The Complexities of Quote-to-order and Possible Solutions

Sales channels struggle to understand their products well enough to sell them effectively. Getting sales representatives and channel partners up to speed (informed) on new and existing products is expensive and time-consuming. Furthermore, as product complexity increases, so does demand for customized products and services. For more background, please see The Basics of Quote-to-order Systems.

Even More Complexity beyond the Direct Sales Force

Although the traditional call center is not often used to sell and handle customer inquiries (or complaints) about very complex products, there will still be times when information needs to be given or received by phone. Some manufacturers of configured consumer products, such as personal computers (PCs), or Internet service providers may use telephone sales and support quite extensively, in addition to the web chat and self-service options of late. Internal sales and support staff share many of the same frustrations as their colleagues in the field, and need similar solutions. However, there are some specific issues that need to be addressed if complex or customized products are to be dealt with in a satisfactory manner via the telephone.

While communication may be bidirectional, one must realize the limitations of a solely verbal interaction with the customer, where the agent generally has the benefit of detailed systems information. Therefore, a support system for telephone or Web users must be simple to use and clear in its presentation, even for complex products. This will allow orders to be taken correctly every time, and up-selling and cross-selling opportunities to be promoted while the support system is closely integrated with order fulfillment and other downstream systems.

To help customers leverage the highly profitable, but often untapped, post-sale aftermarket and drive-increased revenue, Webcom Inc. (, an up-and-coming provider of quote-to-order (Q2O) solutions, has recently launched the WebSource CPQ Assets capability. Webcom's goal is to enable organizations to improve customer satisfaction and increase productivity of the sales force, channel partners, and back-office personnel by addressing the needs of aftermarket, field service, entitlements, and assets. The new module allows users to easily quote, propose, and sell additional products and services that are pertinent to a specific asset previously created (configured) via the WebSource CPQ (configure, price, and quote) product suite.

The need for this after-sales product came from customers frequently quoting renewals, upgrades, aftermarket service, add-ons, and so on. In industries that sell capital equipment, such as medical devices, telecommunications, instrumentation, IT hardware, and other complex equipment, companies are starting to significantly increase their focus on services revenue. For some companies, this is a strategic move to increase the top line, while other companies are looking to replace revenue from slower, new product sales in the current economic conditions.

Thus, by selecting an asset, the user will now automatically be able to see the product and commercial characteristics associated with the asset, and based upon those attributes, will be guided to offer, select, or restrict relevant services and product offerings.

The WebSource CPQ Assets module includes a number of key features:

  • Asset properties convey product, installation, and commercial characteristics, including customer information.

  • Asset attributes affect the behavior of a product via product rules, dependencies, and triggers, thus guiding the user.

  • Workflow and permission mechanisms govern who can make changes and the timing of such changes.

  • Assets can be searched and sorted via a number of fields, including “key” attributes.

  • Assets can be updated manually or through the quotation process via revision control.

  • A side-by-side asset comparison is available.

  • Automation of repetitive processes, including annual, quarterly, and monthly services (such as warranties, service contracts), and maintenance are available.

  • Automated processes linked to output document templates, such as quotes or invoices to assets, are included.

  • User-defined groupings for quotation and invoicing purposes are provided.

  • User-defined selection parameters for automated processing, such as all assets with warranties expiring in 60 days, are provided.

  • An optional linkage to customer relationship management (CRM) systems for opportunity creation is included.

  • Users can forecast revenue from automated processes.

  • Batch import of existing assets eases module implementation and creates greater value.

Last but not least, while the indirect channel or the network of dealers, agents, resellers, distributors, and remote sales offices enables more effective, low-cost, and rapid expansion into new and unfamiliar markets, the above issues faced by the direct sales force are magnified for this external force. Separated from the parent organization by distance and by time zones, indirect sales channels present terrible communication and management challenges for any organization. These challenges are much more demanding when remote partners handle products that require considerable sales knowledge.

Some concerns that are very specific to this arena include the following:

  • Sales cycles are lengthier because of the need to consult the master vendor over many details.

  • Security and geographic concerns can make it very difficult to distribute information and keep the information current.

  • Because of product complexity, agents may choose (or may only be allowed) to sell a limited range of products. For instance, companies may simplify dealer products to make them easier to sell, which, on the downside, almost always hampers competitiveness and profitability.

  • Reseller quotes may be even more error prone and lack the most current information.

  • Indirect training is difficult and costly, while generating forecasts for indirect business is much more difficult.

