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How Building Product Manufacturers Can Decrease Custom Lead Times

Just because your product is custom designed and made doesn’t mean it has to have a long timeline. This week’s guests talk about how they’ve been able to increase efficiencies in the customization process in order to reduce lead times.

Photo of Zach Williams
Photo of Beth PopNikolov
by Zach Williams and Beth PopNikolov

More About This Episode

The Smarter Building Materials Marketing podcast helps industry professionals find better ways to grow leads, sales and outperform the competition. It’s designed to give insights on how to create a results-driven digital marketing strategy for companies of any size.

Craig Jolly, Operations Manager, and Thomas Nelson, Marketing Manager, both work at 9Wood, a custom wood ceiling company. They talk with Beth about how 9Wood has brought speed into custom building product manufacturing.

Meet Thomas and Craig

Thomas serves as the Marketing Manager at 9Wood. He started his career as a project manager with Subsea Engineering before moving to Boeing Company. During his first quarter life crisis, he picked up woodworking as a hobby. Through that, he found 9Wood — or as Thomas says, ”9Wood found me.” He was able to combine his love of woodworking and his business knowledge.

Craig spent 25 years in the food industry utilizing his industrial engineering degree in a variety of roles, including scheduling, management, supervision and engineering. He joined 9Wood in 2015 and has been there ever since.

Founded in 2004, 9Wood makes custom wood ceilings. Their name is a play on Division 9 in construction, and they’re the only manufacturer in North America that focuses exclusively on wood ceilings and walls.

“From the company's founding, we focused on reliability. We wanted that to be our niche, [and] the thing that set us apart. So we defined reliability as delivering the design intent correctly [and] on time. And we worked on that for about a decade. And it turns out that that was not enough of something to differentiate. It was different — but not different enough. So we needed to add another factor on top of that, which was speed. And that's where the Fast>Track program comes in,” explains Craig.

Decreasing Lead Times

The sales process for custom products has a lot of opportunities to go wrong. According to Thomas, the first thing your sales process needs to consider is the schedule. “Specifically, the customer’s schedule — their schedule should determine the whole path that the customer really needs to take.”

Once you know what the schedule is, you need to consider what happens if you miss that schedule. By the time a customer is working with 9Wood, they’re at the end of the building process, so their schedules are unreliable. That means they need speed and reliability — that’s where Fast>Track comes in.

“When you are able to get those custom materials in three weeks instead of 12, it's not only an insurance package, but it also is the expedited package when customers really need it,” says Thomas.

This also means when approached by a customer, 9Wood doesn’t start the conversation with possible designs, but finding out what their timeline is instead. They start with the details and then make the outcome fit within time constraints.

“One of the tenets that we hold in both our selling approaches and our marketing approaches is that the customer is the hero, and we should not tread on that,” says Thomas. Instead of focusing on presenting designs when most customers already have one in mind, they focus on whether or not the design they want is even possible. Otherwise, 9Wood, a specialty wood ceiling product, is likely to get value-engineered out.

Craig discovered speed as the major factor in getting VE’d a few months into working at 9Wood. He asked all of the sales reps what was preventing them from selling more, and the resounding answer was speed. “At the time, we had nothing to offer. We were all specialty — all custom. Everything was eight to 12 week or more lead time. They said, ‘we've got to have something faster.’”

So they worked out a baseline of products they could create quickly by reducing the options while still offering variety. It allows architects and designers to still design a very custom wood ceiling without having to sacrifice on lead times. “We're centered around the premise that customers can both have custom wood ceilings and competitive lead times,” says Thomas.

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Marketing Successfully

The conversation to have slightly productized options in a company that is highly custom is one that continues to this day. They are still asking how they can add to their custom portfolio. “The biggest value that I think we give to our customers is helping them understand the implications of their design questions and their design assertions. If they say they want it X, we can say X takes this long,” says Thomas. “We see it as our job to help communicate the lead time or the implications of going that full custom route.”

However, the conversation with the sales force on how to sell this is still ongoing. It’s important that the message doesn’t become 9Wood is moving away from custom. Instead, they’re adding a faster route to custom to expand their market, rather than take away from the current custom market.

When it comes to marketing, the goal is to overcome assumptions that come with custom design and speed. As mentioned above, the first tactic is to make the customer the hero and honor their needs — even if those needs aren’t specifically stated out loud.

9Wood tries to be as transparent as possible when it comes to their marketing. They use “call for your quote” often as a call to action to break down the initial barrier. Then, they are upfront with customers. They give answers to how much a custom wood ceiling costs and how long timelines can be.

“During the pandemic, we had crazy supply chain disruptions, and we took the approach of talking about it and sharing it with our customers, saying, ‘Hey, there's been disruptions over here, not over here. We suggest you go over here,’ — kind of being more of a guide rather than trying to usurp the hero.” Like Venveo, 9Wood follows a storybrand type of marketing.

“To be able to express those answers fully and completely without having to say, ‘Call us for the actual answer,’ we find it pretty powerful. We don't like to hold much back,” says Thomas.

When you expand out of a niche segment, you may find that you get lumped into another category. Fast>Track often gets grouped in with Quick Ship, which is another growing category in most industries. Unlike Quick Ship, which usually assumes off the shelf products, Fast>Track is still custom. 9Wood is still trying to define their Fast>Track category in a way that separates them from Quick Ship while still showcasing that it’s full of products that are more accessible to the market.

Advice for Marketing to Architects and Designers

Thomas advises a three-step process for manufacturers who want to elevate their game when marketing to architects and designers:

  1. Deliver on your promises. “Reliability of your operations ultimately dictates to how your customers are going feel about you.”

  2. Eventually make speed a priority. “Once you are reliable and predictable, speed it up.”

  3. Institutionalize it. Make sure you are measuring every piece of data you possibly can, including speed of samples, speed of design, speed of drawings, speed of production and speed of delivery.

When it comes to operations, you have to decide which lever to pull first in order to systemize. 9Wood bases their operations on a demand-driven operating model, according to Craig. “A demand-driven operating model has three key points. Three Ps, not the same three Ps of marketing, but three Ps: position, protect and pull.”

For 9Wood, the first lever was deciding where to position inventory in the supply chain in order to give them both speed and flexibility. Remember that customers are only willing to wait a set amount of time for their product (what Craig calls “customer tolerance time”), and you need to be able to deliver within that tolerance. That requires inventory.

The second lever is protect. “You have to protect from variability that is natural in manufacturing. And there's a lot of variability in custom manufacturing, especially specialty custom,” says Craig. That means buffering against how much stock you hold, how much capacity you have, machine variation, people variation, demand variation and supply variation.

The last lever is pull. “We don't start making something until we have a clear contract with exactly what the customer wants to buy from us,” says Craig, which is the opposite of a push method. In push, you forecast what the customer wants, make it, put it on the shelf and try to get them to buy it.

Want Even More Insight?

Thomas has a call to action for manufacturers and contractors. “A call to action that I would make to all manufacturers out there is focus on what your customer is needing to do for their contractors — which, often case, is approvals. [When] offering that approval support and expedited approval support, it might look like a cost sink because it's not necessarily winning you projects upfront, but in the long run, that approval support is why our customers keep coming back to us. It's because we are continuing to offer what they need to do upstream from a fabrication release agreement.”

For manufacturers who want to work on speed, customer service and the other topics mentioned here, Craig advises you start by examining the operating model you use. Thomas advises to be willing to change your way of thinking, involve your supply chain partners and listen to your customer questions. You just need to “be brave enough to listen.”

To learn more about expanding your niche through expedited timelines, listen to the entire episode here.

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