Configurators must simplify complex product configurations to choices. These choices are often interdependent. For example, if you want pressure X you can use pump Y or Z but not A or B but if you also want 2 inch pipe you can only use pump Y? This is an extremely simple example – sometimes there are dozens of inter-related variables and many may be calculated from engineering design graphs but the goal is a simple, guided automation of the configuration sales and engineering tasks. If you do not already have a detailed and documented engineering process ready to implement in the configurator then select a supplier with a methodical approach to helping you create that process.

3. Will the configurator enable selection of options in any order according to the users' preferences and priorities?

Some configurators use multiple option menus and lead the user through a step-by-step approach, which is fine for a limited number of inter-dependent attributes, but can be confusing for products with multiple inter-dependent attributes. In a complex product, users usually don’t know the constraints and they almost certainly don’t know the inter-dependence of those constraints (for example, if you select X, you are giving up option Y in selection Z). The configurator should make users aware of what effects any selection has on their future choices. An alternative approach is to provide real-time feedback with automatic prompts and warnings but as complexity increases that approach becomes over-powering because too many prompts and warnings confuse the user. For example, if the use selects a particular high pressure then are certain materials visually and obviously eliminated. The best industrial configurator UIs operate asynchronously by allowing option selection in any order the user prefers and visibly feedback the inter-dependent implications of each option selected. This convenience and user-friendliness allows users to select options according to their priorities rather than in some preset order designed into the configurator. The better the user experience with your configurator the happier your customers will be...

4. Will the configurator ensure only correct configurations and eliminate incorrect ones

Obviously the configurator must also ensure that only valid products are configured - even when they used by completely inexperienced users. Typically software configurators will not allow invalid or incompatible specifications to be selected and thereby eliminate errors and save hours of compatibility and specification research. You need to be assured that every unique part is designed within the technical specifications, rules, and constraints allowed for each component. To achieve that your configurators must ensure that only technically feasible and manufacturable designs can be configured by eliminating any combinations that are not workable – for example CDS configurators routinely address products with more than a million possible configurations of which some tens of thousands are legitimate designs. The configurators simply prevent any non-legitimate design from being selected by showing users all their legitimate options at every stage of the configuration process.

[By the way, a related and important question is whether the configurator will support ‘smart’ part numbers and reverse configuration from the part number? Configurators are often designed to create ‘smart’ part numbers in which particular digits or letters in the overall part number string translate to particular selections within particular options of a complex assembly. This is fine when you want to generate a part number by using the configurator to select options. But what about the reverse situation? When a customer or distributor order is received that includes a smart part number, how do you know if that part number represents a valid part you can actually make? The best configurators can be used in reverse, allowing you to enter the smart part number into the configurator where you can immediately check that it represents a valid part configuration, and also visually present the detail of all selected options, including the BOM detail for that assembly.]

5. Can the Configurator vendor meet your bandwidth, uptime & technical support requirements?

Software as a Service (SaaS), also referred to as “on-demand” or “cloud computing,” is now a compelling delivery model for business applications. SaaS, eliminates many of the barriers that keep companies from implementing or upgrading their software because it enables you to focus on your core business operations instead of managing IT to support them. You don't need to purchase software licenses, software maintenance or hardware, you just need to subscribe to the service. As such SaaS is usually less expensive than licensed software - certainly from a CAPital EXpenditure (CAPEX) point of view as large up-front costs are replaced by monthly subscriptions (often purchased as operating expenses OPEX). They are also highly scalable (no issues as your traffic builds), low latency (fast page loading worldwide) and extremely reliable (high availability) high speed data centers. SaaS solutions are traditionally sold on a subscription basis over a term, (e.g., on a per-user, per-month basis for 36 months). However, one item that often goes overlooked is ‘pricing protection’. Address what the subscription fees could be at the time of renewal, a good solution will cap any potential increase for a subsequent terms.