One should also not forget about the challenges that organizations selling complex products face when having to assimilate product lines and sales teams from mergers and acquisitions (M&As). For all the above reasons, the notion of a “perfect order” (an order with absolutely no errors, from order entry, to shipping, to collection—please see The Perfect Order—Inside-out or Outside-in?) might remain an unattainable goal when selling complex products.

In many traditional complex manufacturing environments, a number of factors and situations can drain order profit margins: the costs per build-to-order fulfillment are often unknown or difficult to pinpoint; the engineering department needs to keep a dedicated headcount for checking proposals and completing schematics; the “swivel-chair” integration (multiple departments entering the same data) makes errors more likely between disparate enterprise systems; proposals for complex products take weeks, making 20 percent of total sales, on average, lost orders (according to Cincom Systems); the close rate on leads for customized products are unknown or very low; and the customer satisfaction is low because of escalating lead times and an invisible “cost of sale.” Although a bid preparation is a costly exercise (which, according to Cincom, amounts to an average of up to 15 percent of the total contract revenue), specialist knowledge is needed to create the bid. This requires high levels of “expert” hours, with teams often having a dozen or more key members that spend over a thousand hours on high-complexity bids.

However, attaining a perfect order in such environments is certainly not impossible (if seamless integration and visibility is achieved within the entire supply chain), and it can result in a much more satisfied customer than in the case of mass produced products' sales. The real key to successfully selling complex products and services lies in addressing the underlying issue—the need to capture knowledge (intellectual property) from wherever it is held in the organization, and to make that knowledge available to those who need it, whenever and wherever they might be.

So What's the Possible Solution Then?

These complexities lead us to an interesting group of providers, which develop, market, sell, and support software suites that help companies with multiple product lines and channels of distribution to effectively configure, price, and quote their products and services. The Internet, by nature, is a global marketplace, and it is increasingly viewed as the major enabler that allows both central control of information and potentially unlimited low-cost access through browsers. Visionary companies are leveraging the Internet as the means to make new sales channels effective more quickly, thus significantly reducing training and information transfer costs throughout their sales networks. As indicated earlier, the global marketplace and the pervasiveness of the Internet have taken longer to penetrate and impact the world of complex product selling than other sectors. But even companies in the most protected market spaces can no longer ignore the changes brought about by these and other factors.

Over the past few years, a number of companies, such as IBM, Cisco Systems, Siemens Energy and Automation, Dell, Rockwell, American Power Conversion (APC), and GE Healthcare have implemented quote-to-order (Q2O) or opportunity-to-order (O2O) solutions. Such solutions have reportedly enabled these manufacturers to mobilize their mass customization initiatives. From reducing traditionally time-consuming quoting and ordering processes from weeks to hours, to driving down unit costs, to lowering the costs of sales, astute Q2O suites can help enterprises increase sales effectiveness across all channels. These solutions help companies that sell complex products and services by moving their focus to front-office issues (customer-facing sales and service).

In addition to the inevitable factor of cost containment, the need for this shift has been driven by trends such as

  • increased competition (where technological or manufacturing excellence no longer guarantees competitive advantage), since innovative, fast-paced competitors that are more responsive to customer needs are challenging market leaders; and

  • expanding market opportunity, where most companies are responding to these demands by extending product ranges and offering more variation and options within their products and services.

Such products enable customers to increase revenue and profit margins and to reduce costs through seamless, Web-enabled automation of the quote-to-contract business processes. These processes reside between existing front-office CRM systems and back-office enterprise resource planning (ERP) and supply chain management (SCM) systems. Q2O software suites can offer sophisticated methods to navigate product content and knowledge to drive education and qualification of potential customers, and can be used by both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) companies.

The solutions typically help customers improve profitability by reducing process costs, optimizing pricing, and eliminating (or substantially reducing) rework and concessions. Businesses that deploy Q2O products have reportedly been able to empower business managers to more quickly and easily modify product, service, and price information enterprise-wide, ensuring proper margins and the ability to stay ahead of changing market conditions. Needless to say, Q2O product architecture has to be designed specifically for the Internet and has to provide scalability, reliability, flexibility, and ease of use. Additionally, such products have to be developed with an open architecture that leverages data in existing applications, such as ERP systems, which must allow for an easy-to-install application and reduced deployment time.

