In this episode of The Kula Ring, Jeff and Carman talk with Scott Holstein of Computrols, a New Orleans-Based hardware manufacturer and software company. They discuss how to drive results by aligning the sales and marketing teams, the value of social selling, the challenges of marketing two different business units, and what it takes to go up against goliath competitors.
Driving Results: Practical Lessons For Mid-Sized Manufacturing Marketers Transcript:
You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff.
Jeff White: Alright, welcome to The Kula Ring. My name is Jeff, with Kula Partners, and joining me as always is Carman Pirie. Carman, how are you doing?
Carman Pirie: All is well. Really happy for this chat today. This has been exciting… I guess our conversations that lead up to this has been very interesting to me, so I’m really curious to dive in here.
Jeff: Yeah, me as well. Today we’re going to be chatting with Scott Holstein of Computrols, manufacturer and software company based out of New Orleans, Louisiana. And they are a manufacturer of building automation systems and it sounds like they’re doing some really fantastic stuff from both a marketing and sales perspective, as well as a really fascinating business model around their products and how they’re thinking about this. So welcome, Scott.
Scott Holstein: Thank you, guys. Happy to be a part of the podcast.
Carman: It’s good to have you, and I’ve got to say this is the first time we’ve had the podcast being recorded across two continents, three different countries. And so we’re going to test out all of the technology we possibly can and see if we can even break the podcast technology before we’re done. It’s really great to be chatting. Scott, you’re joining us from Denver. I hope everything is going well there.
Scott: Oh yeah. Great time of year to be here. It’s just starting to cool off enough where you can go outside. And if you live in Denver and you don’t enjoy the outdoors, you’re in the wrong place. So lots of fun stuff going on this time of year. Beautiful part of the world.
Carman: So, Scott, kicking things off here, why don’t you tell us a little bit about Computrols and your work with them over the last two to three years and perhaps give the listeners a little background on you before that as well.
Scott: Sure. So prior to Computrols, I was doing business development for an online marketing agency and kind of found that I really enjoyed the marketing side more so than the sales side. So given my skill set, I still wanted to do a little bit of sales, but I really wanted to move in the direction of marketing as really my full-time role. So I found this position with Computrols and I found it really exciting because we were talking about manufacturing circuit boards in New Orleans, which people don’t really look at New Orleans in that light. So it was exciting to find out that that kind of technology was being manufactured in my city and learned a little bit more about it and it was a niche industry I didn’t really have a lot of information on. And I originally came over to Computrols as a digital marketing specialist and that was in part due to the fact that Computrols’ digital presence at that time really needed a facelift. There was a new website in the works. There was a new CEO at the time who wanted to get a little bit younger when it came to our marketing approach.
So I came in as the digital marketing manager and launched a new website, started doing some SEO, really kicked off social media and in not a lot of time they figured out that I could do some other things, including sales. So as a part of my role now, I really do anything and everything marketing, as well as lead our sales team and manage our CRM.
Jeff: I think that’s really fascinating because I’m willing to bet that 90 percent of manufacturing marketers out there either have a minor relationship with their sales organization.
Scott: Oh yeah, an antagonistic one.
Jeff: Or, you know, maybe the two of them don’t even talk. The vibe between sales and marketing has been a consistent theme around the dialogue of manufacturing marketing for a while now and here you are leading the sales organization as the marketer. So I guess, what’s that like because I think it’s a bit like being to the moon. You can kind of come back and tell people about it because they’re not there.
Scott: Right. Well, I think that there are probably some frustrations that you don’t have to experience if you don’t have those lines of communication open. But I think ultimately it’s for the best. We work pretty well together hand in hand and it gives our salespeople the opportunity to ask “What are we doing here? Why are we doing it? What’s the goal? What’s the messaging we should be using?” And as a marketer, you can’t ask for much more than that because you can blast out your message every which way you know how, but if it’s not being used by the sales staff, it’s really not getting to the end customer necessarily as frequently as you would like. So it has been a challenge at times to help our sales team understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. And then I think it’s just been more so helpful because I get to see the lead go all the way from we came in via a LinkedIn ad or paid search or a webinar that we did. And then I get to follow that lead through the process. And as marketers, I think we’re always skeptical. What is the sales team doing? Why are they not converting all of my leads? But if you get to be a part of that process, you get to see what’s going on and you understand better why this was or wasn’t a good lead and can adjust your marketing strategy accordingly.
