Sales reps at Bernhardt spent more time buried in dense product guides than interacting with buyers. How could the furniture maker help them find the information they needed more quickly and easily?
Bernhardt worked with the IBM team to deploy a virtual showroom app, putting a wealth of product data and analytics tools at sales representatives’ fingertips.
20%lift in revenues for the company’s export division
196%return on investment achieved, with full payback in just six months
Maximizessales effectiveness with better insight into products, trends and clients
Business challenge story
Breaking free from paper
“Our industry has changed significantly over the last few years,” begins Alex Bernhardt, Jr., CEO of Bernhardt Furniture Company. “People aren’t satisfied with standard, one-size-fits-all products—they want furniture that reflects their personality and lifestyle, and they want much more control over the look and feel of the products they are buying.
“We’ve responded to this need by offering highly customizable products, allowing customers to put their personal stamp on the furniture they buy. However, one of the challenges with mass customization is that when you have so many possible options and combinations it can be difficult to stay on top of it all.”
Previously, Bernhardt took a largely paper-based approach to managing product information, sales and orders. Reliance on manual processes left room for errors and confusion, and caused frustration for both sales representatives and buyers. These issues became particularly evident at events such as High Point Market—the world’s largest furnishings industry trade show.
Lacey Griffith, Director of IT at Bernhardt Furniture Company, elaborates: “High Point Market is like Fashion Week for the furniture industry; it’s a bi-annual event where we exhibit new product offerings. At each event we have about 2,800 buyers come through our showroom. We have a very short time to make an impression—and it’s very important that we give these buyers a great experience, as the purchasing decisions they make during the event can impact our production and sales activity for the next six to twelve months.”
He continues: “In the past, when everything was on paper, it was difficult for our sales representatives to quickly access product information. Sales reps spent more time flipping through dense binders than interacting with buyers. We wanted to put the latest product information at sales reps’ fingertips, so they could deliver a faster response to clients and have more time to build relationships with buyers.”
Elevating the sales experience
Bernhardt decided to create a virtual showroom application that provides a real-time view of the company’s extensive product range, accessible via tablet devices. Seeking to launch the new app in a matter of weeks, in time for the next High Point Market show, Bernhardt looked for a technology partner that could quickly design and deliver a solution that met its requirements. This search led the company to IBM.
Lacey Griffith explains: “Like many companies, we just didn’t have the internal resources or experience to build out a mobile development infrastructure ourselves—and certainly not against such a tight deadline. We worked with the IBM jStart team, who proposed a platform-as-a-service approach, using IBM Bluemix® as a cloud development platform for the new app. This was a very attractive proposal, as it eliminated up-front capital expenditure and gave us access to a range of APIs that we could use to quickly integrate new features to the app.”
Working with IBM, Bernhardt was able to bring the virtual showroom app from concept to deployment in just 10 weeks.
“I don’t think that we would have been this successful without the partnership with IBM,” remarks Lacey Griffith. “We just did not have the internal skillsets to build and deploy such an app, and IBM was absolutely instrumental in helping to deliver this for us.”
With the new virtual showroom app, Bernhardt has freed its sales teams from their reliance on paper catalogs, and lifted the sales experience to a new level of sophistication. Today, sales reps can virtually show an image of each setting in the showroom, along with all the accompanying product data and pricing on their Apple iPads, helping to more accurately and quickly communicate information to their buyers. The app also provides a new wish-list option for buyers who are considering or comparing different products.
“The reaction from sales teams has just been phenomenal,” says Alex Bernhardt, Jr. “They no longer have their heads down flipping through product binders; they can access everything they need from one simple, easy-to-use tool. This allows them to engage with buyers more closely and share information on our products much faster than ever before.”
Additionally, the virtual showroom app provides Bernhardt with new data analytics capabilities. Previously, managers had to poll individual sales reps and manually analyze data to measure sales and product trends. By taking advantage of the IBM Cloudant® database platform and IBM Analytics for Apache Spark software, both available through Bluemix, Bernhardt can perform strategic analyses in near-real time.