Companies seeking to improve their processes for selling products and services have typically implemented CRM and sales force automation (SFA) software, and have sought to improve provisioning of their products and services by implementing ERP software. Historically, a significant gap has existed between the core functionality of CRM software and ERP software. CRM software typically manages accounts (including sales service) and sales campaigns; tracks collections and qualification of prospective customers; and monitors the pipeline of existing sales opportunities. ERP software, however, typically fulfills orders (in some instances automatically interacting with the upstream and downstream supply chain), invoices customers, and tracks accounts receivables and payments. For more detailed information, see Enterprise Applications—The Genesis and Future, Revisited.

In between the functionality of the necessary CRM and ERP enterprise packages is a variety of back-office business functions and processes that occur from the time a sales opportunity has been defined in the CRM and SFA software, to the time when an order is placed into the ERP system. Currently, most enterprises do not have an effective method of connecting a customer identified through its CRM system to a product the enterprise can deliver through its ERP system. Although there has been much activity in the development and deployment of CRM systems, the focus has almost exclusively been on the needs of companies that sell standardized products (with a few simple options to choose from at best).

Therefore, the traditional CRM functionality has targeted areas of sales efficiency rather than effectiveness. CRM systems tend to look at the processes around the sale, but do not necessarily address the intricate (low efficiency due to complexity) issues highlighted above, often resulting in an unwanted outcome—an increase in non-selling time. A primary reason for this mismatch between expectations and results is that most SFA software packages are first and foremost sales administration systems (revolving around contact management), and they do little to improve selling effectiveness. In addition, most software packages are designed to accommodate a direct sales organization model, but cannot accommodate a complex sales channel consisting of both direct and indirect channels.

The continued growth of outsourced manufacturing, the increased focus on low-cost international materials procurement, and the heavy market reliance on vendor- or supplier-managed inventory programs to control costs all require a solid infrastructure for coordinating the extended supply network (see What Does the Future Hold for PRM?).

Also, while many ERP and CRM vendors might offer a configurator as a module of an overall product suite, many of the configurator modules embedded in ERP software suites—being mainly aimed at engineering and production (as opposed to commercial sales)—are innately inadequate in supporting the sales and service functions. Similarly, many of the CRM-based configurator modules offer effective guided selling and configuration of low-level complexity products, but with an inherent inability to handle more complex product specification or fulfillment requirements. All of the above is referred to as the O2O gap, which consists of the processes required to efficiently and accurately configure, price, and quote a product or service for a potential customer, and correctly deliver the order specifications for fulfillment and billing.

Without a comprehensive Q2O and O2O solution that operates in multiple languages, currencies, and cultures, and that caters to sales representatives, agents, remote sales offices, and customers alike, companies resort to methods for building and pricing customer quotes through a combination of spreadsheets, teams of sales representatives, and engineers searching (literally flipping pages) through product catalogs. Depending on the complexity of the products and variables, this can result in a significant error rate in customer quotes. These errors are typically the result of invalid or outdated configuration, pricing, or quotation information, and often require expensive and time-consuming customer service intervention before the order can be processed.

The ability to accurately quote product and service offerings requires enterprises to enforce such business rules as maximum discounts and margin requirements, and to ensure that items quoted are available in the required time period. An ineffective system for matching customer needs to available products and services slows the sales cycle and may lead to poor customer experience. In addition, an inefficient system makes it difficult for a company to enforce its pricing rules for selling products or services in order to optimize the solutions offered to its customers.

Some businesses have attempted to address the challenges of complexity in the selling process by building in-house solutions, which often require significant, up-front development costs and lengthy deployment periods (see Build versus Buy—A Long-term Decision). Furthermore, due to the rapid pace of change in products and business processes, companies often find it difficult and expensive to maintain these systems and to integrate new functionality and technologies. As a result, many businesses have sought to implement packaged enterprise applications, and many CRM and ERP providers have also attempted to either extend the functionality of their products, or to offer complementary modules that fill portions of the functional Q2O gap.

The current commercially available software is designed to help companies address some challenges of complexity in the selling process. CRM vendors, ERP vendors, and niche companies with point solutions may still have one or more of the following limitations. In general, many applications have not been engineered for the Internet platform and, as a result, are not easily deployed across a broad range of Internet-enabled channels or devices. Further, these applications might require significant custom programming for deployment and maintenance. These applications may also provide a limited interactive experience, or they may employ application architectures that limit their scalability and reliability. Consequently, there might be a significant opportunity for software that leverages the Internet platform to enable companies to efficiently sell complex products and services, and to bridge the Q2O gap that exists between current CRM and ERP solutions.

This is part two of the series The Basics of Quote-to-order Systems. In part three, the components of Q2O systems and their effects on product configuration are discussed.

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