The global reputation of Paris-based electrical manufacturing giant Schneider Electric isn’t built on its software. Although systems for control of buildings and factories are a growing emphasis for the company — exemplified by its recent acquisition of Invensys and its Wonderware line of factory automation software — Schneider remains better-known in the U.S. market for its Square D circuit breakers, load centers and switchgear and other “gray box” electrical hardware.
Earlier this fall, however, a team from Palatine, Ill.-based Schneider Electric North America was acting very much like a fleet-footed information technology company. Schneider invited about a dozen customers and a handful of distributors to a bright modern rented workspace in downtown Chicago Sept. 10-11 for an advance peek at a system the company has developed to expedite the process of creating a bill of materials (BOM) for quotes.
The QuoteFAST system, in pilot testing now and planned for general release in Jan. 2014, allows customers to put together a BOM on their own by selecting from menus of products and dragging and dropping the required equipment on their PCs, tablets or smart phones. The system doesn’t aim at an incremental speeding-up of the existing quote-to-order process; it seeks to shave whole days of delay and headaches out of customers’ schedules.
Schneider had quietly been working on digital tools of this kind for about a year, but once the decision was made to create a quote-generation app, work shifted into hyperdrive. The development team, led by Iram Shah, senior vice president, Digital Customer Experience, developed the QuoteFAST software for this customer preview and feedback session on a fast track — insanely fast, by electrical industry standards. From inception to debut took only ten weeks.
Shah says the reason for the project’s speed was three-fold: get ahead of competitors, build a tighter bond with customers by showing them how responsive the company can be, and lastly change the culture within Schneider by showing that it can be done.
At the September shakedown demonstration, Schneider Electric gave the gathered customers – electrical contractors and original equipment manufacturing (OEM) specifiers – a challenge: poke holes in the QuoteFAST system, help the team brainstorm changes to its interface and background processes, changes that Schneider will integrate into continuing iterations for further testing through the end of this year.
Tim Perek, director, Digital Customer Experience, told Electrical Wholesaling about the research into contractors’ primary pain points that drove the creation of QuoteFAST. “In conversations with contractors, we learned the largest concern is change,” Perek said. “Their job is filled with chaos and great change. Maybe they’re doing a rehab and they open a wall and find things they didn’t think were there. Maybe there’s a change in design because the end-user changes specs. In either case, the contractor needs to move quickly to find a part and get it on the site the same day or next day. That’s what we want to help him do.”
The customers and distributors who participated in the workshop were gathered from the Schneider sales regions where QuoteFAST is being pilot-tested: Chicago/Wisconsin, Minneapolis and the Carolinas.
The system includes product selection functions for ensuring that products are applied in ways that are consistent with the technology, electrical codes and standard practice. The resulting output includes both a BOM and a set of preliminary schematic drawings, as well as functions for saving projects so the user can reuse his or her favorite solutions in future jobs. Earl Pond, senior information system analyst, walked attendees through the back-end functions of the system and the reasoning behind the way they’re set up.
Dennis Williams, director - Business Process and Applications, led lively discussions of changes that customers wanted to see in the QuoteFAST app and its processes. Introducing the system, he said the point was to fill a gap, not to replace any of the existing tools, such as estimating packages and the My Schneider software its distributors use for order management.
The participants were blunt and honest about their opinions on various features of the system, which is what Schneider’s development team was hoping for, said Perek. One contractor from the Madison, Wis., area said if it worked, QuoteFAST could remove the frustrating back-and-forth of having to talk his distributor through the specifications for a job and allow him to do it himself after hours and know it was done the way he wanted.
On the other hand, the prospect of multiple electrical manufacturers developing their own quotation apps, which would require customers to learn several different systems and create the same job BOM in each to get competing quotes, hung out there like a daunting open question.
One issue that came up for extensive discussion on the first day was how to control revisions in the BOM and how to manage the flow of information on substitutions, value-engineering and pricing between the contractor or purchasing agent, the distributor and the Schneider factory. Attendees were given a tutorial in using the app, then those who succeeded in breaking it were rewarded with flashlights, flash drives and other prizes.
On the second day, the discussion turned to complexity, and the Schneider team came to understand that, at least at first, it would be a good idea to dial back the complexity of the systems it can be used to build, though that will most likely be a temporary change. “They had never used an app like this, as we go forward and they begin to learn it, they won’t mind some complexity. There are some who will move quickly and will embrace the complexity, and we’ll be ready for them,” Shah says.
The Schneider team went into the project with some concerns about how distributors would react to a product that brought the manufacturer and the distributor’s customer closer together. Amid the rush of development, they took the time to check in with some key distributors, and invited three of them to that initial meeting. The reaction, said Shah, was very positive. “What we heard was all positive. In some cases they were developing similar things, their own apps, and wanting to get closer to their customers. They saw this would make us closer partners to improve their business.”
Distributors who attended the meeting didn’t seem concerned about letting Schneider get closer with customers. Jim “Bruno” LaPaglia, gear quotation specialist for Steiner Electric, Elk Grove Village, Ill., said a tool like QuoteFAST would primarily help small and middle-sized electrical contracting firms improve their efficiency and speed, freeing distributors’ time to work on more intensive projects for larger customers. Meanwhile building the BOM through QuoteFAST would increase the connection with one of his company’s most important suppliers.