Jeff: Do you find that you’re getting a good reception from your sales team now that you’ve been into it, or was there some initial animosity or how has that relationship changed over time?
Scott: I wouldn’t say there was ever any animosity. Our team is really tight knit and we’ve not really had a lot of issues in that respect. But I do think that over the last year, I’ve gotten a lot of our sales team to adopt our new CRM system, really start using it. And you know when anyone starts using a CRM, they’re skeptical, especially if it’s something additional that they didn’t have to do before. But now that they’re starting to see the benefits of it, it’s become a much more harmonious relationship because they can see how marketing and sales work together and how tracking all of that information is ultimately going to lead to all of us being more successful.
Carman: Do you feel between … I guess the way I’ve seen that alignment happen is that it changes how the sales organization receives marketing initiatives because they are a little bit more in tune with the why that’s behind it, but I also find it changes the type of marketing initiatives that the marketers undertake because of that, not even just additional input or pressure. It’s more informed by sales. In your case Scott, you were a biz dev person beforehand. I guess, have you felt that it’s kind of improved the marketing of the firm, kind of coming from both direction that way?
Scott: Oh, without a doubt. The feedback that I’ve gotten from our salespeople has been invaluable. And especially coming into a new industry for me, there was a learning curve there and so it was really helpful to work with the salespeople to see okay, what exists now? What can we continue to leverage? What’s working? And then where do we go from there? But since we’ve built that relationship, the salespeople have certainly influenced some of the things that we’ve done. Now, you know, a lot of their ideas don’t make it to fruition where we execute on them, but they are heard and they feel like they are being included in the strategy behind it and I think that ultimately just leads to better teamwork and a better end product from a marketing perspective. And as marketers, one of the biggest things we’re trying to do is keep the salespeople happy. We want to keep those leads coming in and we want to keep growing the business in that direction.
Carman: How do you find the social selling side of things as the sales organization has adopted more robust CRM, et cetera, and are getting into using sales enablement technologies in some way? How is that extending into social selling? What’s been your experience there?
Scott: So social selling was something that I started to push immediately when I came in the door at Computrols. It was not something that was currently being done. You could look on LinkedIn and see it just really wasn’t a priority for our team to be active and doing outreach through those avenues. So I can tell you that some of the … Really, the majority of the leads that we’ve generated over the last year or so, at least half of them have come through social selling in some capacity, whether it be just prospecting, trying to find and identify the right people that we should be talking to and doing that outreach, or being active and having people share our content, which ultimately drives people to our website, they see what we do, they see how we do it differently than our competitors, and at that point they’ll pick up the phone and call. But I would say social selling is right up there with any of our approaches right now in terms of success. We use it for prospecting, we use it to learn more about our customers, and we’re doing it fairly successfully right now.
Carman: I’m kind of curious because I know that you put a lot of emphasis on video creation over the last while, or at least that’s my impression when I look at the website. And I’m always curious in social selling initiatives kind of which content is getting uptake by the sales organization and bringing in the leads and what isn’t. So talk to me about that. Do you feel like that’s … The videos been very strong there, or have there been other parts of the content mix that you found to be better?
Scott: So I think it’s always a combination that’s going to make you successful when it comes to that because different people consume information in different ways. But I do think it’s worth mentioning that prior to coming in and working with Computrols, my experience with video was extremely limited. And basically figured out a lot of it on the fly, did a lot of videos with my iPhone, did editing through iMovie and was kind of surprised with some of the results coming out pretty well and then started looking at screen capture software. We use Snag It, but there’s lots of other stuff out there. But it made it fairly easy for me to pick up on the video and like you’ve said, we’ve probably produced over 20 videos the last two years. And getting back to what’s been successful for us from a social perspective, I think video on social is always going to win out. I think when people are scrolling through their feeds, if you can give them some enticing video content, they’re going to sit there and learn more.
Scott: But we try to do, and you’ll see this on certain landing pages of our website, is we really try to give everybody the best approach to the content for them. So that’ll mean there might be a video at the top and then there might be a bulleted list for those people who just want a high level overview and then below that we’re going to give you loads and loads of content for those people who love detail and want to know how it all works.
Carman: Hm. And the search engines don’t mind that robust content either, it should be noted.
Scott: Absolutely. And being that my background is with a digital company, SEO is something I really geek out about, so it’s certainly something we pay attention to every time we create a new page.