6. Will the configurator enable interactive visualization to confirm correct selection decisions and generate a downloadable 3D CAD model or 2D CAD drawing of the final configured part (in any major CAD system format)?

Don't underestimate the importance of visualization - the old adage about a picture being worth a 1000 words is still true! But ensuring visualization reliably and convenience isn't that easy. Ensure that the configurator does it automatically in all major browsers without any additional software downloads (that users may be blocked from downloading for security reasons).

When a CAD model is downloaded, how often is the physical part purchased?3D CAD models and 2D CAD drawings save your customers valuable design time and they enable you to capture B2B sales leads as they are downloaded. On average 50% of downloaded parts are ultimately purchased.

7. Will the configurator integrate with your existing systems and service suppliers?

Can the solution communicate with your existing and future enterprise and legacy software solutions. For example you may run your website or ERP or CRM on in-house systems and the solution will need to seamlessly interact with your website to provide a great user experience and perhaps access your ERP system for product pricing and your CRM system to pass over new B2B sales leads. If you generate sales leads and pass them to your distributors by geography or product line can you can still do that? Can you automate the process with the new solution? Can you provide your new catalog directly to your distributors’ websites? Can it be easily modified to support you anticipated future business process changes? Would the solution require you or your existing website partners to give up control over my website? Bottom line, the configurator solution must integrate with your existing solutions, your partners and their existing solutions - it must work for your existing internal and external teams to augment their technical and business solutions (including ERP and CRM).

8. Will the configurator support your partner relationships (for example manufacturer/distributor relationships)?

An important point is to ensure that the configurator solution supports manufacturer-distributor relationships. Distributors can be wary of disintermediation when manufacturers create new direct relationships with customers. Therefore ensure that distributors are part of the plan and that the online configurator will further empower your distributor network. Maintaining separation of the Configuration and the order processing functions can be key to distributor adoption. Distributors are typically closer to the customers than the manufacturers and many provide value added services beyond traditional stocking, order taking and credit provision. Product configuration, perhaps including 3D CAD model downloads can be another service available via the distributors’ web sites (even if those web sites just point to the manufacturer’s web site) and as part of their visits to customers, distributors can use the web site (perhaps via mobile devices) as a new sales tool to help customers select parts and download CAD models.

9. Will the configurator have optional eCommerce for RFQs and online order processing?

To sell online you likely need your configurator solution to include or interface with one or more eCommerce systems.

10. What is the solution vendor’s track record? Do they have a long-standing, transparent history of successfully building and supporting customer configurators?

Reputation, trust and transparency are important in any relationship, perhaps especially with SaaS solutions in which a vendor is hosting and managing highly visible solutions. Do some due diligence. How long has the vendor been around? How many customers do they have? What is the satisfaction of their customers? How many have left? Why? Do they have a history of serving your industry? Are they stable and profitable?

CONCLUSIONS for the industrial space - manufacturers and distributors need to ‘fish where the fish are’ with online configurators and get their configurable or custom products 'designed-in' with downloadable 3D CAD models. When these component CAD models get specified in new designs they often get purchased! Conversely Industrial suppliers without configurators and 3D CAD models on their website are at risk of losing customers to competitors who do offer these capabilities. Adding configurators and CAD downloads is a proven way to increase sales… an important sales and marketing tool for all industrial suppliers (examples).

We hope that list of questions helps you but if you have want more detail on any of them please call or click either button below.

Lastly, Shannon Winkler, Product Manager, ITT Compact Automation (the owner of the configurator examples you can click on above) said, “we’ve seen an increase of at least 25% in online lead generation and an 80% increase in order automation as online orders automatically get put into our ERP system. We have also seen about an 80% reduction in processing time for orders containing items requiring prices to be updated in the ERP system... it’s now easy for our customers to find, select or configure the right product on our website and download the CAD model to specify it into their designs. The CDS solution provides an excellent user experience for our customers and our internal team – it has greatly helped to streamline our ordering process.

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