How data-driven technologies can boost the business of manufacturing. By Kevin McGirl

The manufacturing industry is becoming increasingly competitive. Factors that contribute to this include falling labor and energy costs, fewer onerous regulations, increased government subsidies and widened access to new technologies.

The rise of data-driven manufacturing technologies – known collectively as Industry 4.0 – is transforming the sector. Developments like automation, the Internet of Things, cloud and mobile computing and data exchanges have helped create ‘smart factories’. Manufacturers are using machines that can communicate independently of human input to manage production processes with greater efficiency and decentralize decision-making. This in turn, helps them to save money and free up time for essential personnel to perform other business-critical functions.

The question is, can Industry 4.0 drive change not just in the factory, but in the head office too? The answer is yes. However, sales, marketing and customer service professionals need not worry about losing their jobs to machines. The power of these new data-driven technologies lies in enhancing the ability of these customer-facing professionals to combat the competition, better understand the ever-changing consumer landscape, and drive better results.

If you’re looking to take advantage of all the business 7opportunities Industry 4.0 offers, make sure you are taking advantage of the following key technology trends.

Customer data analysis
Research from sales-i showed that six per cent of salespeople use their ‘gut feeling’ to make important business decisions, and 40 per cent use their experience of existing customer relationships to make decisions about new accounts. These outdated methods are no longer sustainable – especially in a consumer world driven by real data and personalization.

While customer rapport is very important, no matter how well you get on, adverse financial circumstances or unexpected economic fluctuations can immediately undermine a seemingly strong relationship.

Data-driven customer analysis is therefore critical. Analytics tools can help manufacturers stay abreast of market trends and identify important buying patterns. This way they can endorse their instinctive approach with hard data, and target their sales efforts with absolute precision.

For example, if a customer is likely to reorder a supply of tire rims based on a previous sale, the technology will alert sales teams in advance – giving them enough time to jump in with a special offer or bulk-buy discount before a competitor has even woken up to the fact. In essence, you’ll have a better understanding of what your customers want – and when and how to start conversations with them.

Nonetheless, a manufacturing company’s database very likely already contains thousands of names, and not all are worth time and attention. Data segmentation and profiling will help salespeople and marketers communicate with key customers and flush out new business opportunities with greater success.

Our research also indicated that manual data entry is a struggle for 17 per cent of customer-facing professionals, while ten per cent battle with outdated spreadsheets, and six per cent don’t ever feel adequately prepared for meetings. Most sales, marketing and customer service professionals in the manufacturing industry suffer from a variety of operational and administrative headaches – but these problems can be fixed.

Automation technology – which is becoming increasingly common and accessible in the workplace – can liberate sales or marketing teams from menial tasks. Modern software with built-in task bots can manage data entry, reporting, and collate tasks on behalf of human employees. This enables them to make better use of their time by nurturing customer relationships, enticing new prospects, and driving the bottom line.

Mobile and cloud computing
Contrary to what some may still believe, mobile and cloud technology is by no means a figment of the future. It has already redefined software applications like Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Business Intelligence (BI). Demand for cloud-based and mobile-friendly Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions has also increased. The benefit of SaaS is that businesses don’t need to make an upfront investment in software. Nor do they have to worry about set-up, installation and maintenance – it’s all taken care of, typically off-site, for a monthly subscription fee.

However, we discovered that 11 per cent of professionals still struggle to access information remotely – including when they are out in the field visiting customers and prospects. What’s more, in crucial moments like during a sales meeting, 34 per cent can’t get hold of the timely information they need. Cloud-based and mobile-friendly solutions can remedy this, giving salespeople full visibility into their historic customer interactions and real-time access to mission-critical information. These technologies are also typically very reliable; many experience less than one per cent downtime each year.

Modernizing sales and marketing
Data-driven technologies can give stale sales and marketing operations a much-needed boost. In addition to pricing and positioning products correctly, manufacturers need to make sure that their salespeople are searching for the right customers in all the right places. CRM and reporting software encourage greater proactivity and agility, allowing sales teams to keep track of their activities on digital sales channels, as well as out in the field, far more efficiently.

These technologies help manufacturing companies get the edge over their competitors, encourage customers to choose them first, and come back for more. Technological change in all aspects of business is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Adopting the right data-driven solutions can help companies tackle commoditization, and prosper now and into the future.

Kevin McGirl is president at sales-i. Founded in 2008, sales-i is sales performance software designed to make every sales call more personal and profitable. sales-i allows sales professionals to clearly identify and target high-quality sales opportunities within their current customer base. Equipped with customer buying behavior alerts, salespeople can make insightful, personalized, quick business decisions, realizing repeat sales, reduced customer attrition and maximized profit margins as a result.