Carman: How has that been as a marketer, coming from the dark side of agency life over to the client side? Out of the frying pan, into the fire, as it were.
Scott: I personally have really liked it. I think that I’ve grown as a marketer substantially. I got so in tune with our product set at my previous position where SEO, paid search, social media, social media advertising, and content creation were all kind of part of what we did. But I feel like we were lacking in understanding of some of our customers’ businesses and I think that that’s really where the rubber hits the road for marketing. And so coming into this position, it wasn’t as simple as saying “Look, we increased your site traffic and we have longer time on site.” It’s what’s the bottom line? And I think that that’s the question that a lot of marketers are a little afraid to have to answer sometimes is how is this impacting my business? So when you go in-house, that question gets answered every single day, or it gets asked every single day.
Jeff: Hopefully it gets answered.
Scott: Yeah, right, right. Exactly. But like I said, I think it made me grow as a marketer because I had this kind of narrow idea of what marketing was and really had a good hold on a lot of the digital aspects of marketing. But I’ve learned so much more since then in terms of how to handle trade shows, how to do marketing outreach, how to do public relations, PR. I didn’t realize how hard PR was, and I’ll tell you, as somebody on the digital side who would work with some PR agencies, I would just think oh, this is all fluff and it doesn’t have a whole lot of impact, and that’s just not the case. I have a much better appreciation for PR firms and people who do PR.
Carman: That’s the nature of the world we live in these days. I think a lot of what’s happened with marketing and the influence of digital and social media, et cetera, over the last decade or more, it has pushed some of the PR sensibility into the marketing realm if you will, and I think the smart marketers are the ones that realize that and don’t resist, but rather dive in. But then again, I used to be a Vice President of Public Relations in a former life, so I might be a bit biased.
Scott: You definitely see the value of it a lot more and also you have to consider who we are marketing to. Our demographic is not all over Facebook, is not really on Twitter. A part of our audience is on LinkedIn, but we do need to be present there and we do need to make sure that we are doing the right things and making sure that we’re engaging with the audience that is there. But I think when I came into this job, digital was my thing, I could do it, it was easy, and then I realized, oh there’s all this other stuff and the audience that I’m marketing to is going to respond better to a lot of this. And I think as everybody’s moved towards digital, some of those more traditional approaches have become effective again.
Jeff: That’s interesting because we’ve spoken to a number of marketers on this podcast and some of them have really seen a dramatic increase in the number of Millennials that they’re selling to now and they’re actually having to change the way that they’re marketing and change the way that they’re selling because their demographics of buyers is getting younger. Do you have a sense of what you’ll do in order to move more into that kind of a younger demographic as it changes and kind of shift more towards social and less towards PR? Or do you think you’ll keep doing the same mix?
Scott: I don’t know. I always believe that a good mix is going to be most effective. You want to be everywhere all the time when people are looking for you. And I think that over the next 10 years or so, it’ll be really interesting to see what happens with our industry because I do think that change is going to happen slowly but surely, and I think that right now we do focus on digital quite a bit because we know that’s where it’s heading, but at the same time, I don’t think we can forget about those traditional approaches. And although Millennials interact with digital and are digital natives, I do think that you’ll find your fair share of people out there who still like to have an actual physical newspaper in their hands. So you certainly don’t want to exclude anybody, but as you see the majority moving one direction, you try to go get in that way.
Carman: I think that’s a particularly interesting challenge for you because Computrols not only is a hardware manufacturer but started life as a software provider. So there are a lot of manufacturing marketers listening right now that these organizations are just starting to get into the software layer on top of the products they provide, you know? And learning how to manage that product development cycle either differently or not. But also learning how to market those sides of the business a bit differently. And one would assume in some way that people who are buying software are maybe a bit more online savvy. So I guess, what are your thoughts on that duality between the software and hardware side of the business and the marketing approaches required for each?
Scott: It’s interesting. I actually had a conversation about this with our CEO the other day. We focus so much on the benefits of our software from a simplicity standpoint and then we focus on our hardware as the most robust in our industry. We have a lifetime warranty on everything we manufacture and when it comes to electronics, that just doesn’t really exist. So we find ourselves kind of focused on these really specific areas of this is what we want to focus on hardware, this is what we focus on on software. And the way that our industry is going right now, a lot of people are creating what they call open systems and although they’re not truly open, this is something that is a trend in our industry and it’s something that’s worth keeping an eye on, but essentially what a lot of our competitors are doing is they make their system completely open so they’ll work with anyone else’s software, or they make a software that will sit on top of someone else’s software and kind of manage it from there.
