"We are the Home Depot for engineers," explains National Instruments (NASDAQ: NATI) Director Web Marketing, John Pasquarette.
National Instruments (NI) carries a potentially confusing array of over 6,000 different software, hardware and technologies for measurement and automation. Just like Home Depot's customers, NI's clients often require an expert's help to figure out which products are right for their project.
Realizing this, the Company has traditionally used a "very sophisticated" field sales force and a large, highly trained, in-house telesales operation both to get the word out and to hold customers' hands through the sales process. There is so much training involved, that despite the fact that NI's market is both very broad and global, the Company does not depend on resellers to extend it's reach.
Like many high tech firms, NI had a basic Web site by the mid-90s. Pasquarette says, "By 1998 it became obvious the Web would be a huge part of our business." NI's CEO threw down a challenge to the then six-person Web team: make the site an integral partner with and support for field sales, telesales and marketing.CAMPAIGN
With their CEO's full support, the team deliberately decided against following the prevailing wisdom of the time, which said that virtual online exchanges were the future of most B2B real-world sales.
Pasquarette says, "My initial reaction was you can't replace a field sales person. If everyone places orders on the Web, you won't be able to upsell or cross-sell them the right products." He adds, "Although our average company-wide sale is about $2400, in the end you're talking about a system that could be $15,000-$20,000. They're not going to just click 'Buy.' They're going to spec it out in a general way online, and then they want to have a conversation with a person just to confirm it's right."
Although NI added an ecommerce element to the site, the team did so in a manner that would support field and telesales.
The site's online shopping process includes lots of handy configuration tools to help buyers figure out which of the more than 6,000 products are right for their needs, and how each product fits together with the rest. "You may have 20 different products all plugged together into one big chassy." Easier product selection and self-education would hopefully save the sales team time when dealing with customers.
Throughout this online selection and sales process, visitors are constantly reminded that although they can buy online if they wish, and convenient, real-world, human beings are standing by to help them.
After registering to shop online, visitors immediately see the phone number of the sales rep who services their specific region. Plus, they can click a "call me now" button at any time to get live help from telesales immediately without having to wait on hold or wend their way through an automated phone system.
In addition, registered visitors are presented with a list of upcoming events, such as trade shows, in their region where they can meet NI reps in person. Pasquarette says, "Anything you can do on the Web to get someone to take that step from the virtual world into our real world of talking to the sales force, the more effective you're going to be."
In late 1999, NI.com launched Prime Access, a ecommerce initiative geared at increasing loyalty among NI's biggest accounts. "It gives you all of your company information, gives you special discounts such as contract pricing to your different locations, a little more flexibility in shipping options." Again, this initiative is seen as supporting, rather than replacing sales reps. Reps can focus on more complex sales needs, while customers do simple re-orders online.
Pasquarette notes that NI's "channel agnostic" policy of giving reps commissions on everything that's sold in their territory no matter what channel the sale came in on, has made a big difference in gaining the field sales team's support for these Web initiatives.
Much of NI's site traffic comes from current customers seeking tech support. Rather than isolating tech support content in a ghetto on the site, NI's Web team has carefully interwoven marketing and sales into the tech area.
When registering to gain access to personalized tech support, visitors are invited to opt-in to their choice of two different newsletters (one with tech support info such as alerts for big fixes, and the other with marketing info such as seminar dates and new articles). Pasquarette decided against pre-checking the opt-in boxes for the newsletters, "We just felt it was the right thing to do." These email newsletters in turn promote the site, field sales reps and telesales, while proving useful content.
Also, as customers view tech support materials for particular products online, they are presented with notes and reminders about new and related products. "It exposes existing customers to the rest of the product line. For example, 'For those of you using LabView, here's a new piece of hardware.'"
The online support area proved such a great source of continuing new business and increasing customer loyalty, that NI invested in substantial upgrades last year. Pasquarette describes these upgrades, "Other than the sheer volume of content, a few items of note:
1. We added a very powerful user forum last year. Users can pose questions to the community for other users to answer. You can set up subscriptions to have questions or answers with specific words or topics automatically emailed to you so you do not have to go look and hunt on your own every day.
Users can rate the usefulness of the answers. Active users with a lot of good ratings can be designated as enthusiasts - their answers are marked and filtered on as well.
2. We added a ranking capability to every support document, so users could tell us what content was useful and what needs work.
3. We added a new feature called 'Request Support' that guides users through the support process. By going this route, users fill out their question, which is then used to search through our databases and the customer forum for potential answers.
If they find the answer that way, they are done and everyone is happy - they got their answer without having to call in. If they do not find an answer, they are ultimately given a support incident number and can call in and get hooked up directly to anengineer without going through a customer service rep - they also have provided much of the info about their problem directly to us. It makes for a better phone support experience as well as
highlights possible solutions on our Web site."
Aside from the popularity of online support, NI drives traffic from all over the world to its site by using three tactics:
1. Picking an easy-to-remember URL
Although the marketplace refers to National Instruments as "NI", the Company's first URL was www.Natinst.com because NI.com was already taken. Pasquarette feared they were losing traffic due to the user-unfriendly URL, so in the Fall of 1999, NI invested in purchasing NI.com from its original owner.
2. Putting that URL everywhere
"That's the most obvious, simple thing," says Pasquarette, "it's on product manuals and on the boxes we ship. There are links back to our site in our software applications. It's a conscious branding effort."
3. Investing in aggressive online direct response advertising
Many B-to-B online advertisers make the mistake of confusing branding ads with direct response ads, perhaps because they figure the response element is already baked in by virtue of the ad being clickable. In contrast, Pasquarette consciously includes a compelling call to action, such as white paper or free software download offers, in most of his online ad creative.
Although Pasquarette can not reveal exact Web-related sales or traffic figures, perhaps the most telling success metric of all is the fact that the Company has remained solidly profitable through the economic slow-down, while aggressively adding staff to it's Web team which now totals 70-80 personnel.
Pasquarette says, "Our President and CEO has said the strategic use of our Web site is as big a move for our company as deciding to go to direct [sales]. That quote really puts it in perspective."
Pasquarette credits the site with increasing profits in three main ways:
1. Increased sales efficiencies. Pasquarette explains, "While online sales are still relatively small, we do look at how many people calling in to sales have already done some research on the Web. The amount of time it takes sales people to sell is reduced drastically because of the site. The site gets them [customers]
going in the right direction. A lot of times they'll call up and say, 'I'm looking at this product on the Web site, and have a couple of questions…'"
2. Increasing customer loyalty, satisfaction and lifetime account value through superior online support. In fact the Association of Support Professionals named NI.com as one of "The Year's Ten Best Web Support Sites" for 2001.
3. Saving money on printed materials. Pasquarette says, "We have been able to significantly cut back our costs spent on printing and mailing literature that we can now distribute through downloads."
Moving forward, the Company is planning to maximize the site's ROI cost effectively in 2002 by even more extensively tracking and measuring Web-related metrics, and by educating staff company-wide to support the site.
Pasquarette says, "Rather than build a huge Web team and move everyone to it, we are retraining our current people and positions to use the Web as a key marketing tool."