Mueller, Inc. sought to simplify a time-consuming pricing process. When seeking quotes, customers were experiencing too much back and forth, resulting in project delays.
Working with the IBM Garage, Mueller created a pricing tool that helps contractors configure product specifications, generate quotes and refine their designs until they have a solution that fits the customer’s requirements.
90 seconds to onboarda customer who is new to the app
Boosts customer satisfactionand loyalty because the app speeds project timelines
Vastly improves communication efficienciesboth internally and externally
Business challenge story
Building a plan from too many good ideas
Sometimes, there can be too much of a good thing. Mueller, a manufacturer and retailer of steel building products, found itself in this situation when it sought to simplify a time-consuming pricing process. When seeking quotes, customers were experiencing too much back and forth, and as a result, their projects were often delayed by as much as a week.
During a building project, a customer would ask a contractor for a quote based on certain specifications. The contractor would reach out to a Mueller salesperson to research and determine the price, and would then present this price to the customer. Inevitably, design and specification changes would require additional quotes, so the lengthy process would begin again.
To provide customers with better service and speed project timelines, Mueller wanted to design an app that would allow contractors to directly quote prices to their customers. The Mueller team came up with a lot of creative solutions for the app — too many, perhaps. Mark Lack, Manager of Strategy Analytics and Business Intelligence at Mueller, found himself in the overwhelming position of trying to sort, prioritize and make clear sense of too many good ideas. “We embarked on this executive meeting and I started hearing lots of different ideas on what we needed to do. Literally, we had a list of 10 items.” So, where does a company turn when it needs to transform good ideas into workable action?
From hardhats to a hardy prototype
To start the project, Mueller needed to narrow its many ideas for the pricing app and focus on the next best step to take. Therefore, the company engaged the IBM Garage team to conduct an IBM Design Thinking workshop, followed by an eight-day design sprint. Lack explains: “This tool was going to be such a strategic portion of our connection to customers that we couldn't afford to mess it up. So that's why we brought in the IBM Garage to assist us with this.
“Design Thinking forces you to focus on isolating the most important requirement and not build more than you need. You create a minimum viable product [MVP, a working prototype], test it to see if it solves your problem, and then iterate until it does. The constant cycle of research, design, development and testing really leads to a higher-quality product.”
After the initial Design Thinking workshop, Lack says the IBM Garage team members did something unexpected: they went straight to the customer. “The IBM Garage went onsite with our customers out in the field at construction job sites, wearing hardhats, understanding how our customers operated and determining what their pain points were. So, then they took that research and brought it back to us in our Design Thinking session. Instead of 10 different ideas, we know what's the best thing for the customer because now the customer has a seat at the table.”
For instance, the first iteration of the tool had smart voice search, which seemed like a useful feature. However, voice search can’t hear workers with jackhammers roaring behind them, so text search made more sense. This example showcases the importance of both the construction workers’ perspective and the ability of the IBM Garage team to pivot.
In addition to customers, the team included four of the most invested departments at Mueller: strategy, IT, finance and sales. Each representative had a voice in how the tool would affect their respective systems, and they gave input directly to IBM developers and designers. Lack expands: “Finance fully understands the value of what the outcome is going to be. They're not just paying for it. Strategy understands where it fits in the overall strategic direction. IT understands how it's going to fit within our systems. Sales understands the benefit it is going to have on the customer.”
For Mueller, the collaborative and agile IBM Garage Method included pair programming and weekly face-to-face meetings at the IBM Garage in Austin, Texas. Lack says that this approach saved Mueller time and money. “So typically, we would have a document that has 500 requirements with acceptance criteria and we'd go through one by one and we’d throw a bunch of money at getting it done. The IBM Garage Method was completely different.” He adds: “[It] gave us a nine-week solution to a problem that could have taken 9 - 18 months to solve using traditional development methods.”
Tool forms tough-as-steel customer relations
Prior to working with the IBM Garage, Lack jokes that his knowledge about an MVP came from the HBO show Silicon Valley, where a motley crew of developers race to create prototypes for clients. Now, Lack has direct experience with MVP development and sees the value in this approach. “One of our proudest accomplishments this year has been the tool we’ve developed to help price out projects for customers more quickly.”
Lack says that spending a lot of time up front discussing the Mueller Material Estimator app’s design has made a tremendous difference in creating an effective and easy-to-use tool. “The voice of the customer can be seen in every aspect of the tool that we built. We can onboard a customer in about 90 seconds. This has been a complete game-changer for Mueller.
Mueller has vastly improved communication efficiencies internally and externally. “The mobile app we’ve built for our contractors eliminates countless hours of low-value work for our sales team,” says Lack. “That means each seller can handle a larger volume of business, so our business can scale much more easily. At the same time, customers and contractors can get their projects started faster, which boosts satisfaction and loyalty.” As a customer-focused company that deeply values referrals as its most effective marketing tool, Mueller constantly strives to better serve its customers.
Lack exclaims that Mueller has been so impressed by the IBM Garage’s refreshingly different approach to software development that the company plans to adopt this method moving forward. In fact, the company’s CEO, Brian Davenport, has declared, “This is the type of problem-solving approach I want the company to take. It is going to help Mueller be nimble as we continue these development systems in the future.”
Indeed, Mueller has many more good ideas to come.
Founded in the 1930s and headquartered in Ballinger, Texas, Mueller is a leading retailer and manufacturer of pre-engineered metal buildings and metal roofing products. Today, the company sells its products directly to consumers all over the southwestern US from 35 locations across Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
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