Scott: But for us, it’s about the total package and the total experience. When our owner started the company 35 years ago, they started it as a service company for commercial building automation systems and they thought at that time that these systems were just too cumbersome, they’re too much work and they shouldn’t be that difficult. So at that time they brought on Mike Donald, who is now our third owner, and he created the first version of Computrols’ building automation software. It was in DOS. And at that time, they started integrating to all these third party systems and it was a success for them, but they were still dependent on a third party for their hardware. And planned obsolescence is something you see frequently in electronics, certainly in the building automation industry.
So what was happening is we were dependent on those individual companies for the hardware and at times they weren’t even able to get it because that product had been obsoleted and basically taken out of production. So at that time they started manufacturing everything in-house. They had done it in New Orleans, Louisiana since they started and now we have our own line of hardware as a turnkey solution. And because, in our case, those two things are so connected, it’s hard to talk about one without the other. But I do think that there are opportunities that we may not be seeing necessarily because like anyone in any job, you kind of get going down a path and you forget to stop to look around to see what’s going on. But our approach has always been with software to make it as simple as possible. And so marketing our software has always been kind of easy as compared to some of the other software platforms out there because our message is just “We build simplicity into everything that we do.” So I think that has made it a little bit easier to market to that older demographic, as opposed to having this brand new, flashy software that does all these different things, but realistically you’re only going to use a handful of those features.
Carman: It is certainly … Everybody’s situation naturally is quite unique, but I do appreciate the intimate connection, if you will, between the software and hardware sides of the business. I’d be curious though are things like developing a stronger UX sensibility in the software products as an example. Or maybe as you look to even further the simplicity offering, if you will, it just strikes me that that type of skill set is often a different one than required to make great hardware. I guess that’s the edge that I find a lot of marketers struggle with, is that they’re a pure hardware company, the idea of building interfaces is pretty sketchy territory. But maybe where you guys started on that front, it didn’t have the same pitfalls, if you will.
Scott: Yeah, I think that had a lot to do with it. I think the fact that we came from service and then built a front end software that we felt like was the most intuitive in the market and then building software on top of that, I think we’ve always looked at ourselves as integrators with a hardware solution to back it up. Because there are a lot of companies out there can integrate to third party controllers, but when those third party controllers start to fail, they don’t have a solution for that. So that’s been a big part of our DNA from the very beginning.
You’re listening to The Kula Ring, conversations on manufacturing marketing. Don’t forget to subscribe now at kulapartners.com/thekularing. That’s K-U-L-A partners dot com slash The Kula Ring.
Jeff: You had, in talking with the software and the hardware side of things, what are some of the challenges that you’re facing in terms of getting that out there? And how many … In terms of your customers, are they largely software first, or hardware first, or are they buying both? How does that generally work?
Scott: So we’re a kind of interesting player in our market because if you look at our competitors, the majority of them are Fortune 100, if not Fortune 500 companies. And the building automation market has largely been full of acquisitions for the last maybe 20 years. And so there aren’t a lot of mid-sized companies like our own and we also fit into a very unique niche. So the challenge for us has been getting our name out there. So awareness is one of our number one goals in every marketing campaign. We want to get this in front of as many people as possible so when one of our salespeople picks up the phone and calls and they say “I’m with Computrols,” it’s not the first time that they’re hearing the company’s name. And so the awareness challenge has really been first and foremost on my mind because it’s huge. We do business internationally and you’re trying to get in front of these audiences and especially coming from a digital perspective, you know, I have all these ideas about ways to do this and then I find out, okay, well, not everybody is going to be reached digitally, so we have to get creative here.
So yeah, in terms of awareness, I think that’s been our biggest challenge is getting in front of those people so Computrols becomes a name that they synonymize with building automation because they’ve heard of our big time competitors and they know how they work and because our approach is so different, it’s also a matter of educating them on what we do because when you look at the average building automation company, first of all, they’re multi billion dollar company, worldwide, locations in everywhere you can possibly imagine, and they create solid products. But one of the challenges that we try to solve is planned obsolescence because these systems and large facilities can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars if not more when their customers are told “We don’t manufacture this product anymore, we don’t support this product.” That’s where we come in and we can do some really unique things that other people can’t do and that is where education becomes really important because okay, once we get to that point where people synonymize Computrols with building automation, it’s not over there because we’re not just a building automation company and we do such unique integration solutions and we’ll even build custom hardware at times, that we try to get that message out as best we can in a really kind of shotgun approach.