These new analytics capabilities are not just limited to the data that sales reps capture while using the app—they also leverage sensors within the iPads themselves. For example, during a recent High Point Market show, the company deployed Apple iBeacons throughout its 80,000 square-foot showroom. This enabled it to capture more than 2.9 million points of locational data as sales reps used the virtual showroom app during the week-long event. The company then analyzed the data to understand how both its staff and buyers moved around the showroom.
“We were able to use micro-services and APIs provided by Bluemix to gain new insight into how people were spending their time in our showroom,” notes Lacey Griffith. “This is helping us to refine showroom configurations and sales rep activity to maximize the effectiveness of our sales efforts during trade shows.
“For example, product placement is one of the most important elements when it comes to setting out a showroom. We might have a great product, but if people don’t see it, we aren’t going to sell it. By using analytics to plot which areas of the showroom receive the most traffic, we can position products that we want to showcase in the places where they are most likely to catch the eye of potential buyers.”
Improving time-to-market for new products is another key advantage of the new app. Lacey Griffith explains: “We recently introduced a new line of configurable seating products called Signature Seating. We were able to successfully integrate support for this new line of business in the mobile app within two weeks of the product launch.”
Analytics is also helping Bernhardt to drive smarter decisions around product development, sales and marketing and order fulfilment, as Alex Bernhardt, Jr. notes: “We are capturing very accurate data at the point of sale. This helps our teams to make better-informed decisions about new product introductions and how to promote certain lines; it also allows us to plan production and inventory more accurately to ensure we manufacture the right volumes of the right products at all times.”
Boosting revenues and delighting customersEmbracing mobile and digital technologies has transformed the way that sales teams work at Bernhardt.
Lacey Griffith explains: “Before, we had to make sure that sales reps working at events like High Point Market knew our products inside-out, so that they could answer buyers’ questions quickly, without having to look up information. With the new app, our salesforce can easily look up information in real time and give a much faster response to buyers.
“This gave us the opportunity to bring in sales interns to our last High Point Market show, and have them walk some newer, smaller clients through our showroom. We were able to target a segment of buyers that we simply did not have the resources to interact with in such a personal, one-on-one way in the past. This has been incredibly valuable for strengthening the client relationship and encouraging repeat business.”
Alex Bernhardt, Jr. adds: “The virtual showroom app is a fantastic tool for helping our salesforce better understand our product line and communicate what makes our products special. It has given them a real confidence when it comes to talking with clients and making sales happen.”
A more efficient approach to selling allows teams at Bernhardt to spend more time interacting with buyers, improving the client experience and lifting revenues.
“As sales teams are no longer weighed down by time-consuming manual processes, they can see a much higher volume of clients,” states Lacey Griffith. “We often have buyers drop in to our showroom out of the blue. In the past, they could get impatient if we weren’t able to see them as quickly as they wanted, which meant that we might miss out on opportunities to make a sale.
“Today, our teams have more flexibility to accommodate more clients than ever before, even if they drop in unexpectedly. This is helping to boost sales—in fact, we have increased revenues by 20 percent in our export division alone.”
Alex Bernhardt, Jr. continues: “At Bernhardt, we are very customer-focused in everything that we do, and this digital transformation has helped us to take customer service to the next level. Our clients have definitely noticed the difference and have given us very positive feedback. They receive immediate answers to their questions and have more time to interact with our sales reps one-on-one. The quality of the buying experience has been greatly enhanced, and aligns more closely with Bernhardt’s image as a high-quality, high-design furniture company.”
Lacey Griffith concludes: “For us to be able to go through this whole digital transformation with IBM in a 10-week period was an amazing feat. Even more importantly, it has laid the groundwork for future improvements. We are embracing new things like predictive analytics, which seemed way beyond our grasp just a year and a half ago, and we are very excited to build on our success to help Bernhardt run an even better business.”
About Bernhardt Furniture Company, Inc.
Founded in 1889, Bernhardt Furniture Company, Inc. ranks among the largest family-owned furniture companies in the United States. Headquartered in Lenoir, North Carolina, Bernhardt operates eight manufacturing facilities and five overseas offices, employing more than 1,250 people. Its furniture is found in homes, offices, hotels and universities all over the world.
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