Carman: I think that’s an interesting challenge that I think a lot of mid-sized manufacturers share. Their market presence, awareness, if you will, is dwarfed by their multi billion dollar, Fortune 100 competitors and they’re left trying to figure out how to zig while those competitors zag, or try to get noticed in the marketplace that’s not getting any less congested, generally speaking. You mentioned earlier about still using a number of traditional practices on the marketing side. I’m curious to what extent have you been successful in integrating digital lead capture or even closed loop digital analytics into those more traditional executions? Have you found that that’s allowed you to be a bit more precise with your marketing and as a result maybe out-maneuver some of these larger competitors?
Scott: I would say there is some advantage to being smaller. We’re very nimble and we’re willing to take some risks on what we’re trying because we’re competing with companies that have marketing budgets that are bigger than our whole company combined. But we have been creative in how we’ve done that outreach, and as far as tracking some of that, we’re very diligent finally about recording everything in our CRM. So when a call comes in, new opportunity comes along, the first thing we find out is how did this person find us? And so for our digital campaigns, that’s usually easy enough. For our more traditional campaigns, things like call tracking numbers and alternate domains that redirect can be really helpful there. We’ve implemented a few in our traditional campaigns, but generally speaking, we’re doing everything we can to close that loop and find out where did this person come from and how do we find more people like them.
Carman: Yeah. I do find that an interesting opportunity that you have with all of these competitors, I guess, planning obsolescence of a product and that’s often times your entry point, is maybe you can go in and your software product kind of helps bridge that gap and avoid a multi hundred thousand dollar new expense. And of course those people have to announce when they’re doing that with their products to their customer base. So I have this vision in my head of Computrols’ marketing department kind of monitoring those and then being able to maybe swoop in and make hay when that sun’s shining. But maybe that’s just the shameless salesperson in me feeling that.
Scott: No, I mean, that’s certainly an approach. And the challenge for us is usually just identifying who has those legacy systems now. We certainly pay attention to those announcement and we try to take advantage of that. We’ll put out a press release that says “Look, we integrate to this legacy system.” But it’s getting the awareness out there. And as a smaller manufacturer in our space, we’re a risk to our potential customers. So if I’m a facility manager and I’ve got Computrols and then brand A and brand B that are Fortune 100 companies, if I go with brand A or brand B and things don’t work out, I’m in the clear. I went with a safe decision. We can figure it out. If I go with this up and comer or something who’s not as well-known in our industry and things don’t work out, this really looks bad for me. So going back to what you were talking about, identifying those individuals I think is important. We try to put out content around that same time that explains “Look, you have more than this one option. You don’t have to rip out everything and start over.” But that’s constantly a message that we’re trying to drive out there at the same time.
Carman: There’s not question that the awareness challenge for mid-sized manufacturers and like you just said, nobody ever got fired for buying Hewlett Packard is the old saying, or nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.
Carman: That same sentiment comes across in many industries and it’s another thing standing in the way of … Or I guess another challenge for mid-market manufacturing marketers. Scott, this has been a fantastic conversation. I’ve really enjoyed your insights into what you’ve been up to over the last couple of years at Computrols and how you’re navigating this digital transformation. Certainly seems like things are busy over there and there’s lots on the go. I’m really excited to see how the company grows and prospers over the next several years.
Scott: Well, thank you. I really appreciate that and I appreciate you guys having me. This has been really fun for me as somebody who geeks out about marketing, I can talk about it for a long time. So if you’re ever looking to fill the air, just give me a call.
Carman: Excellent, excellent. That’s the trouble with marketers, right? We’re always happy to fill the air, and the only people that are willing to listen to us generally are other marketers.
Scott: Gotcha, you’re right.
Carman: Excellent, Scott. Well, look, it’s been fantastic. Thanks so much. Thank you for joining us on The Kula Ring, and we look forward to catching up with you later.
Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring with Carman Pirie and Jeff. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at kulapartners.com/thekularing. That’s K-U-L-A partners dot com slash The Kula Ring.